No 'VSU-lite', say students

November 8, 2008

The Rudd government, elected to office promising to repeal the Howard government's unpopular student unionism (VSU) legislation, is planning to introduce a voluntary $250 "student levy" in early 2009.

But while this will assist in reviving some student services, it seems that the levy will be administered by universities and not student unions or associations.

In February, the federal youth minister Kate Ellis requested feedback from university and student associations on the impact of VSU on student services and amenities.

The submissions are concerning. The summary report stated that "in many instances" assistance with basic services was provided by universities "but these funds were redirected from other uses such as teaching, learning or research". The funding levels were also not adequate to maintain student services.

Queensland University of Technology Student Guild said that, "While the increased cost affected all students, the higher prices have had a disproportionately negative impact on the most disadvantaged members of the student body."

Many universities noted that student life outside classes had diminished. Monash Student Union noted a change in social consciousness on campus since the introduction of VSU.

"Many students appear completely disinterested in any events on campus outside of their classes", it said, adding, "The time [students] consider reasonable to devote to club activities has continually diminished as the dominant ideology that another student's welfare is of no concern to the student population as a whole begins to take hold."

The submissions indicate that most student bodies want a return to student control of student affairs. But student bodies, particularly those representing minority groups on campus, may have to compete with other organisations for funds.

Universities are also likely to centralise student bodies, with only one organisation to determine the level of funding for student groups. This will mean that minority groups have even less of a voice.

Jennifer Henriques, environment officer at University of Western Sydney (UWS), described some of the effects of such a centralisation of power in the November 6 Sydney Morning Herald. "We've been providing queer spaces and women's spaces on all of the campuses and designated student representatives for those groups as well as indigenous students.

"The university has asked us to move out of our offices and close these spaces so they can build shops here."

The reaction by student representatives has been mixed. "We think [the proposal is] great, but it doesn't specifically mention whether money had to go to student organisations", the University of Sydney SRC president Kate Laing told the November 5 Australian.

But Jacob Carswell-Doherty, president of the UWS Student Association, is wary of a "VSU lite". He told the November 6 SMH "The new levy makes no difference to this association; it is effectively a continuation of VSU."

Many other student associations are feeling the same: too little, too late.

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