Wayward Reform: Voluntary Student Unionism

The debate surrounding voluntary student unionism (VSU) is emotionally charged – due as much to the personal vendettas of senior Liberals against the leftist student organizations they invariably lost elections to in the 1970s and 1980s as the passionate protests of student organizations. VSU is not only about furthering the free market and individualistic philosophy of the Howard Government but also severely limiting student organizations as political entities.

The many statements of Education Minister Dr Nelson and Prime Minister Howard in support of the legislation attest to the emotional and ideological importance of the issue for many Liberal Party leaders. Such statements shift freely between lofty remarks about the right to 'freedom of association', outrage regarding the activism of the predominantly leftist student organizations and attacks on the standard of service provisions by student organizations.

VSU is not a recent addition to the Coalition's policy agenda. Under the Howard Government VSU has been before Parliament three times – in 1999, 2003 and, in its current form, 2005. VSU has been introduced twice at State level – in Victoria in 1993 and Western Australia in 1994 – and in both cases the legislation was partially rolled back by subsequent Labor governments.

In WA, the legislation had a devastating effect on services provided by student organizations, including advocacy, childcare, student development and sporting facilities. Kennett's Victorian legislation recognized the necessity of certain services being present on campuses and still allowed for a compulsory services and amenities fee to be charged. This was far less destructive as student organizations were able to continue to provide non-representative services.

Like the WA model, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-Front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005 explicitly prevents universities from collecting an amenities or service fee for the provision of any non-academic services such as childcare, sporting facilities and counseling. Instead, campuses would adopt a 'user pays' system with free market competition amongst businesses to provide commercially profitable food, retail and support services.

Students at urban universities would find the loss of these services disadvantageous but would be able to find alternative services in the wider community. There is the potential for a far broader impact both on students and the wider community in the introduction of VSU at regional universities where universities provide important facilities and services to the region's community. It is this that has placed the legislation in contention within the Coalition itself. In addition to threats from Queensland Nationals' Senator Barnaby Joyce to cross the floor, last week the Nationals federal council called for changes to the proposed legislation to ensure that 'an alternative funding mechanism' is found to 'maintain the level of services and provision of facilities on university campuses.' from the if the legislation is not amended. While falling short of the ALP position, the Nationals' declaration is certain to prolong the debate.

The ALP has moved proactively to force the Coalition to a compromise that allows for the compulsory collection of a services and amenities fee to be administered by the universities. As stated in an 8 August media release from Education Shadow Minister Jenny Macklin's office:

Under Labor's proposal, fees collected from university students would be administered by higher education institutions and could only be spent on services for students such as childcare, welfare and medical services, counselling, sporting clubs and facilities, student advocacy, subsidized food, accident insurance, accommodation, emergency loans and transport.

The Labor amendment would make membership of bodies that engaged in political activity voluntary – a historic policy shift after more than 30 years of support for universal student unionism – but would ensure that services crucial to the welfare of students and to the campus community would continue to be provided.

It seems unlikely that further models will be considered at this point. Serious consideration does not appear to have been given to the referenda model introduced in New Zealand in 1999. Referenda on individual campuses held up to once a year decide whether student fees should be compulsory but are costly, make strategic planning all but impossible for student organizations and limit the attractiveness of the university for small business operators.

The Labor amendment seeks to capitalize on the dissent of moderate Coalition MPs and Nationals Senators increasingly concerned with the potentially negative impact of the legislation on their electorate. Despite this, Dr Nelson has remained adamant in his refusal to consider a compromise, claiming that the Labor amendment is 'the socialist view… a violation of the principle that rich and poor students alike should not pay a flat tax'. Rhetorical flourishes aside, the decision of the Coalition Government to tough it out over VSU is certain to increase pressure on the Senate and intensify debate further.

That many student organizations should undergo some reform and improvements in their operations is difficult to dispute, as student organizations do not always act wisely, efficiently or fully in the interest of their members. If anything positive is to emerge for student organizations from the current debate it is that most have endured a painful period of introspection and interrogation that has pushed them to reform. Attention has also been drawn to the important role that student organizations play not only in supporting students while they study but also in producing rounded graduates who have learned things beyond the purely academic. Many organizations are currently grappling with reform to their operations and it is possible that sensible, progressive legislative change may shift student organizations to providing better services to more students at a lower cost.

In addition to deconstructing the economics of the 'user pays' argument for VSU, Ross Gittins' 5 September article in the Sydney Morning Herald provides a powerful defense of the community aspect of student organizations, noting that 'when you turn universities from a community into a shopping center' you discourage participation and 'if you reduce student participation in campus life, you lose something of intangible but real value'. The experiences outside the classroom that student organizations provide are crucial in producing mature, socially integrated graduates. The loss of these experiences will perhaps have the most powerful impact on Australia's future.

The Coalition's current bill will not improve choice for students or create a better-supported educational environment. Dr Nelson's refusal to shift from the harsh conditions of the WA model for a more moderate Victorian model which would allow choice in membership of political entities but ensure a minimum standard of service and community environment for all students lends credence to claims that the current bill is punitive in nature. Student organizations do require reform to provide services of a higher standard to a greater number of students but reform is not the aim of the currently tabled legislation. Labor's compromise amendment may be an important shift in the debate even if the Government remains intransigent and has helped create a difficult situation in the Senate and within the Coalition. The results of the VSU debate are likely to have far-reaching and unforeseen affects on the development of intellectual debate, civic involvement and leadership in our country. Let us hope that the result has the interests of students and the future of Australia at heart.

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