A history of Liberal attacks on student unions

Issue 

By Sean Healy

VSU didn't drop from the sky in 1993, when the WA and Victorian legislation was first floated. Rather, it has a 20-year history originating in attempts by right-wing students and governments to muzzle student organisations.

The first universities appeared in Australia from the 1850s. Organised student bodies followed, taken largely from the British model in which student "unions" were joint debating and social societies. The first such organisation in Australia, at Sydney University (1874), was formed by students (with the support of the administration) with the stated aim of enhancing the "mental self-culture and social good fellowship of members of the University". A similar body was formed at Melbourne University in 1884.

These bodies were initially self-financing, largely from individual subscriptions. The first compulsory fee was instituted in 1905 at Melbourne University. The university supported the proposal, seeing in it a chance to promote "campus culture", which would redound to the greater glory of the university. A compulsory fee was levied, and henceforth any enrolled student was automatically considered a member of the student organisation.

In the next major wave of university formation, immediately after World War II (such as UNSW), even the acts of parliament included measures to establish a student union and a compulsory service fee, collected by the university, but which would be used to fund the student union. That also carried through into the generation of universities built in the early 1960s (like Macquarie and La Trobe).

What is 'universal membership'?

It's important to understand what these compulsory service fees were. Generally, both the student movement and the government describe them as "student union fees", implying that it is the payment of the fee which confers membership.

That is an oversimplification. Firstly, the fee itself was always levied by the universities and controlled by them. Secondly, the claims of student unions to represent all students are not primarily based on all students having to pay a fee — they're based on the recognition that all students have common interests as students.

Universal membership of student unions doesn't necessarily mean "compulsory"; it just recognises student unions' claims to universality. This was made even clearer in the 1970s, when the ability of individuals to resign their membership was recognised both in law and by student organisations.

It's also necessary to understand here the attitude of right-wing forces to such student unions before the 1960s — they were not opposed in principle to such bodies and in fact were in favour of them. Whilst such student unions played a moderating role, assisting the university administration, providing certain services, helping to build "campus culture", the right-wing forces were all in favour of them.

1960s radicalisation

During the 1960s, appalled at the war against Vietnam, many university students began to radicalise around a broad range of social issues. After 1968 radical students began to win control of student unions.

It was at this time that the Coalition, right-wing students and administrations start to raise issues about the activities of student unions. There was no opposition to "compulsory" fees — the target was what the student unions spent their money on. They raised demands to end the ability of student unions to support "outside" causes, most specifically the struggle against the Vietnam War.

At the same time, various right-wing students sought injunctions from state courts to prevent elected student councils spending money on "outside causes", and Coalition members of parliament started raising questions about banning student unions from funding such activities. One of the more famous of these cases was Harrison v Hearn, which involved an attempt by right-wing students to prevent Macquarie University Student Council donating $200 to a solidarity fund for the La Trobe SRC; the case resulted in a partial victory for the right.

The most famous case occurred in 1971 at La Trobe. At that time, the SRC president and the SRC were controlled by the left, who used the SRC's resources to support a range of "outside" causes, including providing bail funds for those arrested at anti-war demonstrations. In response, the administration froze the SRC's funds and refused to hand over any further funds from the compulsory fee.

The legal campaigns against spending money on "outside" causes slumped after the election of the Whitlam government in 1972, when it became apparent that they would lack federal backing.

'Free association'

It was only with the end of the Whitlam government, and with the heightened profile of the left-controlled Australian Union of Students, that the arguments for "voluntary student unionism" started to appear. The right argued that the compulsory payment of a service fee represents a breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which allows for freedom of association. There was a wave of attempts to promote this argument in 1976, 1977 and 1978.

The spearhead of the campaign was the Australian Liberal Student Federation (ALSF), which was formed in 1976. It clearly aimed at destroying the influence the radical left had over student unions. It was backed by senior government ministers and bankrolled by a variety of sources, including the Uranium Producers Forum.

The claim that "compulsory unionism" breaches freedom of association was a pragmatic attempt to give VSU some broader moral legitimacy. The first motion condemning compulsory unionism was adopted by ALSF in May 1977.

There were three main prongs of the VSU campaign at this time:

  • an internal wrecking operation within student unions, specifically in collaboration with right-wing Labor students and Zionists;

  • legal cases involving "conscientious objectors", who argued that they should be allowed to resign from the student union without penalty; and

  • attempts at state voluntary student unionism, most particularly in WA and Victoria.

The first form of state VSU legislation was enacted in Western Australia in 1977. The legislation did not outlaw a compulsory services fee, but restricted what this money could be spent on. Legislation along similar lines was considered in Victoria and Queensland and introduced by the federal government in the ACT.

The next wave

The next wave of attempts to introduce VSU came during the later years of the Fraser government. Again, the direct political motivation was clear — student unions had been prominent in opposing Fraser initiatives to cut funding levels, introduce fees for second and subsequent degrees and cut back access to TEAS.

At this time, the first legislative attempt to ban the compulsory fee altogether was floated in WA. Before this time, only the most extreme sections of ALSF had advocated such a position. Vice-chancellors and most of the Coalition supported a compulsory fee if restrictions could be placed on its use by student unions or if the fee could be used by the administrations themselves.

These various forms of legislation were never enacted, however. In 1982, the Coalition lost power in WA, and in 1983 it lost power federally. The Coalition would have to wait for more than 10 years before it would get another chance to attack student unions.

[This is an abridged version of a talk presented to the January 1998 anti-VSU teach-in at the University of Technology Sydney. The full version can be obtained by e-mailing resistance@peg.apc.org]