Student unions and the left

June 29, 1994

By Adam Bandt

[This is an abridged version of a paper to be presented at the Campus Activist Forum in Sydney on July 18.]

Liberal governments in Western Australia and Victoria are implementing legislation that will devastate university student representative organisations. Their VSU (voluntary student unionism) program is primarily an attack on student activism.

The legislation aims to (i) remove the special status given to student representative organisations; (ii) remove the system whereby all students are automatically members of their campus student representative organisation; (iii) make it illegal for a compulsory fee to be levied for student representation.

Students will still have to pay a fee for "services", showing that the Liberals don't care about individuals' so-called "freedom from compulsion", but there will be no resourced student representative organisation. Students' ability to effect political change within and outside the university is under fire.

Government spending on education will continue to fall and fees will rise, supported by the new ideologies of higher education that define students as consumers rather than active participants. Individually, students have no hope of resisting these changes. Campus and national student organisations give us at the very least the power to defend what students already have. More importantly, they can help create an awareness about who and what are responsible for the current state of society and politicise students to respond in radical ways.

Critique needed

The term "VSU" attempts to give the Liberals the moral high ground. As noted in a previous submission to the Campus Activist Forum printed in Green Left, the current National Union of Students "leadership" responds with a depoliticising focus on "student services": student unions are seen as providing services such as accident insurance and are not involved in activism or social change. Many campus student organisations put a similar line. This is not anything "anti-left" about NUS or campus organisations, but simply their current ALP domination. The left can and should defend our unions while fighting to change them.

The left must stress that student organisations are political bodies. Students are in a relatively powerless position, and are intimately involved in the relations of capitalism, race and gender. Student organisations are inherently political, and few issues can be defined as "outside" their scope. A left critique of society that situates students and universities within it divides a left position on student organisations from the liberals and conservatives.

Students can also play an important part in social change outside of the university. Giving this view legitimacy means overcoming the idea that student organisations can only get involved with "student issues". Defending student organisations which are active and fighting for students and social change means convincing "moderate" students that representation is far more important than services, and convincing "left" students that there is nothing wrong with student organisations getting involved in broader social struggles.


As much as we may dislike the ALP's position, they are getting elected across the country to both guilds and NUS. Given that the methods of on-campus elections are democratic, there is no reason why the left can't be successful. We should always attempt to influence our own organisations.

The task is more pressing this year. First, what happens on campus and in NUS in the near future will help to define whether there is a student movement under VSU.

VSU means that NUS is probably in its last years. In its death throes, it can either continue to be ALP dominated and ignore students, or it can be committed to left campaigning and to making resources available on campus to continue broad-based activism. Campus organisations are also going to have to redefine themselves. There is no reason why either campus organisations or NUS can't be left wing.

Secondly, being a time when many people on campus are likely to take an interest in politics, elections are an excellent time for running left campaigns. If we are not active, many students will swallow the conservative line without ever seeking an alternative.

Thirdly, if we are successful in creating a left consciousness on campus, then this should translate into electoral support. These organisations are our own, and if students support our anti-VSU campaign, then they should support us wanting to apply these principles at a national and campus level.

An allied left

The student left has been heavily involved in the fight against VSU, and left-wing and progressive students are organising at a cross-campus and cross-organisational level in WA. The Education Action Network is an organisation of activists committed to building a broad-based student movement. There are people from a variety of groups, as well as progressive individuals and it meets regularly.

The EAN has coordinated an anti-VSU rally, produced materials on the federal budget and student unionism and organised a demonstration against the ALP's white paper. This network is a recognition that left students need to overcome sectarianism and factional differences by working together towards common goals. It has meant that the left is collectively stronger, and we will need this if there is to be any politicised left action on campuses under VSU.

Students are going to find out the hard way what life in a capitalist institution in the 1990s is like. VSU has become law in Victoria. I don't know whether we can stop the bill in WA. However, the struggle is never over. If student action is successful, VSU won't see the light of day in other states. Whatever happens, we must continue to be active and look for points of solidarity.
[Adam Bandt is the president of Murdoch University Student Guild, a member of Left Alliance and an activist in the Education Action Network.]

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