Two years on, the full impact of "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) is now being felt at Australian universities. Legislation to implement VSU was introduced in 2005 by the Howard government, despite the opposition of much of the student population. Its intention was to defund student organisations and cripple their ability to take effective political action in support of their members' interests.
An October 17 report released by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that many student unions and representative groups are straining under the impact of VSU.
Out of the 30 student organisations studied, 25 reported "substantial or total job losses".
Eight universities either have or a planning to take control of the major student service provider. At least six universities conduct advocacy for students' rights through the university administrations (or a university-owned company) — a major blow to the ability of students to democratically organise to defend their rights.
Thirteen out of 18 student organisations reported "they had made substantial or near total cuts to departmental or portfolio funding (i.e. campaigns, activities, support programs)".
The report concluded that VSU has failed to deliver "self-sustaining student organisations just able to survive off voluntary memberships, investments and trading operations. Only two WA Guilds ([University of Western Australia] and Murdoch) are self-funded. In all other cases the organisations have either received substantial university funding, have collapsed or are surviving on limited reserves. Only two other organisations (Curtin Guild and [University of NSW] Arc [a service-focused student organisation]) look like achieving self-sufficiency in the next couple of years."
The Howard government brought VSU into effect nationally in July 2006 (earlier versions had been implemented in Western Australia and Victoria) after legislation was passed with the support of Family First. The ALP opposed the legislation but has since indicated it doesn't intended to repeal it. In an interview on Channel 10's Meet the Press, Labor's education spokesperson, Stephen Smith, was asked "If elected, can you give a commitment now that Labor will reverse the introduction of VSU?" Smith replied "No, we won't. We've made it clear we will allow students to voluntarily organise themselves. We think the key thing is the sustaining of the various services, whether that's been sport and recreation or counselling ..."
The full NUS report on the impact of VSU can be downloaded at <http://unistudent.com.au>.