The Guardian 23 March, 2005

Nelson set to destroy student services

"Why is it when suddenly you walk into a university [childcare] needs to be subsidised by people who are going to university to get an education who don't have children... ? Why should the everyday student be forced to buy a product that they may not want... ? Why is it that the everyday student who wants to go to university is required to subsidise these and other services, including what in some cases are the most extreme political activism, whether of the left or indeed of the right."

Brendan Nelson, Minister for Education, putting the case for voluntary student unionism in 2005

"The fact that some people object to the way in which some public funds are spent does not mean that they are therefore exempted from paying taxes. The fact that there are some political donations made on behalf of SRCs and AUS that may be abhorrent to some people who have contributed union fees does not mean that we should therefore create a situation whereby all activities including those that are profitable to the people concerned are financially penalised by voluntary payments."

Peter Costello, Federal Treasurer, defending compulsory student unionism as a Monash student, circa 1976-1979.

Education Minister Brendan Nelson — who no doubt enjoyed union-funded campus life while earning a fee-free medical degree at Flinders University — released the long-expected Voluntary Student Union legislation into Federal Parliament this week.

Peddling a pocket full of lies Dr Nelson then went on to sell his legislation to the media.

Apart from attempting silence organised dissent on campuses, Nelson's main agenda is the privatisation of student services.

First in Parliament and then to the media Dr Nelson used a "real-life" case brought to his attention in an letter sent to a Liberal MP.

The letter was supposedly sent by a "concerned parent of a daughter who's doing her nursing degree at the University of Western Sydney."

"As a single parent pensioner with two children and a mortgage… she's finding the going tough. When enrolling this year she was told to pay $300 in student union fees. When she objected due to lack of money she was told she wouldn't get her exam results or be able to do her clinical training.

"And as the parent of that woman said to me, this seems monstrous …"

This figure then blew out as the day wore on — by the time Dr Nelson made it onto the ABC's 7.30 Report, the struggling students were paying "$500 or $600".

Dr Nelson either did not check his facts or is deliberately misleading the public.

At the University of Western Sydney joining the Student Union is not compulsory and not a requirement of enrolment.

No student in Australia pays $500-$600 in student union fees. In fact, the average annual fee across Australian university campuses is $291. This is the average maximum fee at each university, denoting a full-time student at the main campus.

On most campuses part-time students pay a pro-rata amount. Fees for students studying at rural campuses are often just a fraction of the full rate: $50 at Monash; $52 at Sunshine Coast; and $70 at Murdoch and Curtin.

Dr Nelson then went on to declare on the 7.30 Report that he had "mountains of information" that student fees were being "used to support a whole variety of often unlawful activities".

When Kerry O'Brian pressed for a specific example Dr Nelson replied "you are missing the point".

Kerry then brought up the fact that university student unions provide sorely-needed services to rural communities through their campuses, such as child care and health services and sporting facilities. Kerry asked Dr Nelson if he understood the impact the inevitable loss of those services would have on rural communities.

In reply to this Dr Nelson then quoted the example of Western Australia, where the Court Liberal government introduced VSU legislation in 1994. According to him, "these services not only survived, in many cases they actually flourished".

West Australian VSU 1994-2002

In 1994 the newly elected Court Liberal government passed the Acts Amendment (Student Guilds and Associations) Act 1994 which legislated:

  • It is not compulsory for any student to be a member of a student association;

  • It is not compulsory for a student to pay any fees to a student association or any service not directly related to an educational course provided by the university

  • Criminal penalties for anyone who discriminate against non-members.

    To counter this legislation the then Keating Federal government passed the "SOS Funding" amendment to the State Grants Act, which provided emergency federal funding to University Student Unions to maintain services previously funded by compulsory student fees — in 1995 the emergency funding to the four WA universities amounted to $5.73 million.

    However, with the election of the Howard Federal government in 1996 the "SOS Funding" amendment was discontinued.

    By 1999 the take-up of student union membership ranged from six percent at Edith Cowan to 35 percent at Murdoch.

    Most of the commercial services continued to operate after 1997 but the profits were insufficient to continue the comprehensive range of non-cost recovery services, publications and advice/support normally offered by the unions.

    In some cases the universities had to step in to provide financial assistance to the guild to ensure the maintenance of a basic level of student services — in the case of Edith Cowan the university took on the role of direct administration after the student union collapsed.

    The expense of funding basic student services was then borne by the universities and resulted in reduced funding for core academic programs like teaching and research.

    During the period 1996 to 2002 — even with funding from the university budgets — students at Edith Cowan lost a total of 17 services including: all funding for clubs and societies including sports; cultural events; weekly campus newsletter; orientation for first-year students; subsidised catering; women's department; environment department; student emergency loans; and off-campus housing service.

    Students at other universities lost services such as disabled students departments and sexual assault referral services.

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