ALP sells students out on VSU

September 7, 2005

ALP sells students out on VSU

James Crafti

ABC News Online on August 24 reported that Labor leader Kim Beazley had "challenged" the federal government to accept a compromise plan on voluntary student unionism (VSU). Beazley's plan involves a compulsory amenities fee for students, the proceeds of which would not go to student organisations or be used for political campaigning.

Beazley's announcement made headlines, but the ALP sell-out on VSU was made public on August 8. Labor's shadow education minister, Jenny Macklin, issued a media release stating, "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, subsidised food, accident insurance, accommodation, emergency loans and transport".

So what does this mean for students? Like the model of VSU introduced by the Victorian Liberal government in 1994, Labor's "compromise" transfers the control of students' money to university administrations, which may or may not decide to let some services be administered by student unions. Currently, on many campuses, services such as student advocacy, subsidised food and sporting clubs are controlled by an elected body of students rather than the university.

Under the Victorian VSU model, students have been forced to negotiate, and in some cases battle, to get the money they need from universities. However, such campaigns would be futile under Labor's proposed changes because the legislation prescribes what university administrations will be able to spend the money on. They won't be able to allocate general service fees to political campaigns, even if they wanted to.

Students will still have to fork out large sums of money to pay for sporting clubs, subsidised food facilities and so on that they may or may not use, but any funding for political campaigns would have to be paid over and above these compulsory fees. This could silence student organisations.

Beazley's "challenge" to the government is no challenge at all. PM John Howard's main agenda was always to attack the political side of student unions, rather than services. This is not to say that the Howard government hasn't advocated a more user-pays approach at universities, but the key aim of its VSU agenda is the dismantling of opposition movements.

With a large proportion of students voting to the left of Labor in government elections, a democratically elected and well-funded body to advocate for students and run political campaigns is something that neither major party is keen to defend.

Student organisations run by ALP members have tried to play down Labor's sell-out of students on VSU. In the words of Rachel Allen, for example, the student association treasurer at the Australian National University, "If Labor's proposed changes are going to help sustain the student movement by helping us to maintain some of our essential resources, I wouldn't label the proposed changes a 'sell-out' on students".

But Allen fails to account for which resources student associations will be able to keep. As Leigh Hughes, an activist with Resistance at the ANU, told Green Left Weekly: "The only budget income that student associations would have would be that from capital returns and voluntary fees. With so many student associations in debt, student organisations will really be struggling."

From Green Left Weekly, September 7, 2005.
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