By Alison Dellit
On December 19, federal education minister Dr David Kemp announced that the government would introduce "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) legislation in this sitting of parliament. Kemp also said that the government intended to abolish compulsory services fees, part of which is now used to fund student organisations.
VSU legislation is already in force in three states, the most severe forms in Victoria and Western Australia.
In Victoria, students attending universities pay a compulsory services fee, some of which may go to student organisations, with strict controls over what it can be spent on.
In Western Australia, students no longer have to pay a services fee, and membership of the guilds which provide services and representation is voluntary and expensive.
The name voluntary student unionism is thus misleading, because the issue is not who has the right to be a member, but who has the right to control students' money — the university or an elected student body.
By seeking to abolish the services fee, the Liberal government has shown that it intends to introduce the West Australian model nationally.
Student organisations have played a key role in opposing the Howard government. As well as actively fighting the decimation of the higher education system, student organisations have also been involved in the fight to stop the Jabiluka mine, the struggle to defend abortion rights and opposing Australia's involvement in the East Timorese genocide.
Most student organisations are heavily dependent on the funding they receive from the compulsory services fee. The part of this fee received by student organisations is also the only money that is controlled by students themselves.
The ultimate effect of any "voluntary student unionism" legislation will be to help stifle one of the main opposition voices to the government, and to further remove the right of students to collectively control their own affairs.
Student organisations have already begun to organise against the attack on their right to exist. As Resistance goes to print, student activists in New South Wales are holding a two-day conference to discuss an immediate campaign against VSU. Most student organisations are preparing actions for orientation week.
Resistance is planning to campaign against this legislation. The January national council meeting of Resistance decided to push for a national day of action in March. The meeting also discussed a strategy to defeat the legislation.
Emma Murphy, welfare officer at Melbourne University student union and Resistance activist, commented, "VSU is essentially an attack on the right of students to fight. We need to make that clear when we are explaining it to students.
"The services provided by student organisations are important, because they are run democratically, but any campaign needs to focus primarily upon the attack on the right to organise."
Anyone wishing to find out more about this campaign can contact their local Resistance branch or student union.