The passing of the federal "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) legislation means that universities now face an uphill battle to ensure that student organisations continue to receive funding. There is evidence already that this will have a more deleterious effect on women than men on campuses, and that it threatens the future of women's departments.
Experiences from Western Australia demonstrate that women's departments are the first to have their funding cut and space taken away. Women's rights are no longer a focus of student unions or universities.
Yet the recent debate over the abortion pill RU486 is just one example of why women's rights must remain a concern of student organisations. Several women's departments, including in the National Union of Students, argued strongly for restrictions on the drug to be lifted on the basis that the choice to use the drug should belong solely to women.
Statistics indicate that many women in their twenties — a common age of university students — seek abortion in Australia. Removing institutions on campuses that have helped generate discussion, and action, around women's reproductive rights would have dire consequences for women students.
The role played by women's departments in student unions and student associations varies, but the overarching principles, including organising students around advocacy, enrich women's experiences on campus. By providing an autonomous space, women's departments foster the development and implementation of feminist ideas and actions.
Losing this means that issues facing women students in particular, including child care, abortion access and safety on campus, will be ignored, making life more difficult for women and possibly increasing their isolation and vulnerability.
VSU is designed to limit students' — including feminists' — ability to be politically active on campus. According to the Australian Liberal Students Federation and conservative parliamentarians who support VSU, there has been an "excessive" use of student funds for child care and women's resource handbooks, and campus newspapers have devoted too much coverage to the issues of contraception, sexual harassment and violence against women.
Women's departments face an especially concerted attack at present because they have also played a broader role in organising against the Coalition government's cuts to child care and Youth Allowance, and its attacks on students' working conditions.
The passing of the new workplace and "anti-terror" laws make it harder to organise politically, but campus activists and others must continue to fight for the rights of women and for adequate funds for women's departments. Weakening these will weaken the broader campaigns against all the federal government's attacks. We must ensure that universities do not become yet another place where women's rights are ignored.
From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.