If you were around student forums in mid-2020, you may remember La Trobe University: Stand Up for Students campaign. The campaign was brought on by the refusal of La Trobe’s administration to provide academic support amid the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. In a time of great international strife, the university decided they didn’t want to threaten a drop in their international ranking for the sake of their struggling students.
Luckily, La Trobe University caved to Stand Up for Students’ demands with the introduction of the V-Grade: a temporary grade adjustment that ensured students going through tough times were not penalised for a situation we had no control over. Instead of failing a subject, students would receive ‘V – No result recorded due to extenuating circumstances’. With the unprecedented emotional, academic, and financial stress young people were under last year, the V-Grade was a vital safety net in a time of great uncertainty.
This campaign was just one of many led by student activists around the country.
Student unionism has always been vital to protecting students around the country. When united, students can accomplish a lot, like protecting academic futures and ensuring university administrations are held to account for their actions, and always supporting students.
The first relief for students came in early April 2020 when the University of Adelaide, in collaboration with the Adelaide University Union and other student reps, unveiled a student support package. Entailed in this package were grants for those experiencing financial hardship, emergency accommodation, food hampers, and – notably – academic support in the form of a temporary opt-in ‘pass non-graded’ adjustment. Following the release of the semester’s results, students could request their grades not be added to WAM (weighted average mark) calculations. In effect, ‘pass non-graded’ was a safeguard for students who did not want the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic to adversely impact their previous grades. And the idea took off.
Student activists around the country sought to implement the University of Adelaide’s model on their own campuses. Soon, the University of Sydney, Flinders, UQ, Swinburne, and a plethora of other institutions followed suit with similar academic support policies. In all cases, student representation through unionism allowed student voices to be platformed and their wellbeing championed.
Things really got interesting when students from the University of Melbourne’s Student Union (UMSU) called for “WAMnesty”. Their catchy campaign and fierce advocacy sent shockwaves around the country and grew the movement exponentially (proof that good marketing works!). UMSU’s original petition allegedly garnered 8,500 signatures in 7 days, and to no surprise, UniMelb caved under immense pressure from the students.
At the same time as the crusades on university campuses, the movement around student unionism was promoted externally by the National Union of Students (NUS). Finally, the country saw a shift in the way students were addressed throughout the pandemic. The NUS lobbied to include young people in the Federal Government’s COVID-19 stimulus package, through a grassroots campaign and targeting social media with hashtags like #RaiseTheRateForAll. And it was a huge success. The legislation was amended to ensure over 250,000 young people on Youth Allowance, Austudy, and ABSTUDY were eligible for the Coronavirus Supplement payment.
If you ever needed proof of the vitality of student unionism, you would have got it last year. When young people come together to support one another, we can achieve anything. Our voices rang through the halls of old million-dollar institutions and national governments, to make it known that young people everywhere are a force to be reckoned with.
Through the strength of student’s voices and the La Trobe Student Union (LTSU), we made the university listen. Better yet, they keep listening.
La Trobe University declared they planned to scrap the V-Grade going into Semester 2, 2021. Within hours of this announcement, the LTSU rallied to support students. We called them out. According to the university, the distress of the pandemic was no longer felt by students; the university was more worried about dropping down in their international rankings than student wellbeing during a once-in-a-generation global pandemic.
It may be easy for university higher-ups on their six-figure-salaries to act like the pandemic is over, and pretend that so many students aren’t still struggling just to get by. As many of us know far too well, the pandemic did not stop at the end of 2020. Semester 2 started with a lockdown, zoom classes, and rising case numbers. This has, and will continue to, negatively impact every student no matter their course or background. We still feel the effects of the pandemic now, and we won’t stop fighting for better treatment.
Student unionism isn’t a one-off phenomenon that is only relevant during adversity. It is a constant fight that is amplified by the momentum of young people who know we shouldn’t have to settle for less.