Student Societies: ¿Por Qué No Los Dos?With an Array of Student-run Groups at Law School, Could There be a More Democratic Way Forward?
Volume 3, Issue 12, (Originally Published on Monday 27th May 2013)
Students societies play a vital role in providing critical services to students, and building the community atmosphere at the law school more broadly. Run voluntarily by students driven by a combination of selflessness and aspiration, they give students social events, access to career pathways, help with studies and an outlet for creative energies. But with limited time, money and talent available, are there too many?
This is a question that probably doesn’t cross the mind of the vast majority of students, who are more concerned with what they get, rather than who organises it, but it has been a recurring issue for successive student administrations. In 2011, the LSS and the GLSA briefly ‘merged’, with the GLSA President holding a non-voting position on the LSS committee and continuing to run an independent operation. This structure was removed in constitutional changes pushed through last year.
Simon Breheny, the 2011 LSS President, said the reasons for the merger were numerous - avoiding duplication, confusion, and competition for talent and sponsorship, while taking advantage of efficiencies and removing the overlap of careers events and resources. “Traditionally, the domestic market has been captured exclusively by the LSS while the Hong kong market has been monopolized by the GLSA,” said Breheny. “This division is not always respected, by either entity, and this inevitably leads to a situation where two bodies that represent the same group of students find themselves in competition for sponsorship from the same group of firms.”
The LSS, which carries the greatest burden in providing student equity and educational services, must cross-subsidise these by charging more for their careers events. Other organisations can sell their events more cheaply, dedicating the money to those events only.
Antony Freeman, the 2012 LSS President, said the two societies had agreed to revert to the existing structure because the constitutional change instituting it was ambiguous and unhelpful. “Practically, the organisations were trying to work together most of the time, and we felt like the sections didn’t add anything to it,” Freeman said. He echoed Breheny’s concerns about the division of service provision between the two organisations. “I wasn’t really sure where the scope of the GLSA started and ended, as most things at Melbourne Law School inherently have an international flavour to them.”
Freeman and 2012 GLSA President Sahil Sondhi instituted a dialogue about how best to deal with this, and this has continued this year, with the two organisations working closely together to represent the interests of international students. Faculty is setting up a new Student Organisations Representative Council to further this process.
However, many argue that the LSS is too amorphous to be effective in delivering the services currently provided by the groups such as the GLSA, Melbourne Chinese Law Society and Later Law Students Network, with a 50+ member committee and an enormous set of obligations already. These smaller groups are tightly run, more focused on specific groups, and able to deliver niche events that the LSS is too overburdened to handle.
“These organisations should not detract from the exceptional work of the LSS as the key representative student body,” said current GLSA President Tim Hamilton, “but I also believe that it is not so much about who puts on the events or runs certain activities so long as someone is doing it and so long as those events and activities are pertinent to the needs, issues and interests of students.” Hamilton, who also noted that issues of overlap could be addressed by better coordination and communication, said he “would like to see further efforts to realise a framework within which we can co-exist more effectively and efficiently.”
The LSS runs elections open to all students, and is directly accountable to those students. For all the imperfections of elected committees, they have a mandate from the student body, and responsibilities to the student body. This is significant where both elected and non-elected societies receive university funds directly. The LSS should not see itself as the sole source of all things good in the student community, and should encourage and support independent student initiatives and societies. Practically speaking, having smaller, more focused societies may deliver a more diverse range of programs and publications. But a single overarching organisation to represent student interests and run key events and programs would be more democratic.