Coalition attack on student unions unveiled
By Wendy Robertson
After two months of shadow-boxing, federal education minister David Kemp has "leaked" the proposed "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) legislation. It is expected that the legislation will be submitted to the House of Representatives within two weeks, and will reach the Senate in May.
VSU will prohibit universities from levying any compulsory non-academic fee. The legislation provides for reducing universities' recurrent grants if they fail to comply. This punitive approach shows the Liberals' arguments that VSU promotes "choice" on campus to be a sham.
The government claims that this legislation is needed to ensure that students are not forced to join student organisations. This claim is false. Student unions and organisations exist because students have common interests, and organisations are needed to defend those interests. Universal membership ensures that all students can exercise their right to have a say in the union's activities. It does not force students to do anything.
The main thrust of the VSU legislation is to stop universities from charging non-academic fees as a condition of enrolment. This is aimed at starving student organisations of funds.
The proposed federal legislation is largely based on the 1993 Western Australian VSU legislation, a model for VSU favoured by the Liberals because it has hindered the political aspects of student unions more than the Victorian model.
In an interview with radio 3RN on February 23, WA senator Ross Lightfoot explained that the main "benefit" of VSU is that "there is no dogma associated with the militant student unions that you had with compulsory fees".
Under current arrangements, students can decide what activities and services they need and how much should be spent on them. If VSU is passed, private corporations and university administrations will be able to charge whatever they like for services.
Campaigns to improve studying conditions, student rights officer position and anything else that does not make a profit, such as child-care, will be undermined. Lightfoot explained told 3RN, "one child-minding centre has closed at one university, but at the same campus a hairdressing operation has opened up".
The president of the Australian Liberal Students' Federation, Nick Tolley, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 1: "Student unions can do whatever they like with our money ... publish a newspaper to promote the plight of same-sex oriented East Timorese, yellow striped geckos .... Because the student union knows that regardless of whether we like these politics or not, we would still be forced to fund them."
Other Liberals have expressed their support for VSU:
- In a letter to Brisbane's Courier-Mail, the president of the University of Queensland Liberal Club, Eliza Mattews, expressed problems with the Queensland unions' "unbalanced" funding of small groups such as Queer Sexuality.
- Lightfoot has stated that, "There are still elements there who would, if today the PLO was the militant organisation it was, be giving student funds for that. They are giving student funds ... to the IRA ... Student funds should only be used to enhance student education through Australian universities."
- In leaked Liberal Party briefing notes, Kemp stated, "We must truncate the culture of compulsory unionism at student level before people enter the workforce".
The real intention of VSU is summed up in the briefing notes for the legislation. They state, "Part of the aim is to destroy NUS [National Union of Students] because it is not seen as a conservative friend".
The Liberals' argument that there is no accountability in student organisations is untrue. All students can vote in annual student union elections and influence the political make-up of student unions.
Liberal students have been unable to gain control of many student unions because these students are, and are seen to be, agents for the Liberal Party's reactionary politics. Students have been among the most vocal opponents of the Liberal government's education and social policies. Since the government has been unable to dupe students into supporting Liberal policies or to silence student opposition, VSU is intended to destroy student organisations themselves.
The Liberals hypocritically rail against "compulsory fees" for student union membership, yet they are the biggest advocates of compulsory fees for undergraduate degrees. And such fees won't be between $180 and $350, which is how much students pay to student unions; they will be in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.
If the choice is between a service fee which enables a student union to operate and the up-front tuition fees Kemp has in store for all students, which would you prefer?
VSU is an attack on students' ability to defend and extend their right to free, high quality education.