While the campus closed and we went into lock down during the peak of the pandemic, the JCU Student Association did not skip a beat in doing everything it can to look after students’ wellbeing and rights. Convincing the university to change the census date, pause pay parking, and reconsider grading systems were the wins that made huge impacts on student wellbeing and educational experience during COVID-19. I had the privilege to learn about the marathon to each of the outcomes during a catchup with JCU Student Association’s (JCUSA) President, Tom O’Grady; and tune in to the team’s vision in becoming a stronger representative for students’ voices.
Campaign #1 Pay parking on campus: ‘no class, no pay’
Pay parking on JCU campuses for students, staff and visitors was introduced in 2019. The university now offers a mix of short-term to all-day pay casual parking and some free parking. Parking fee payment is available through a Pay-by-Plate and online paperless app called CellOPark, via the App Store and Google Play. Alternatively, a single semester or annual Parking Permit can be purchased.
Considering the financial burden, JCUSA has campaigned against pay parking for students since the day the policy was brought out. The team firmly believe that students should not have the burden of the extra cost of parking on top of the extravagant tuition fees or loans. More fundamentally, it is “unreasonable” to ask students (and staff) to pay for a space that does meet the standards of a car park. Townsville students who access the car parks are most likely familiar with the “unpaved dirt-road” state of the parking spaces opposite Educational Central and behind Eddie Koiki Mabo library, that is often “filled with pot-holes” particularly during rainy periods. Tom emphasised that it was “just not fair” to charge for the condition of these spaces.
In late February, when it was announced that classes would move online, and campus access would be restricted due to COVID-19, JCUSA felt the urgency to draw the University’s attention, once again, to the issue of pay parking. This time around, the team let the student voices speak for themselves. An online survey seeking all students’ experience with pay parking was conducted, and within five days, it received over 600 responses. As anticipated, 92% of students indicated that they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with being required to pay for parking, especially when classes are no longer being held on campus for the forseeable future. With the students’ responses in hand, JCUSA wrote to the Estates Directorate and Chief of Staff Office, demanding the pay parking policy to be removed and for paid parking permits to be refunded. The argument was straight forward – “no class – no paying for parking”. After numerous emails, conversations, and negotiations backwards and forwards, the University agreed to remove pay parking requirements for the year. Students who have paid for a parking permit will also be refunded accordingly. The pay parking system is not permanently removed, but the arrangement will undoubtedly make a difference to thousands of students. “$100 is quite a lot of money for students…and having that $100 back in someone’s pocket [means] it’s making someone’s life a bit easier” – Tom said smiling. “It’s definitely a win for us.”
Campaign #2 Census date – ‘It’s not possible’ is simply not good enough
The shift from on-campus classes to online mode took place just a few days from the Census date this year. Like many of my peers at the time, I recall feeling anxious about online learning and undecided about my enrolments. Tom, who is currently in his third year of an undergraduate program, also experienced it and witnessed his peers becoming overwhelmed by the financial repercussions of failing a course if they struggle with the new learning mode. Tom explained that “for some disciplines, students could be owing $5576 in HECS-HELP if they fail their subjects” and it is not fair to ask students to take on such an enormous financial risk when “they don’t know if online study is going to work for them.” Student fees are also significantly higher for international students, coupled with living costs in Australia. JCUSA concluded that it was only fair that Census date be postponed until April 16th, so students can make an informed decision once they have had a couple weeks’ experience of the new learning mode.
With the support of a few student associations – including JCU Medical Students Association and JCU Zoology Society, JSCU wrote to the Vice-Chancellor and Head of Academic Boards with the request to postpone the Census date on the abovementioned grounds. To their disappointment, the University stated that it was not possible to change the Census date. Undefeated, the team fought back with a second, more powerful letter supported a petition signed by over 40 elected officials from student societies. The University’s response did not change.
Determined not to stop until the only acceptable response in their opinion from the University was achieved, JCUSA reached out to ABC North Queensland Radio Station to bring greater awareness to the campaign. It was important for the Townsville community to understand the impact of the issue on thousands of students who study at JCU. The uncertainties brought on by COVID-19 has left many students feeling unravelled and helpless. What will empower them and give them a sense of control is being able to make an informed choice about their education. Pushing back the Census date would provide students with a chance to experiment with online learning and decide if the platform enables them to thrive academically. JCUSA asked the Townsville community to stand together in this fight in asking the University “to do the right thing” – and it worked! At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of March 25th, the day before the original Census date, the University announced that the Census date would be changed to April 14th. That’s a second proud win for the JCUSA team.
Campaign #3 Scaled or pass/fail grading – ‘People deserve a choice’
The team at JCUSA have also been asking the University to consider offering students the choice of scaled (HD, D, C and P) or pass/fail grade for their assessments and exams. Acknowledging the challenges of social isolation and uncertainty on top of adjusting to online learning mode, Tom said compellingly, “[students] should not be punished” by circumstances outside of their control. The proposed option of grades would support students and “nobody can be disadvantaged by that” Tom added. The University is not yet on board with the campaign, but let’s not close the door on that conversation.
Sitting down with Tom (via Zoom, of course) and hearing about the matters that JCUSA has dedicated its time to over the semester, it is undeniable that students’ rights and welfare are at the core of its mission. The team appreciates that students have come from far and wide, nationally and internationally, to study at the university and therefore is passionate about doing what it can to make sure that the experience is just and supportive – particularly during these difficult times. The pushbacks have bolstered the team’s resilience and strengthened its vision to advocate for student wellbeing.