Adios To Voluntary Student Unionism

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The Howard government’s abolition of compulsory up-front student union fees bill, otherwise known as Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), came into effect on 1 July 2005. Student unions, guilds, and associations shifted into a new operation mode. Income was never guaranteed, membership couldn’t be taken for granted, and independent representation of students began to falter.

This is not new anymore, and for most students enrolled in tertiary institutions today, it’s the way student organisations have always run.

But things are set to change. The Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) Bill will soon be introduced into the Senate, pending amendment by the Greens. It’s a good opportunity to ask what sort of revival student organisations will undergo — and what services student organisations should provide.

Many will recall the party political arguments put forth by VSU proponents. An important distinction that was omitted by many of them is that student organisations still take part in non-partisan political activities, such as campaigning to the Government for rights and welfare, but they do a lot more.

In the SSAF legislation currently under consideration, there are 19 items listed that regularly fall under the major activities of the student associations — such as providing advice and advocacy, representing students to the university, events, and publications. Under VSU, student organisations have progressively lost control over such activities, particularly providing advice and advocacy. This is the "degree insurance" that many students need at some point during their candidature. Universities sometimes offer these services themselves, which creates a conflict of interest, or students have no assistance provided at all.

We know from six years of VSU that student organisations need funding to survive, and that where they fail, students on campus suffer. VSU fans like to think that all that takes place in the dungeons and lofts of the student associations is factional plotting for the latest rallies.

The Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association has four advocacy employees who are booked solid and work on excess of 700 cases a year. They deal with issues such as PhD supervision, special consideration, intellectual property, and academic appeals, as well as assisting local and international students with tenancy and accommodation issues.

We have learned that VSU is a major factor in the complete collapse of student organisations in rural and regional universities, particularly postgraduate organisations. Why does this matter? Anecdotal evidence suggests that when postgraduate organisations are folded into undergraduate organisations, they lose their autonomy and funding, and without these factors, students disengage.

While it’s true that funds collected from student organisations can be fed through to the National Union of Students, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA), and Council of International Students Australia (CISA), the work we have done at CAPA since 1979 has been to lobby government for the improvement of conditions for all students.

Since I became CAPA President, I have visited 31 universities across Australia, and met with students and staff to discuss issues on campus so that I can advocate on their behalf to the government.

In February this year, the Senate Select Committee on the Scrutiny of New Taxes published an investigation into the SSAF entitled Another Tax by Another Name. Headed up by WA Liberal Senator Mathias Cormann, and echoing the dissenting report from the first SSAF Bill in 2009, the submission notes concerns about placing increased financial burdens on students, on access to services for part-time and external students — and what to do about the prospect of increased political activity on campus.

Of course, many know that Julia Gillard cut her teeth at Adelaide University before moving on to run the Australian Union of Students in 1983. The AUS shut down in 1984 and was replaced by the National Union of Students in 1987. She’s not alone. Great swathes of our parlimentarians got started via student associations and activism — Sarah Hanson-Young at Adelaide, Michael Danby and Sophie Mirabella at Melbourne, Peter Costello at Monash, Adam Bandt at Murdoch, Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley (Jr) at UWA, and many from the University of Sydney, including Edmond Barton, Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Belinda Neal, and Tony Abbott, just to name a few.

But student associations are not breeding grounds for politicians as once they were — and the political activity that takes place on campuses isn’t all to shore up future political careers.

What impact will the new laws have on all of this? The short answer is, student organisations will potentially have access to more money, and be able to provide better services.

However, the major concern about the amendments is that there is no guarantee that any of the money paid by students as fees will go to student associations. It remains unclear under the amendments who is to provide campus services like advice and advocacy: it may be either the university, a student association, or a private provider.

As it stands, the division of student fees will be a matter of negotiation. Universities need to come on board and deal directly with the student organisations over the use of the SSAF — and the caution expressed by Glenn Withers, CEO of Universities Australia, in this regard is disconcerting.

Big universities such as Sydney, Melbourne, and Monash have been firm supporters of their organisations and fund them. However, the same universities may also see in the amended legislation an opportunity to fund their own services, such as counselling, disabilities, and accommodation. These are also important, but have little to no input from students as to their operation.

The Greens are calling for amendments to give students greater say in how fees are spent which gives organisations the funding they need. Not surprisingly, CAPA wants to see real commitments to postgraduate student organisations to ensure postgraduate-specific services and activities.

Student organisations aren’t the political machines of yore. They exist to benefit students through advice and advocacy, representation, events and seminars, and articles and publications. And if student organisations don’t hold universities to account, who else will?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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