NUS ditches VSU fight

Issue 

An October 17 National Union of Students (NUS) report on the impact of the Howard government's "voluntary student unionism" legislation argued that VSU has failed to deliver "self-sustaining student organisations just able to survive off voluntary memberships, investments and trading operations". It documented a series of job losses and closures of student associations' campaigning departments as a result of VSU robbing them of funding.

Given the impact that VSU has had on students' ability to organise, as documented by NUS, it would not be unreasonable to think that the ousting of the Howard government would be an opportunity to push for the legislation's repeal. A reinvigorated campaign would have to confront the commitment of the federal Labor government to retain VSU, but it could build alliances with other sectors that suffered legislative attacks by the Coalition government — unions, for example.

The December 19 Sydney Morning Herald quoted Angus McFarland, NUS's new president, as saying: "The [Rudd] government has explicitly ruled out returning to the old system, so we can either force them to do a public backflip, which is unlikely in their first year of government, or we can be the ones to shift our position and ... come to the table with a lot of options about how we move with them into the future."

NUS claims it is still committed to fighting for VSU legislation to be repealed. However a January 13 SMH article reported that according to McFarland "NUS would not advocate a return to compulsory membership with upfront fees, but it wanted changes to be made and was compiling a discussion paper canvassing options, which it hoped to present to the Federal Government next month". The article noted that student union membership has dropped by up to 95% since VSU was implemented.

Resistance member Clare Middlemas, president of Murdoch University's student guild, told Green Left Weekly she is strongly opposed to this move by NUS: "Now that the Labor government is in power, this is the time the National Union of Students needs to be mounting a strong campaign to force the government to repeal VSU and reinstate universal student unionism." Middlemas said that funding models for student unions that relied on the good graces of university administrations or governments threaten to violate "a principle of the student movement — 'student control of student affairs'".

"If student unions are to be critical voices and stand up for student interests, then they need to be independent of the government and of the university", she added. "The only way we can hope to rebuild a strong and fighting union movement is if NUS gets real about the anti-VSU campaign and demand that the Labor government reinstate universal student unionism."