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Written by Luisa Mitchell
Hendon at a CSPU meeting in December 2018. Sourced from @RikkiHendon.
Tell me about when you were at Curtin and what you studied.
I studied a Bachelor of Social Work and I was at Curtin from 2002 until 2007. I was on the Guild from 2004 onwards, I was the Education Vice-President in 2005, and then President of the National Union for Students West in 2006.
How did you get involved with the Guild?
I was studying social work and so I was obviously pretty interested in social justice. I was starting to become active in the refugee rights movement, with the ‘Tampa affair’ happening when I was in Year 12. That was something that spurred me into becoming active around social and political issues.
Through the connections I made with the refugee rights movement and also through the anti-war movement—because we had the Iraq War following that—I met Zerida Maskouranous, who was a former Guild President. She knew the people who were running for the Guild the following year and recommended that I put my hand up and run with them.
I’m the sort of person that gets involved with things largely by accident, through people saying you should do that, and by just saying yes—I don’t ask too many questions, otherwise you might psyche yourself out. So, I said yes, and I was involved as a Guild Councillor in 2004 because of that.
I didn’t necessarily know anybody else who was on the Guild that year, but just through being actively involved as a Guild Councillor and getting involved in all the variety of social and activist activities the Guild ran, I got to know everybody, and really enjoyed that experience. I found that the people in the Guild were also interested in the things that I was interested in, and were very community-minded and wanting to improve student welfare—and that was something that interested me.
Because I was so involved that year I was then approached by Patrick Gorman—who was the President the following year—to run with him as the Education VP. So, we were the two full-timers in 2005; it was a big year… Patrick’s now the Labor Member for Perth.
What were the biggest challenges students were facing in education then?
There were a number of challenges; we had a 25 per cent increase in HECS fees come through.
Of all the WA universities, Curtin was the last one to implement that change, and the Guild and the recommendations that the Guild made, and the campaigning that we did prior to that going into place, was very effective. We also had a Vice-Chancellor, Lance Toomey, who was very open to the representations that we made and understood the points we were trying to make; so, Curtin did put off the 25 per cent increase for 12 months more than everybody else. But ultimately the whole university sector was under a lot of pressure at the time because they weren’t getting the federal government funding that they should have been getting—which is an age-old problem—but there was extra pressure on them to get that money out of students instead. They felt stuck between a rock and a hard place.
We also had Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) introduced for the second time; well before my time at the Guild there was VSU at a state level in Western Australia. Western Australia was sort of the testing ground for a VSU model, and then in 2005 there was a push for VSU at a Federal level, and that was a very interesting experience.
There was a lot of educating we had to with students about what that model actually meant. Anything voluntary always sounds like a really great thing, but I think the depth of what that really meant was lost on a lot of people, especially in the way that guilds in WA are set up to almost run like little state government entities. The guilds are a major service provider on campus and make sure there’s a good campus life for new people coming into the uni, by providing all those social and welfare-type services.
That education program we had to run was a challenge. One of the ways that we did that was have a shutdown of all Guild services for a day, and then at each of the sites where people would usually receive a service, we had a stall there to explain why the services had been shut down, and gave people the option to sign petitions or contact their member of parliament to say we want to keep our guild services. Because the whole point of VSU legislation was about shutting down the student guilds.
We also ran a nation-wide conference that year as well. Every year the NSU runs an education conference and that was held at Curtin that year. That was largely about VSU and talking about WA’s prior experience with that legislation, and what the Guilds had to do to survive in that environment. That was a really useful thing that we ran and a whole lot of work that both Patrick and I put into that. We ended up being an important voice in the national conversation because of our experience.
Where do you see the future of tertiary education going?
I’ve been out of the sector for a little while now, and things have changed, but particularly the motive of education has changed somewhat. When I was at uni there were some online options but they weren’t huge; now obviously a lot fewer people are actually attending campuses.
I think the pressure on young people’s lives are much more complex, especially because the cost of education has gone up; people are working more, and you don’t have as many full-time students who aren’t taking on some paid work in the meantime.
I think the social security system, Centrelink, hasn’t really kept up with the needs of students either, in terms of supporting the students while they study. I think there are a variety of other pressures that are on young people while they study now, which prevents people from going to classes on campus and getting the full university experience.
For me, I really enjoyed my degree, but I also got a lot out of meeting new people, stepping outside of my previous experience from being a high-schooler, and engaging with a variety of people I would never have engaged with if I hadn’t been on campus. I think potentially people aren’t as exposed to that experience now, and that’s not necessarily because that’s the way they want it, but that’s the way it has to be because they’re busy with other things.
What do you think students can achieve if they believe they have the power to create change?
I think it’s like any social movement, the sky’s the limit really. Often because students pass through their university years and it’s a transient time to some extent, they don’t realise the power they could have until they’re about to leave, and then it’s too late. The challenge for guilds would have been then, and always will be to some extent, educating people about their power really early in the piece, and encouraging people to actively participate in their guild, because it does make a difference.
Hendon, second-to-the-left in front, door-knocking for Save WA Services in 2017 with other CPSU members.
You’re still working in a union, which is what the Guild essentially is. Why were you so passionate about representing students?
I’m the Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), which is basically the electorate head of the union. When I got involved in the Guild it wasn’t necessarily something I had planned on doing, or saw as a stepping stone [into politics], but I guess being in the Guild opened my eyes to a whole lot of other things that I could do with my life.
I studied social work with the intention to be a social worker, but I guess a lot of my interesting social work and social policy was driven by a real sense of indignation about injustice, and I did see the trade union movement really involved in a lot of the campaigns I participated in.
Certainly, as a part of the student movement, especially in the NUS West position that I took up the following year, we got great support from unions around trying to tackle VSU, and increases to fees, and all those social justice campaigns as well. At the end of all of that I had some options to do some more traditional social work or to apply for union jobs, and I ended up applying for a job in the union school centre—the union I currently work for. The rest is history.
I suppose being involved in the Guild opened that up as a legitimate option for me, that I’d never really considered before.
Unions have always gotten a lot of flak, and the Student Guilds received a lot of criticism for trying to get rid of VSU; but why did you see student unionism as being so critical?
As individuals, we have the capacity to represent ourselves, sure, but no matter how articulate or intelligent we might be, or that we might be great at representing a really great merit argument about why something should be different than the way it is, or why we should be treated differently, merit arguments don’t actually give us the power we need to create change, because sometimes the rules aren’t fair; the law isn’t fair; or people’s behaviour if they’re in high places isn’t fair. It’s only when we come together to build pressure to make positive change, that we can make change.
I think that’s why I’m really passionate about the student movement and the trade union movement more broadly, because the world isn’t necessarily how it should be on paper; we live in an imperfect world, and it’s only when we come together we have the power to make positive change.
Do you have any advice on how young Australians can become more politically involved, and politically conscious on campus and in their everyday lives?
If you’re passionate about something, there are always ways to find other people to connect with and talk about those issues with. As a high-schooler in Year 12, especially with the refugee rights movement, I felt quite isolated at my school because there weren’t necessarily that many people who were as politically active as I was.
I found that for me, attending university O-Days, and engaging with clubs and other people who were interested, finding similarly interested people, that there are real options out there at university. I think the key way thing is to get active around things that you’re passionate about is to engage with all the opportunities that being a university student gives you.