By Domenica Sgambellone and Natasha Simons
MELBOURNE — More than 5000 angry and vocal students and student union employees from tertiary campuses across Victoria marched from Melbourne University to Parliament House on May 19 in response to the Kennett government's voluntary student unionism legislation. The rally and march, organised by the Student Unionism Network and endorsed by the National Union of Students, followed a week of protest meetings by students, vice-chancellors and community leaders.
The Tertiary (Amendment) Act (1994) or VSU legislation, as it has become known, outlaws universal membership of student organisations and specifically limits the services and functions students' money, in the form of a compulsory amenities and services fee, can be used for. Since the legislation was tabled in parliament, the opposition campaign, including several rallies, union actions, thousands of signatures on petitions and many campus actions, has been gathering momentum.
On May 16, the Melbourne University student general meeting was attended by 648 students. A motion condemning the VSU legislation was passed with only 17 votes against.
On the same day, more than 300 students attended the La Trobe University general student meeting, which not only condemned the VSU legislation but also passed a motion suspending two Student Representative Council executive members for writing letters, on official SRC letterhead, which claimed that La Trobe SRC supported VSU legislation. Both representatives are members of the Liberal club.
The chairperson of the Victorian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, Professor Michael Osborne, warned of prolonged conflict and uncertainty on tertiary campuses if the government did not withdraw or rewrite the bill.
On May 19, between 12 and 3pm all services provided by the student unions were closed as workers from the unions walked out to attend a mass meeting at Trades Hall and participate in the rally that afternoon.
Many students at the rally wore red gags on their mouths, symbolising the silencing of students' voices under VSU. Speakers from Deakin University (Rusden campus) told how angry they were that their student union president, the only one in the country to support VSU and also a Liberal, had denied them any information about the legislation.
TAFE speakers, using street theatre to make their point, emphasised that TAFE colleges already have their own form of VSU. The secretary of Flinders University (South Australia) voiced his support for the anti-VSU campaign. As well, the rally was attended by many from rural Victorian campuses such as Monash University in Gippsland.
Other student speakers highlighted the impact of VSU on the arts and student culture. A long list of artists opposing the legislation — including Judith Lucy, members of the D-Generation, the Hoodoo Gurus and Weddings Parties Anything — was read out. While there is a possibility the legislation may be amended to save theatre, students will still be prohibited from fully controlling this area.
State Opposition leader John Brumby condemned the legislation but did not indicate what action Labor would take against it if it were to win office.
Melbourne University Resistance activist Alex Bainbridge, who spoke shortly after Brumby, said that VSU was designed to weaken student opposition to the Liberal Party's planned attacks on education. The Liberal Party currently favours a "voucher" system of funding which would mean up-front fees for most students.
Bainbridge also pointed to the anti-student policies of the federal Labor government, including HECS, fees for overseas and postgraduate students and attacks on Austudy, stressing the need for student unions to maintain their independence. "We need student unions to defend ourselves against attacks on education whether they come from the Labor Party or the Liberal Party or any other party."
The Student Unionism Network has called an important strategy meeting for May 24, 6pm, at RMIT Fob's Bistro. For further information phone Resistance on (03) 329 1320 or get in touch with your student union.