The Commonwealth Government’s introduction of the Student Services and Amenities Fee this year has seen a dramatic increase in funding available to student organisations.
The fee is collected directly from students, who place their trust in these organisations to ensure they’re managed appropriately and used in the service and advocacy of students.
Allegations now under police investigation however, that a student was able to siphon funds from three separate organisations they served with at the Australian National University, raise serious questions about whether that trust has been misplaced.
Do student organisations posses the expertise and processes to properly manage the influx of funds? For some organisations at ANU, the answer is no, unless improvements are made.
One of these organisations is ANUSA, the ANU Students’ Association, which along with ANU Student Media and the Interhall Sports Organisation, is alleged to have had funds stolen. It’s one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new fee, receiving 30 per cent of ANU’s entire SSAF income, helping to almost double its budget to $1.1 million this year. Its activities are diverse, funding a range of internal projects and distributing funding to societies and events across the University.
While handing out over $4000 worth of jelly beans during this semester’s exams may risk trivialising its role, it is a vital voice for students. ANUSA has been a driving force behind the campaign capturing national attention to save the ANU School of Music from the ANU’s proposed cuts.
The association is not a casual concern, nor are its leaders volunteers. It’s a corporate entity, whose officers share in salaries worth over 20 per cent of ANUSA’s entire budget, paid directly from SSAF revenue. Its scale and its importance demands a high standard of management.
Yet that’s not evident.
The management of ANUSA is weakened by apathy and a lack of professional skill. The organisation has ill-defined leadership roles and lax internal processes. When queried, the association was not even able to clarify who its directors and trustees under law are.
Though the association has a treasurer, the role is barely defined. Responsibility for recording financial transactions is shared chaotically by all members of the executive and various administrative staff. As a result, several people are able to edit the association’s records, prompting doubts about accountability and the integrity of that data.
At the same time, ANUSA asserts that the executive ”isn’t paid” to monitor the books, the task left to an accountant employed on an irregular basis. With so many people responsible, yet no one person charged with oversight, how internal accountability could be ensured must be questioned. The answer according to ANUSA’s President, Dallas Proctor, is that the executive does not supervise one another. Instead they rely on ”trust,” because they are honest. Because those who choose to serve do so ”for the right reasons”.
It’s an ironic assertion, not simply because of the alleged thefts.
In March, it was revealed a former president of ANUSA had kept the executive in the dark about disciplinary action taken against her by the university until the day she was forced to resign. There’s also the admission from ANUSA that time records prepared voluntarily by the executive contained figures pulled from thin air, as they found it too difficult to accurately account for their work hours.
It’s clear that the internal accountability and processes of ANUSA are lacking.
Processes need to be stricter, the management structure formalised and greater expertise sought. Perhaps responding to this, the ANU has this month signed a new SSAF funding agreement with ANUSA setting stricter financial reporting and auditing requirements. Extra funding has also been earmarked from SSAF revenues specifically for accounting. These changes, though, still rely on internal processes clearly in need of improvement, changes which must come from within.
Yet the suggestion of reform on their part, is met with blunt opposition from ANUSA, who responds that it is unwarranted and poses a risk to the independence of the organisation.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The risk lies in not addressing the issues proactively. It leaves student funds open to potential impropriety and as a result, could provide the grounds on which the university may reduce or withdraw funding altogether.
ANUSA is too important a voice to let that happen.
Published in The Canberra Times (Fairfax) – July 3 2012