On August 21, deputy PM Julia Gillard announced that the federal government would change how student services at universities are funded. However, there appears to be no intention to abolish the Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) laws introduced by the former Howard government.
VSU legislation stipulates that no student can be compelled to be a member of a student association or be made to pay fees for services that are of a non-academic nature. The law was designed to make the collection of a compulsory service fee illegal and, by doing so, help eliminate political student groups on campus.
Since the introduction of VSU in 2006 a total of $167 million of student organisations' revenue has been lost, with many student unions forced to rely on financial support from university administrations.
The result — as expected from previous experiments with VSU — was a collapse in services, a loss of student publications, rising campus food prices and a weakening of student unions as representative bodies.
Although yet to release details, PM Kevin Rudd's Labor government has stated that it is "not considering a return to compulsory student union fees" and will most likely create an opt-out scheme where payment of a fee is the default option.
This fee, which may be an up-front or a deferred payment, is likely to be capped at a rate below that which applied prior to VSU.
It is expected that revenue raised from this fee will be tightly regulated, and it has been suggested that students will be able to opt out of paying for certain items and services.
Student representatives have expressed concern that important services such as legal advice and pregnancy counselling are likely to lose out to Orientation Week pub-crawls and sporting events under such a scheme.
While the government is keen to see the restoration of "vital campus services, including childcare, healthcare, counselling and sporting facilities", the Sydney Morning Herald reported on August 21 that "there would be restrictions or bans on money being used for partisan politics".
How broadly this is defined, and whether a ban will apply even if students choose to direct their money into political campaigns, remains to be seen.
In August 2007, Universities Australia reported that 84% of undergraduates lived on less than $20,000 a year — far less than an average income — and one in eight students, and one in four Indigenous students, were regularly unable to afford food or other necessities.
The report also noted that students were relying on larger loans and longer hours of paid work to get through university.
Replacing the financial restrictions of VSU with new legal constraints on the ability of student unions to campaign for student welfare will not arrest the deterioration of university life.
Although a new opt-out system is likely to result in the restoration of a number of services that were shut down by VSU, many of these could arguably be provided by universities themselves, given adequate funding.
The new funding plan for university services is yet to go before cabinet. Once it is available, students can judge for themselves whether it amounts to more than just a new fee with no new rights attached.