VSU: A forgotten Liberal stuff up.

Posted: October 16, 2006 in Australia, Education, News, Politics

A while back, the Federal Liberal Government managed to pass a piece of legislation called the VSU (Voluntary Student Unionism). A little debate on another blog reminded me of this work which, quite bluntly, could be labelled as nothing else except the Liberal’s continuing compaign against Worker’s Unions.

Until the VSU legislation was passed, each Australian University Student had to pay what amounted to a General Service Fee (names varied University to University) on top of whatever HECS payments they were obliged to throw at the Federal Government. The GSF money usually (again, it varied from University to University) went to various bodies within the University structure – taking Monash as an example, 80% went to the student union while 20% went the post graduate association. At Deakin University, 72% of the GSF went to DUSA (Deakin University Student Association).
Student Unions used the money to support and run many services which improved the life at University in many ways. Some of the services provided included: housing support, student advocacy, counselling, free lunches, discounted textbooks, child care, subsidising sporting clubs and the like.

At Deakin University, to use as an example, instead of the $140 GSF the Student Union asks $40 each semester to be a part of the Student Union and as a result of the VSU, the DUSA budget has been more than halved which has meant that services have been savaged as a result. Discounts on textbooks (which can often costs hundreds per book) can now only be offered to members, free lunches (which help considerably on student’s extremely tight budgets) are no longer available to non-DUSA members, hours for contact with advocacy services have been reduced and even the viability of the Student Bar (a vital student social outlet) has been thrown into question.

It was clear straight from the beginning that the VSU legislation was unwanted by both Universities and Students alike, it was simply a very unpopular decision and that negative opinion was clearly aired time and again yet the Government refused to listen. Some examples of these opinions included:

University of Western Australia

“It is clear however that for many universities campus life for some students will deteriorate significantly. Since its establishment almost a century ago, The University of Western Australia has created a culture of vibrant and responsible student participation in campus life.

National Tertiary Education Union

Legislation to abolish universal membership of student organisations, introduced by the Government into the Federal Parliament today, makes no economic sense for universities and will severely undermine their efforts to compete in the multi-billion dollar international student market.

Sydney University

Curtin University

And these are just the smallest of examples – opposition to the VSU legislation was almost completely uniform across Australian Universities while surveys clearly showed that the vast majority of students (70-80%) wanted to remain part of a Student Union. It simply was not wanted.

The VSU has managed to rip out an important source of revune for Universities and the true effects of the legislation are still being worked out as Student Associations continue to try to figure out which services they can continue to offer and which they will be forced to abandon completely.

The Government’s reasoning would seem to be that student services should be a User Pay based system, that if you wish to use the services that the Student Union offers then you pay for it – if you don’t want those services then you don’t pay. At a casual glance, such reasoning might look appealing to those who are unfamiliar with how Universities work or the pressures linked with tertiary study. You simply do not know if you’ll need advocacy help from the Union at the start of the year, you won’t know if you’ll need assistance in finding housing when the unexpected happens, you won’t know if you’ll need access to counselling services as study pressures build up through the year.

User Pays is also somewhat hypocritical coming from a taxation system where everybody pays for services whether they use them or not. I can’t remember the last time I used the services provided by a Hospital, for example, so why should I be contributing cash to the Federal or even state health budget? I can’t remember the last time I used the facilities at a national park so I guess I don’t need to contribute to that either. Similarly, I don’t agree with the work being done by the National Film Classification organisation so if I follow the philosophy embodied by the VSU then I don’t have to give them any money. Somehow I get the feeling that if I reduced or stopped paying my tax every year then I’d be in a fair amount of trouble.

Student Unionism was a lot like taxation in many regards; everybody chipped in a bit of cash to make the University experience as pleasant and enjoyable as possible, providing services for all (whether you chose to use them or not). And as I’m sure anyone could see, if taxation was made voluntary then the national economy would be reduced to ruins in very short order.

The whole User Pays model in regards to the VSU doesn’t make any sense anyhow. The Liberals want Australian Universities to be more competitive on an international level and yet these international institutions invest extremely heavily into student lifestyle and other services – which help to attract Students to the courses offered there. Now that Australian Universities are no longer able to offer such a range of services that they were able to, they become less attractive to students and numbers will undoubtedly drop.

So why did the Federal Government bring in the VSU? It seems clear that the Liberal Party has a distinct dislike for Unions (be they Student, Worker or other) since they give the common man/worker a considerable voice in the community. Without a Union presence, Students lose what little voice and influence they had – which is something the Federal Government is probably happy about. The Liberals seem to possess somewhat right wing views (despite their polictical party name) while students typically lean more towards the left (social justice, etc); by silencing students then the Government manages to further erode Union power while diminishing the ability for students to hold organised protests against policies which could be labelled as draconian and socially irresponsible.

In short, the VSU legislation was unwanted, made no sense on even a business level and has done nothing but crippled student services at Universities Australia wide.

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