Students launch fightback against VSU


Zoe Kenny, Sydney

Students around the country responded angrily to the news that the government introduced its "voluntary student unionism" (VSU) legislation into federal parliament on March 16.

The government is attempting to push through the Western Australian model — a particularly harsh form of VSU that only allows universities to collect fees for academic purposes, bans the collection of fees for student associations and allows the government to charge universities huge fines if they don't follow the new regulations.

If passed, the legislation would mean that funding for student representative councils and other services on universities will dry up completely. National Union of Students president Felix Eldridge said on March 16 that "this legislation is going to destroy student services on campus and make Australia's universities less competitive internationally".

As the legislation was introduced, 150 students gathered at Sydney University for an emergency meeting to discuss how to respond. The meeting decided that students who opposed VSU would link up with an anti-war student walkout organised by Students Against War (SAW) the following day.

On March 17, 200 students rallied on the university lawns and marched to PM John Howard's office. Paddy Gibson, a member of SAW, spoke about the links between increasing military spending and decreasing funding for education. "Billion-dollar funding increases are being promised for the defence forces to fight wars of aggression while our universities are starved of funds. They are privatising Iraq at gunpoint, imposing the same ultra-free-market vision they have for our universities.

"The opposition put up by students threatens their agenda here and overseas and that's why they want us silenced. The VSU legislation is designed to silence us and today we started our fightback against it."

Rose Jackson, president of the Sydney University Student Representative Council, told the rally: "VSU is an outright attack on student organisations and the essential services that they provide to students". She also announced plans for a referendum on VSU on that campus. About 75 students from Sydney's University of Technology and the University of New South Wales also joined the march.

On the same day, 250 students attended a student general meeting at Melbourne University, which voted to condemn the VSU legislation's "potential to destroy cultural and political life on campus". The meeting pledged to "protest it every step of the way". On March 16, 150 students at the Footscray Park campus of Victoria University blockaded Ballarat Road over a 10% rise in HECS fees. On March 18, 60 Swinburne University students attended a campaign planning meeting.

More than 100 students marched from Adelaide University to state parliament on March 17, demanding the legislation be rejected. Student services were shut down over lunch as a warning about what will happen if the legislation goes through.

One-hundred students gathered at the Liberal Party headquarters in Brisbane demanding "student control of student affairs". The emergency action was organised by the Cross Campus Education Action Group, which consists of tertiary students from University of Queensland, the Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University.

"This is not just about services, it's about taking away the ability of students to collectively organise against the systematic destruction of our education system", National Union of Students Queensland education officer Rob Nicholas told the rally.

Resistance member Ewan Saunders told protesters: "VSU is an attack on democracy. [Federal education minister] Brendan Nelson says this is about choice, and he's right. It's about the choice between McDonald's universities and independent education. It's the choice between having no political power to fight attacks on our education, and being able to collectively say 'no!' No to the 'downsizing' of our education, no to the transformation of our universities into sterile degree factories."

Students are organising for a national day of action against VSU on April 28.

From Green Left Weekly, March 23, 2005.
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