The Guardian 9 March, 2005
"Voluntary Student Unionism"
Statement from the National Union of Students
As university students across Australia begin classes this week, they will find out that practically everything at university other than their lectures may not exist by the end of the year. From academic advocacy and support, childcare and health services, to food outlets and sporting teams, university life as we know it is under threat.
For over a century, democratically run student organisations have provided services, support and representation to students. The federal government's ideological obsession with so-called "Voluntary Student Unionism" (VSU), coupled with its imminent Senate majority threatens to cut this short, and make 2005 the last year that students are allowed to decide themselves what services are available on campus.
Make no mistake: membership of student organisations is not compulsory. Those who do not wish to join do not have to — and in any given year this number can usually be counted on two hands. What is "compulsory" is that students, all of whom benefit from the services provided, contribute to the cost. For instance, even the college student who wrote a pro-VSU letter to the editor recently stated that he never used the services of the student organisation might be surprised to learn who funds the social events for students at his college.
An off-campus example brought to mind is the "Voluntary Ambulance Levy" that Queenslanders were subject to a few years ago. Now, most people would agree that it's hard to think of a service more essential than ambulances.
Surprisingly enough though, when it came down to it, the vast majority of people didn't contribute and as a result, ambulance services in Queensland were inadequate — a clear case of market failure. Needless to say, the levy was made compulsory, as this was recognised as the only way to ensure that everyone who benefits from the service contributes to its funding. There are literally endless other examples.
Student organisations are a similar case — the services and representation they provide benefit all students, the sheer breadth of provision ensures this. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, which consists of all the heads of Australia's universities, calls student organisations "essential".
The real reason that groups like the Australian Liberal Students Federation want to remove funding from student organisations, in the face of opposition from every group in the Higher Education sector, is ideological — because these organisations don't always agree with the government.
Student organisations hold democratic elections yearly, and one of their most important roles is democratic representation. Dropping funding levels, increasing class sizes, HECS increases, and massive cuts to government support for students are issues where a student perspective is essential, and it is provided by student organisations.
Pro-VSU students run in university elections yearly, yet fail to secure more than five percent or so of the vote nationally. If that figure were considerable, the government could be seen as justifiably responding to the concerns of those affected, bearing in mind that VSU was not an issue at the federal election.
At present, however, it looks like the government is gearing up to use its Senate majority to silence another of its critics, without really understanding what the effects will be.