The U Word


Alex is the 2013 Statewide President of the Tasmania University Union, was the Sexuality Officer of TUU 2010-12 and the 2012 NUS Tasmanian State Branch President. She is a proud feminist and activist in the queer community, she also appreciates fine cheese, is an instagram fanatic and can pull off a snap back. Unfortunately she is yet to come understand the beauty that is Skubar.

It is my firm, idealistic and clichéd belief that education changes lives.

A person’s ability to access higher education and quality education will impact on their future benefits, and help communities to develop. Universities are a places of knowledge, debate and beer. Our time at university will change our views or confirm our beliefs, in the, “well I studied Foucault for an entire year, yeah it’s no biggie, but I think a lot about things“, on a date, kinda way.

And, the heart of a university is not the books, nor the overpriced coffee, but the students and student unions.

I am going to be honest; I love unions.

There I said it – I said the dirty U word.

I believe in collective organising, and strength in numbers.

Let me tell you why union isn’t a dirty word. It has been said to me of late, that student unions have no place in social reform. Or, should not be mechanisms for political agency.  Let me tell you why these people are wrong, and why that’s exactly where we came from, where we are, and where we should stay.

“Student unions have been at the centre of the majority of the major social movements and reforms in Australia’s last century. “

Student activism on a level started in the starts in the late 1890s, but it wasn’t until the first active incarnation of a Nation Union for students was in 1930’S, The Nation Union of Australian Students, when the power of the student movement was realised.  This first national action was an effort to fight against the book and publishing censorships that students and libraries were facing as fascism rose across Europe. The nation union and many regional student unions were rather inactive during the war years, however in 1942, the TUU saw its first ever female president. Following the war the NUAUS was reactivated in strikes in medical schools aimed at the narrow student intake, which resulted in the Australian government issuing an equity scholarship scheme. This was the first national program to help and encourage students of low SES back grounds, and the first move from the commonwealth to open up university to more than just the upper epsilons of society.

Students unions came took up the campaign against conscription during the Vietnam War, and ever since have been a tool of social reform. The nation union in whatever form it has existed has always believed that access to education is a right and not a privilege. This was proven early on in the history of our unions, when the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) students were able to access and afford to attend university due to the Unions nation “Abschol” scholarships, which preceded any government programs or scholarships aimed at allowing ATSI students to attend uni. It wasn’t until 1969 the government began to set up what is now ABSTUDY.

The 1970s saw the national union become more influential, with suggested education reforms taken up by the Whitlam government in 1974; Whitlam’s era of free education, but also a needs based finical assistance scheme for students (the beginning of Youth Allowance and Austudy).

The student movement and its unions have always opposed racism and were at the heart of organising opposition to the South African Rugby Springbok tours, while apartheid regime was still in power. It was in response to student lead protests across the nation and in New Zealand that the Liberal government of the time placed a ban on all sporting and athletic links to South Africa, until the 1992 Cricket World Cup.

The Tasmania University Union (TUU) was founded in 1899 and is one of Australia’s oldest unions. And it is with this union that my love of the U word began. During my first term as sexuality officer, I became aware of the most recent incarnation of a nation union; The National Union of Students (NUS) and their work. Wins that I began to realize where the only reason I was able to have the financial and social support to study at university, they are responsible for:

– The abolition of Domestic Undergraduate Full Fee places;
– Better HECs programs;

– The lowering of the age of independence for income support from 25 to 22; 

– The introduction of start up and relocation scholarships;

– The increase in the personal income test, meaning students can earn $400/fortnight instead of $236/fortnight before payments get docked;

It has been said to me of late that student unions have no place in social reform. Or should not be mechanisms for political agency. To them I say; lies.

To me, university was the first place where being gay was ok. Coming out at an all girls school wasn’t the Whitney, disco balled love fest that you may think, in fact it sucked with all the suckyness that exists in a lampoons movie. But, at uni, being a raging HOMO wasn’t a big deal, I wasn’t the only one, and in fact they were everywhere!  Everywhere.

I wondered how this institution was so liberal (little l liberal, little l liberal) and it seems only natural that our university be ok with the gay, seeing as our union, the TUU, was a major player in the decriminalization of homosexuality in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the TUU implemented the position of Sexuality Officer (only this year renamed to the GLBTIQA officer) prior to it being legal to hold the position. Tasmania in the 90s was labeled the most homophobic state in Australia; and it was taken to the United Nations for its treatment of the queer community. Many queer activists such as Rodney Croome has their first taste of the GLBTIQ movement in the then operating queer student’s alliance on campus. These UTAS students braved going to TUU society meetings knowing that their names and rego numbers would be taken down and placed on the known homosexual list and could possibly be arrested for homosexuality.

Our identities are not just “students”, and our ability to access and be successful at university, is based on a number of things. It is right that a union concerned with the welfare of its students, would care and try and create the best community in which for them to flourish.
So, people that say that the union movement has not place in the political arena, that presidents such as myself are just doing it for the hack jobs, that we should remove the name union and be associations of students. I say no. I love the TUU. Its history is rich in fights, fights for free education and fights for equitable access to education, fights for the women’s’ movements and a women’s right to choose.

Student unions across the country have a strong history with changing the cultural conversation and being an active voice for reform.
This year is an election year, unions across the country face a change in funding and our education system is looking down the barrel of restructures, deregulation of fees, no students on university councils and deregulation of student places, faculty cuts and a lack of funding. If it’s not time for a union voice, when is it?



Alex West

Statewide President of the Tasmania University Union

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