Written by Luisa Mitchell
Pablo Campillos was an active student back in his day—quite literally! Tennis tournaments were his introduction to the Curtin Student Guild at Curtin, and he began his career in student politics as the Sports President, before quickly moving on to become Guild President in 1990. He briefly moved to Melbourne to be the Secretary of the National Union of Students, before returning to complete his degree in 1994.
I chatted to Campillos about where he felt he made his biggest impact on the university.
When were you at Curtin and what did you study?
I was there from 1988 through to 1991; I popped back for a year in ‘94, but that wasn’t with the Guild. I studied Economics and Commerce.
Why did you join the Guild and how were you involved?
It had to do with my tennis—I took tennis as a child, it was one of my sports. By the time I got to university I had sort of let it fall away, but when I got to uni there was a particularly active guy who I had played tournaments with in the past, and he got together several others who played, and we got involved in an inter-varsity tennis tournament. We all got back into playing a bit more and training. We used the Guild’s facilities to raise money and get a van to drive across to Melbourne, to play inter-varsity tennis. That was my introduction to the Guild per se, and to its reps and staff; that was in my first year, in ‘88. I got approached after that to run to be in the Guild, and that’s how it all came to be.
The first year, in ‘89, I was called the Sports President. I had an executive role. Basically, back then we had five or six execs. There was the President and Vice-President, which were both full-time roles. They were paid a salary of something in the low-20s. Then you had four others, the Treasurer, Sports President, and two others. They all used to get an honorarium of, like, $110 bucks a week or something. Then you’d run the Sports Council or whichever council you were responsible for, and dole out grants to student groups.
In my second year I was President, and in the third year I was Vice-President. Then I went off to Melbourne for the National Union of Students, where I was Secretary. That’s why I was away from Perth for a few years, before returning in ‘94.
From tennis games to Guild President—that’s a big leap! Did you have any grand ambitions for Curtin students while you were President?
There were certainly some discussions around fighting voluntary student unionism, and having representation on university councils, et cetera.
One of the major things I did was a trip in ‘91 to the US and the UK, to look at student unionism, or guilds, and how they operated there, and I wrote a report on that. At the time, the John Curtin facility, the Chancellery, the Centre, it didn’t exist, and so the funding for this development was raised by the University—a key component of which was raised overseas. We created a John Curtin Centre appeal, and we established an office in North America, in Minnesota actually, and it attempted to replicate the kind of fundraising that the universities in the US do. The connection was John Curtin obviously, and the relationship he had with the US in WWII.
The university was recruiting US students to come and study at Curtin, so we had some overseas American students doing study abroad at Curtin. Universities in the US had a traditional JYA, or junior-year-abroad program, where, maybe in the third or fourth year, you’d go and study a term or a year overseas. So there were a few Americans coming to Curtin who would help partially pay for the program’s running costs.
When we came back we established a study abroad fund for Curtin students to tap into to study overseas. This was in tandem with our report on how unions and guilds could be structured and operating. Those were the two big impacts I had on the uni: the report and the study abroad fund.
That must have been an eye-opening trip. How did you compare unions in the US and the UK?
In the UK, I remember the national union of students was much larger and certainly well-funded compared to the US at the time. So that was the two extremes: the US, which often didn’t have a lot necessarily, versus the UK, which was fully funded and had independent student reps.
Yeah, the US still cops a lot of criticism for its education system today. What’s your point of view on this matter?
The biggest issue the US has is inequality, but all the world has that. The US is probably the forerunner of that though, it certainly reflects that more than most. The thing with the US, I would say, is that there’s a great deal of privatisation; but we’ve all gone down paths of privatisation in different ways.
What we’ve all possibly lost from higher educatiobn these days has been the learning of how to argue, to question, to criticise; universities have become economic factories or industrial processes, rather than places of seeking answers and learning.
Yeah, it makes you wonder how valuable higher education is nowadays. But what did you gain from working for the Curtin Student Guild while you were at uni?
There’s a host; obviously I got to travel, I got to meet policymakers, regulators and politicians, as well as academics of the university councils. It was all good grounding for the world of committees and groups and meetings and how things are run, that I entered later. It also helped boost my personal confidence to interact in those forums, which I don’t think I necessarily would have had, had I not been so immersed in it in those years.
Other than that, it’s the friendships and the colleagues I made, some of whom I know to this day, and most of whom are in Melbourne, where I live nowadays. There are still one-or-two odd friends that I know from those days who I keep in touch with. Some of those have gone into politics, some haven’t. Nevertheless, it’s those friendships and that past history which we share that I appreciate.
Much of what I’ve done with my life has been through a colleague or a friend from uni, or someone in student politics in Melbourne, who opened that first opportunity [in work] for me. Much of my commercial life has been influenced by those connections.
Tell me more about what you do in your “commercial life”, and what skills you have carried across from the Guild into your career now?
One skill has been the understanding that in corporations, when you get more than a few people in a room who don’t agree, that’s called politics. I guess I accept that organisations are always political.
It’s also the small things, like how I run meetings, which are skills I learnt 25 years ago. The Guild council ran very efficiently to time, taking minutes, and so on. I figured out how to run one then, and I still use those skills now.
Up until recently I ran a business management company, EnerNOC, and the product development team there across the Asia Pacific. It was my personal experiences with overseas students while I was at Curtin, which had a long tradition of bringing Malaysian and Singaporean students to our campus, where I met a lot of them. Some of those people I still have contact with. Getting to understand those cultures probably started back then, I had a lot to do with them. Those contacts are still important in business now.
Also, I forgot to mention that my wife was my Treasurer! So the Guild also had an influence in who I married.
Sounds like the Guild shaped your life in more ways than one [laughs]. Do you have any advice for students who don’t know anything about their guilds on campus, or why they should be interested?
You’ve just got to understand that life is more than what you study or what you work at. If you miss out on the connections and the engagement that the Guild can provide you, you can miss out on what university life is all about. Focussing solely on work, work, work, and having no personal life, and just going into uni to focus on study and nothing else, teaches you book-learning, and that’s pretty much it. That’s a fairly sorry way to go through life.
For me, the Guild was a pivotal and very interesting, formative part of my life. It was the front-and-centre of my university experience.