VSU: An attack on student dissent


Trent Hawkins & Amanda Zivcic

Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) is a government policy designed to silence the dissent that has traditionally come from students. Despite tens of thousands of students joining protests against VSU last year, the Howard government rushed the VSU legislation through parliament early in the campus summer break.

VSU aims to financially destroy student unions. While students can still choose to join a union, the legislation gives vice-chancellors and university boards the power to decide how they implement VSU on a campus-by-campus basis. There is already discussion in some university administrations about not recognising any new student unions as the peak body representing all students on a campus; not allowing the collection of even voluntary union fees; and refusing to set terms about who exactly constitutes a member of the student union.

Students still have an opportunity to demand that the government repeal the legislation, and to make implementing the legislation unworkable at the campus level. VSU won't come into force until second semester and in 2007 in some cases.

It is extremely important that we build the largest rallies possible on April 12, the national day of protest action called by the National Union of Students, with a focus on calling for the repeal of the legislation.

We need to be signing students up to education action groups during campus orientation days and building the April 12 protests through these bodies. This activist approach, combined with the key political demand of repeal, will be essential to actually defeating VSU.

VSU is part of the Howard government's broader agenda of attacking ordinary people's right to organise and speak out against government policy, so it's vital that students link up with the broader struggles, especially against the government's anti-worker policies. We should be building large student contingents to the May Day rallies, both as a show of solidarity and in order to develop real links with activists in the trade union movement.

While doing this, however, we should not make the mistake of taking the emphasis of the campaign off the demand that the VSU legislation be repealed.

Our aim is to make VSU a dead letter. That means putting pressure on vice-chancellors and university governing bodies not to implement the legislation on their campus. On-campus student rallies will help this and could be built in conjunction with the April 12 NDA.

We should demand that university senates take the side of student organisations and continue levying a fee from students. At the University of Western Australia, the Education Action Network has voted to hold a campus rally immediately before the cross-campus rally on April 12.

To make VSU a dead letter we also need to convince the majority of students to join their campus student union. To achieve that, student unions need to be seen to be actively defending students' rights, not just providing "services" for members.

[Trent Hawkins and Amanda Zivcic are members of the socialist youth organisation Resistance.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 22, 2006.
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