Voluntary Student Unionism: Guess what? Results are in

Posted: March 24, 2008 in Australia, Education, News, Politics

Way back in the depths of time … well, October 2006, I wrote about a measure the then Federal Liberal Government were bringing in called VSU (Voluntary Student Unionism). In short, it shifted University student unionism from a requirement to a choice. Students across the country rallied against it, University administrations were against it … but the Government ignored them and brought it in anyhow.

Only know are the effects of this particular example of silliness being measured on University campuses. Read on for the news story…

Uni service costs treble post-VSU

By Heather Ewart

The cost of playing sport or eating at university cafes had trebled at some institutions since voluntary student unionism (VSU) was enforced.

Federal Minister for Youth and Sport Kate Ellis has just wrapped up a nationwide tour of university campuses in cities and the regions.

In the lead-up to the Federal Budget, the Rudd Government is looking at ways to boost student services at universities after warnings that some crucial services are in danger of collapse, leading to student drop-outs.

Vice-chancellors and student unions say there has been a sharp decline in services since the previous government introduced VSU in 2005, stopping compulsory fees for services and amenities on campus.

Ms Ellis says the Government has heard about a number of activities that used to take place on campus now not being operational at all.

“I want to make clear this is about more than beers and barbecues, it is very important that we have life on our campuses,” she said.

“That students have the opportunity to meet others, to have debates, to share ideas, to participate in a vibrant campus scene. And that’s definitely under threat at the moment.”

Uncertain future

Professor Sue Elliott, pro vice-chancellor at Melbourne University, says campuses will be “a lot more sterile places”.

“Students will not get the support we think they need in order to complete their studies. To get good learning outcomes you need to feel part of a community,” she said.

Libby Buckingham from the Students Union at Melbourne University says it is very uncertain at this point.

“We’re not sure what student life will be like in 10 years,” she said.

For decades student unions or associations played a key role on uni campuses.

Compulsory fees provided a range of student services, like entertainment, sport, child care, counselling and legal aid for all students.

But more than two years ago the Howard government changed all that by introducing VSU.

Post federal election, the Coalition’s view has not changed.

Federal Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson and his education spokesman, Tony Smith, say students should not be paying for services they might not use.

“Why should a single mother that’s going back to university to study to be a nurse or a teacher for example be subsidising people in the canoeing, rowing or abseiling clubs?” Dr Nelson said.


But universities and student unions warned at the time the reform was ideologically driven and the removal of $170 million in annual compulsory fees nationwide would be a disaster.

Now they say their worst fears have proved accurate.

Professor Elliott says all services have been hit.

“Sport has been hit very hard. The university has a long tradition of having many sporting clubs which compete at national and international level and it’s now running in a significant deficit budget,” she said.

Brian Taylor from the Students Association at Ballarat University says its resources have been stretched.

“We’ve had to close some commercial services that we used to offer as shops and cafes,” he said.

Ms Ellis says the Government has heard about catering outlets that have now been outsourced.

“The result of which has been that food has become largely unaffordable to some students,” she said.

Professor David Battersby, vice-chancellor at Ballarat University, says it has some students rely on the student services to live.

“If we didn’t provide, or they didn’t – the Association didn’t provide free breakfasts – they probably wouldn’t have a breakfast and indeed it may be their only meal during the day,” he said.

Tales of woe

The new Government was becoming so disturbed about the tales of woe coming from universities and students that three weeks ago it sent Ms Ellis on a fact-finding mission.

She toured campuses around the nation in cities and the regions hearing first hand from vice-chancellors, students and sporting groups.

Part of the debate is whether user-pays might work, given more time.

But Professor Elliott says user-pays has not worked.

“The students who need the services most, tend to be those who can’t afford to pay,” she said.

Ms Buckingham says it has created a division amongst many students.

“Because the students that can afford the services are getting a better quality education and university experience than those that can’t,” she said.

But Federal Opposition education spokesman Tony Smith says the world has moved on.

“The best thing the universities and the student unions can do is adjust to the real world,” he said.

Recruitment drives

As student unions on the big campuses launch recruitment drives to try to boost their coffers and make up the shortfall caused by VSU, students do not appear to be rushing to sign up.

It is Club Carnival Day at the University of Melbourne and there is plenty on offer from juggling to French, political interest discussion, sport or drink more beer.

Ms Buckingham says the student association is pleased with the turnout.

“But we’re not sure about how many people actually will actually join,” she said.

However, Mr Smith says if student associations lift their game and provide services students actually want, members will join in droves.

But they are not joining in droves at regional campuses like Ballarat where students from drought-stricken, farming families struggle to afford to be at university at all.

The university is trying to prop up essential student services like child care, counselling and free breakfasts by injecting its own funds.

Professor Battersby says the services are at risk unless the university props them up.

“I think they continue to remain at risk in relation to the question as to how long the university can continue to take funding from, essentially its core activities, to provide funding for the association,” he said.

Mr Taylor says there needs to be more funding or the student associations will close down.

“That will be detrimental I think, and there will be a lot more drop-outs of students especially on regional campuses,” he said.

Transition fund

The Federal Opposition points to an $80 million transition fund set up by the Howard government for regional universities in particular when VSU was introduced.

But that money was quickly absorbed and now, even the sandstone universities like Melbourne, say there is a limit to how much more they can sink into student services.

Professor Elliott says Melbourne University has been giving $5 million a year to support the student services.

“But that’s money that is coming directly from teaching and research which are our core businesses, so it’s not money that is sustainable,” she said.

The Federal Government has ruled out a return to compulsory student unionism, declaring those days are gone.

But it does appear committed to helping fund those services that improve life on the campus.

Federal Budget

Submissions have just closed on how best to go about this in the lead-up to the Federal Budget.

One option being pushed by the National Union of Students (NUS) and some vice-chancellors is for a HECS-style services fee but there is a downside.

Ms Ellis says the Rudd Government is concerned about the level of burden on student shoulders already.

Other alternatives include a capped services fee or extra funding on condition the money not be used for political activity.

The aim here is to settle on a model that will survive any future changes of government.

You can see the 7:30 Reports story on the issue here: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/730report/av/podcast/20080319-730-vsu_video4.wmv

So it seems pretty clear that the VSU legislation has done very little except savage student services, place already cash strapped students in an even worse position and generally made the situation at Universities worse for students and administration alike. Which, to be blunt, is probably what the Liberal Government wanted to begin with considering that younger people (such as university students) tended not to vote for them to begin with.

  1. Iain says:

    The part of the equation that you ignore is that although some services may be more expensive the students who do but them will have the money that would have been ripped out of their bank accounts for union fees to pay for the stuff the actually want rather than funding campaigns to give land rights to gay whales.
    Universities are greatly over rated as a way to make a successful life / career and in many cases they are just an excuse to extend the childhood of the middle class kiddies who end up being entry level employees in their late twenties, rather than their late teens…

  2. Matt says:

    I disagree, as that report clearly points out. Some of the services that the poorest of students relied on, such as free breakfasts/lunches and discounts on text books are simply now not possible due to the savaged budgets.

    It was these poorest of students who got the greatest of benefits from the old system, they’d chip in a little and tend to get a lot back – the difference even allowing them to attend University in the first place. Now those same students are most definitely left in the lurch to fend, more or less, for themselves.

  3. Iain says:

    Well I don’t see the Ruddites rushing to change things back so perhaps you had better learn to live with VSU I hated paying union fees when I was at uni and as I suggested before perhaps the question you should be considering is the utility of studying for a degree in the first place, be you poor or rich.

  4. Matt says:

    The first part is just your personal experience, I know I paid union fees at Uni and loved to see all the great stuff that was done with them. Do I come from a rich family and could easily afford them? No. But I could see that money helping out Uni students who were worse off than I was, so it was fine.

    Universities are far more than just attending classes and handing in assignments. They are about the social scene, they are a fantastic way of getting exposed to new ideas, new philosophies, new people and expanding your own thinking. Which probably explains why Howard didn’t like that aspect too much, in retrospect…

    Getting back on track, the question you pose is irrelevant. It has much more to do with the general role Universities play and almost nothing to do with the VSU. It short, it’s a question for another debate/topic.

  5. Iain says:

    Well Matt as one of the students who did not come from a wealthy background I would probably have qualified as a student who was “worse off” than you. and I saw very little of the union budget spent on things that would have made my sojourn there better.

    Universities are far more than just attending classes and handing in assignments. They are about the social scene, they are a fantastic way of getting exposed to new ideas, new philosophies, new people and expanding your own thinking.

    Apart from sounding like a quote from the advertising I found that this aspect of university rather less in evidence than you would expect.
    I tend to think the rhetoric from the left about the Howard governments attitude to higher education is just trying to make excuses for some of more stupid and pointless courses offered in some of our universities.
    Well to be back on track If the monies that used to be forcibly extracted from students had not been so often used to fund left wing causes and instead only devoted to services for students I very much doubt that student unions would have been so hated…

  6. Matt says:

    It sounds to me like whichever University you attended had poor spending priorities in regards to the student association. The one I attended had spending spot on; the vast majority of their budget went to things such as free lunches and discounts on books.

    As for student unions being hated … I doubt that is the case. I know the Deakin University Student Association (DUSA) was and still is well liked by the student body. That is reinforced by the survey figures that came out at the time the VSU was brought in that showed that the vast majority of students was against the VSU. It is now a horrible shame that DUSA, and bodies like it, are now unable to offer nearly as many services as they once did thanks to the VSU legislation.

  7. Chris says:

    Matt – start with first principles: how do you know the things provided by compulsory student unions are actually ‘services’? How do you define a service?

    Outside of govt – and student unions are not govt – the only way to discover a service requires people to demonstrate whether or not they want it ie whether or not the people paying for it regard it as beneficial.

    Under compulsory membership this test was not possible so you can’t say that the things provided under compulsory membership were actually ‘services’ in the eyes of all the people forced to fund them.

  8. Matt says:

    You start with a false premise, that only governments can provide services. That is false. Anyone can provide a service, even if there a condition which requires payment to those services, even if you don’t use them.

  9. Chris says:

    Matt, you misunderstand. I didn’t say that only govts can provide services; that’s obviously not the case.

    I meant that all providers of services, apart from govt and compulsory student unions, have to demonstrate value to the people who pay for the services.

    Businesses, charities, sports clubs – all these groups have convince their customers or members that their services are worthy of financial support.

    Compulsory student unions are different. They provide ‘services’ on the basis of political decisions rather than supply and demand.

    Consequently when compulsory funding dried up there were ‘services’ that few people wanted, and if unions wanted to continue to provide these ‘services’ then the funding had to come from a much reduced base.

    The only way to discover if the so-called services are actually wanted by students is to allow them to decide whether or not they pay for them. Voluntary membership allows this; when students had a choice many chose not to pay thereby indicating that they didn’t value the ‘services’.

  10. Matt says:

    … or that they didn’t have the money to spare on those services and, like the majority of uni students, go use the cash to go off and get pissed.

    What the VSU did was give Uni students a choice. Use their limited budgets to support the whole student body, through free lunches and discounts on books, or go off and get drunk.

    Not exactly a hard choice for a typical Uni student.

    Under the whole system, everyone benefited. For example; everyone had to buy text books and everyone got a discount, that was great. Now only student association members can get that discount – and the figures I’ve seen show that the student associations can’t even properly afford that. Discounts have had to be reduced and I’ve heard second hand accounts that some discounts have had to be scrapped completely so the now extremely limited funding can go to more important endeavours such as housing and legal advice for students.

    So that means that under the VSU, it is the poorest of students that once again get hurt the most. Well off students don’t feel much pain from it at all, it’s the poorer ones who do. The old system was everyone pitching in a little so that everyone benefited and it worked pretty well. The new one only hurts those who could barely afford to attend Uni in the first place, relegating them to miss out or have to go and find part time work on top of their full time study.

    The VSU was an extremely short sighted piece of legislation aimed at quieting down political statements/movements on University campuses, which are typically heavily left leaning – the exact opposite of the crowd that would have voted Liberal.

    The old system wasn’t broken and it worked well. The former federal government jumped in and now it is the most vulnerable that get the short end of the stick.

  11. Chris says:

    Matt – you’re making an awful lot of assumptions about who benefitted from compulsory membership. You say “under the whole [ie compulsory] system everyone benefited” however you have no way of knowing if this is actually true. If that was the case, you would expect large numbers of students to join voluntarily. The fact that many have decided not to join suggests that in their view they didn’t benefit from membership and have decided to use their money in other ways. Given the diverse situations and interests of students who’s to say they’re wrong?

    More importantly, why do student unions exist? Are they there primarily to represent their members or do they exist to provide so-called services? The anti VSU argument rests almost entirely on the claim that compulsion is justified because compulsory unions provide ‘services’. The political misrepresentation caused by compusion is never mentioned by the anti VSU crowd yet you touch on it when you say “University campuses, which are typically heavily left leaning”. So what about the students who aren’t left leaning? How can they be represented by a left leaning student union and why should they be forced to join a union that promotes views they don’t agree with? Anti VSUrs don’t want to discuss this – they merely come back with the ‘but student unions provide services’ line.

    The answer is simple – separate services from political representation. Allow universities to collect levies for non-academic services but prevent them from using any of this money to fund student politics. Student unions can then attract members voluntarily on the basis of their policies – left leaning students can join the left leaning union if they want, and right leaning students can join their own union.

    That’s how it works in the rest of the country.

  12. Matt says:

    My assumptions come from personal observation, my time at University included both VSU and non-VSU times. The difference between them was extraordinary.

    They didn’t join because the typical Uni student doesn’t have a lot of spare cash and when they do, they prefer to spend on alcohol. Typical university student behaviour, there. Instead, maybe you should have looked at the surveys done when the VSU was about to be introduced. 80-85% of Uni students didn’t want it, Universities didn’t want it. It was basically the Federal Government imposing their will because they really hated unions in any form.

  13. Chris says:

    Can you provide a reference to a survey that says 80-85% of uni students didn’t want VSU?

    Not at all surprising that universities didn’t want it. Compulsory unions are very convenient for universities.

    Regardless of who wanted it or not there’s the principle of freedom of association. Political parties, churches, sports clubs, charities – all these groups have voluntary membership. If your arguments for compulsion – that it provides overwhelming collective benefits – are true they’d also be true for every other private organisation in the country. I don’t hear anyone clambering for compulsory membership of the Red Cross, Greenpeace or the Anglican church.

  14. Matt says:

    In my original post, looking back, I quoted 70-80% of students didn’t want the VSU. Pretty huge majority.

    And student associations, at least the ones I saw, had elected officials to represent the views of students. I don’t see how you can get any fairer than that.

    Come on, no one wanted the VSU except the federal government. Certainly the people it affected and still affects don’t want it.

  15. Chris says:

    I saw your mention of the poll but what about a reference? Was from an independent source, what was the sample size etc?

    If membership is compulsory, elected officials don’t mean that people are accurately represented. If you have candidate A elected with 51% of the vote, the 49% of students who voted for candidate B will be misrepresented.

    Accurate representation requires voluntary membership so people can choose whether or not they become members of the group that claims to represent them. Just like the Labor party, Greenpeace, trade unions etc

  16. Matt says:

    Damn, it’d be horrible if we had an electoral system which forced you to vote even if you didn’t like any of the candidates … oh wait, we do.

    That’s two counts of hypocrisy so far in the VSU decision then.
    First, making it user pays when the Federal government hasn’t got such a system in place (wow, I’d save a LOT in tax that way). Second, electoral system.

  17. Chris says:

    So Matt, no reference for the survey then?

    Electoral systems for government are a red herring. Student unions are private organisations, not government.

    Instead of making comparisons with government you should be comparing student unions with other private organisations. Which private organisations have compulsory membership?

  18. Matt says:

    Reference? Yes, I’m sure I’ll remember the source of a survey taken two years ago. Give it a rest.

    And no, it is not a red herring. Both provide services through exactly the same means – a little bit a cash from everyone for the greater good. Which is something you don’t seem to be comprehending at this particular juncture. It worked and worked pretty well. Whereas the VSU system … well, it just tends to screw over the poorer students which isn’t good in anyone’s books, is it?

  19. Chris says:

    Ah ok, no reference. We’ll just have to take your word for it then.

    Matt – who says it was for the ‘greater good’ or that it ‘worked pretty well’? It might have worked well for some students – mainly the richer students who had the time to get involved in student politics, student media, attend concerts, hang out in bars, fly around the country to conferences etc etc but it definitely wasn’t good for everyone.

    Students have different interests and priorities. VSU allows people to exercise those priorities. If few people are joining voluntary unions that’s an indictment on the quality of compulsory unions not VSU which after all is simply the freedom to associate enjoyed by all other Australians.

    In the VSU environment formerly compulsory unions are poor at recruiting members because they’ve never had to treat students as potential customers. It’s unions’ fault for taking students – and their money – for granted for all these years.

    Now they don’t want to have to market themselves – that’s too much like hard work. They’re now trying to persuade sugar daddy government to turn on the endless money tap again.

  20. Matt says:

    The old system helped mainly the more well off students? What sort of Uni did you go to? The one I went to, it helped the poorer ones by, as I’ve repeatedly said, offering free meals and discounts on books – as well as many other services such as legal and housing advice.
    Those services are now, in many cases no longer available.

    VSU doesn’t allow people to choose those priorities because, simply, in many cases the services that previously existed do not anymore. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, you can’t use a service that can’t be offered any more.

    At this point I’m left wondering if you’ve ever actually attended a University yourself.

  21. Chris says:

    ‘Free’ lunches and ‘discounts’ aren’t free of course. Under compulsion they’ve been paid for all students; however the benefits of these and other ‘services’ are inevitably enjoyed by a far smaller number of students and these people then become the main supporters of compulsion.

    Student unions are only incorporated societies. They are not some form of government and their fees are not taxes. If some students are poor the cost of supporting them should not be passed onto other students through some sort of de facto social welfare system controlled by student politicians.

    People go to tertiary institutions to learn, and should not be forced to subsidise the living costs and hobbies of other students.

    If some students are poor this should be addressed by govt welfare, institution-controlled grants or charity and not by loading even more costs onto students who are already struggling to pay for tuition fees, rent, books etc

  22. Matt says:

    And all student benefited from them, especially the poorer students. Which was fantastic and worked well.

    Why not? Student associations were set up specifically to support university students in all aspects of their time at university.

    And part of that education is spreading out and learning new things and a hell of a lot of things can’t be learned in a lecture hall. You seem to have a very limited few of what University is all about.

    Government payment to Uni students is a joke, I seriously doubt you’d find many people who say Austudy and similar payments are anywhere near enough. And what extra costs put onto students? The benefits they get from the association payment are far out weighted by the benefits in almost all cases.

    Tell me, do you actually have any first hand experience with contemporary university life or are you just spouting the same old liberal party rhetoric?

  23. Chris says:

    Matt – you keep saying all students benefited but you have absolutely no way of knowing this. You cannot look into the minds of all students and determine whether or not they benefited. The only way to discover this is to let individual students choose through becoming members.

    Basically the former situation was an abberation. Student unions were supposed to represent students but compulsory membership created a huge pool of money. Some of this money was spent on so-called services and then the existence of these ‘services’ was put forward as justification for compulsory membership.

    I agree that an education is more than lectures but it doesn’t need to be based on compulsion. Students are perfectly capable of experiencing a broader education – they don’t need to be forced to join political groups to do so.

    Why should a student who has worked hard, saved money, and borrowed to attend university be forced to subsidise the costs of other students?

    Yes, I have attended university but that’s irrelevant. This isn’t a debate that only students can enter. It’s fundamentally a question of freedom of association.

  24. Matt says:

    Oh come on. Observational evidence is valid and from what I observed, all the students I saw throughout my years at Uni benefited greatly. There was a huge protest against the VSU at my campus and all the campus’ where I had friends.

    ‘Some’ of the money. I don’t which Uni you went to by at mine, student association spending was carefully tracked. 80% of funds raised went to services for students. The rest went to administration costs and the like.

    You label student associations as a political group. I don’t know about you, again, but the student association I was part of wasn’t political. In fact, the only protest they ever helped to organise was one against the VSU – because their members were so dead against it. And are against it still.

    The question you ask is terribly short sighted. Let’s turn that same question about, shall we? Why should someone be denied going to University simply because someone is too damn selfish to spend $80 a year? And yes, sometimes those discounts made all the difference – just in the price of books alone.

  25. Chris says:

    What’s selffish about not wanting your own money to be wasted on something you don’t want?

    Student unions claim to represent their members. If an organisation claims to represent a person should that person be free to choose whether or not they join the organisation?

  26. Matt says:

    Damn. Here come the comparison to the tax system again. I don’t want various things under that but guess I have to pay for them anyhow (personally I think the baby bonus payment is one of the most idiotic policies in the past couple of decades but here I am paying for it). And again, it was the best system available which made life better for the greatest number of students and made all the difference between some people being able to attend Uni at all.

    All students had a voice in shaping student associations, no matter their political beliefs, sexual preferences, hair colour or whatever criteria you care to think of. How can you get any fairer than that? Again, it’s exactly the same system that our country runs on. If something is good for the goose, it’s good for the gander as the old proverb goes.

    You speak of choice. Great. Under VSU pretty much no one has much of a choice simply because a great deal of the services that were once offered can’t be any more. I’m sure some people would love to be able to afford text books but that choice is gone because the student association bookshops can’t afford to discount them anymore.

  27. Chris says:

    There’s no comparison with the tax system. Student unions are incorporated societies – they are not, repeat not, governments. Student union levies are not taxes. The country is “run” by a government. Student unions are not governments.

    The only thing in common with taxes and student union levies was compulsion and this was an abberation. VSU removed that abberation. If your argument that union levies are just like taxes was valid you could extend it to compulsory membership of any community group – would you like to be forced to join a church for example?

    Matt, can you answer this question: if an organisation claims to represent a person should that person be free to choose whether or not they join the organisation?

  28. Matt says:

    That’s a loaded question and you know it. Every organisation is different and student associations were different in that they filled a very specific and needed niche. They provided services that often were the difference between people being able to afford Uni at all which they can no longer offer.

    If the VSU is, as you say, about choice then it was truly a fools idea for there is almost no choice left since those services previously provided simply are not provided any more.

    The VSU had nothing to do with choice and everything to do with the Liberal party and their rather silly vendetta against Unions, while having the bonus of quieting student voices who are traditionally about as likely to vote for the Liberals as a dog learns algebra.

    Previously, students had choice. They had the choice of who would represent them in student associations and thus who the entire system was run and what services were offered. Everybody was happy – students liked it, Universities liked it. The only people who didn’t like it seem to be the Liberal Party who had nothing to do with it in the first place.

  29. Chris says:

    What about the students who vote Liberal or aren’t there any?

    All organisations are different but so what? Thousands of voluntary organisations provide services – why can’t student unions be the same?

    It’s not a loaded question – it’s one you know you can’t answer. It’s at the root of this issue – if student unions want to speak for students then they need the permission of those individual students. This involves persuading students to join and people who are locked into a compulsory model don’t want to do the hard work of persuading people.

    You keep claiming that everyone was happy but the low levels of voluntary membership don’t bear that out.

  30. Matt says:

    Students don’t join simply because they are uni students and prefer to spend the money on booze. It’s what Uni students do. You give them a choice between a weekend of partying or free lunches throughout the year … well, most 18-20 years olds are going to choose the booze.

    If you want to continue down the incredibly short sighted choice argument, how about the choice to have the VSU or not? Students and Universities certainly didn’t have a choice or say in the matter, despite asking to have that choice when it was being debated.

    Charles Darwin Uni association has folded due to the VSU. No choice at all for those students now, not to mention the financial burden they got lumped with.

    So instead of doing something that actually makes some sense, such as including student association fees into HECs repayments as proposed by the NUS ( http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/02/26/2173099.htm ), the VSU has pretty much gutted a whole lot of services that students wanted and loved.

    It seems the same warnings that the Liberal Party failed to heed from the Vice-Chancellors association ( http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2005/06/20/1395664.htm ) have come true pretty much to the letter. Gee, who would have thought … one of the groups in a position to know the most about how Uni’s run being right?

  31. Chris says:

    Geez Matt – the lunches aren’t free, students have paid for them. Surely you know there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

    The problem is that groups that were supposed to represent (including politically) people also were involved in the delivery of so-called services. When some students argued they didn’t want to be represented in this way they were told they had to lump it because the groups also provided ‘valuable services’.

    Here’s a compromise: separate services from representation. This can be done by allowing institutions to charge a services fee but prohibiting them by law from using any of this money to fund student groups. The current law doesn’t allow this and that’s where it’s gone wrong.

    Could you live with this compromise?

  32. Matt says:

    It would certainly be a great deal better than the VSU but it would be a long way from being ideal.

    Student groups are a part of University life, it is part of getting a grander and different view of life and the world in general. The existence of these groups allows people to broaden their perspectives and their existence does need to be encouraged and supported as much as possible by Universities – simply because they do make Uni students better people in the long run.

  33. arthurvandelay says:

    Here’s a compromise: separate services from representation. This can be done by allowing institutions to charge a services fee but prohibiting them by law from using any of this money to fund student groups. The current law doesn’t allow this and that’s where it’s gone wrong.

    Could you live with this compromise?

    How about, in the name of consistency, we extend this principle to federal politics? Currently, election funds–your tax dollars–are allocated to political parties on the basis of how many votes they receive. That means that, currently, your tax dollars are being used to fund political organisations you don’t support and don’t vote for–whether you like it or not.

    So how about this as a compromise? Let’s separate services from representation, allowing taxes to be used to fund services but prohibiting the use of this money to fund political organisations. Political parties can raise their own funds, and those parties that are most adept at fundraising will be the ones that represent us on election day–with no party artificially propped up by money extorted from the humble taxpayer.


  34. Chris says:

    Yes, I’d support the removal of taxpayer support for political parties. But it’s irrelevant – we’re not talking about political parties or federal politics.

    Once again – student unions are not governments. Instead of dragging out red herrings by comparing student unions with government you should be comparing student unions with other private organisations like churches, sports clubs, community groups, charities etc. Any of the arguments you make for compulsory funding of student unions could easily be extended to any other private organisations. If it’s good enough for student unions to have compulsory membership why not compulsory memberhsip of churches, sports clubs etc?

    Arthur – can you answer the question that Matt wouldn’t? If an organisation claims to represent a person, should that person be free to choose whether or not they join the organisation?

  35. AV says:

    Yes, I’d support the removal of taxpayer support for political parties. But it’s irrelevant – we’re not talking about political parties or federal politics.

    Then you’ve missed my point completely (and the tongue planted in my cheek). I do support the taxpayer funding of political parties, because without it only the wealthiest parties (or those most adept at attracting wealthy/corporate patronage) would be able to contest elections effectively–and I’m sorry, but that’s not representative. (I guess that’s why I’m a liberal democrat and not a libertarian.)

    Insofar as the mechanism of student representation that prevails (or once prevailed) on campuses is in many ways a microcosm of what happens at state and federal level (and there have been not a few political careers on both sides of the House forged in student politics), the same principles apply.

    Arthur – can you answer the question that Matt wouldn’t? If an organisation claims to represent a person, should that person be free to choose whether or not they join the organisation?

    Yes. To put this another way, they shouldn’t be obliged to become members of organisations they don’t wish to join. At the same time, I have no objection to student fees being allocated to student clubs and representative bodies, as long as this is done fairly and no particular club or representative group is unduly privileged over the others. Having your fees allocated to these groups in no way constitutes compulsory membership, any more than the allocation of your tax dollars to Catholic schools makes you a defacto and unwilling convert to Catholicism.

  36. Chris says:

    Arthur – great that you agree that people should have the freedom to decide whether or not they join a union.

    Should individual students have an individual choice about whether or not they pay fees to clubs?

  37. AV says:

    Should individual students have an individual choice about whether or not they pay fees to clubs?

    I don’t think individual students should have an individual choice about whether a portion of their fees is allocated to student clubs, as long as the allocation process is fair, just as I don’t think individual taxpayers should have an individual choice about whether their tax dollars should be spent on roads and utilities they don’t use. Or, if you don’t like that analogy and insist that I treat universities as private institutions, just as I disagree with the proposition that companies should not be permitted to allocate their profits as they please, as long as it’s legal, I disagree with the proposition that universities should not be permitted to allocate funds to student clubs. I do think students should be entitled to play a role in the oversight of how that funding is allocated, and whether it is allocated fairly.

  38. Chris says:

    So should students who aren’t members of clubs be forced to subsidise those students who are members of clubs?

  39. AV says:

    See my previous comment. I don’t know how I could make my position on the funding of student clubs and organisations any clearer.

  40. Chris says:

    Imagine I’m a single parent who’s been in the workforce for a number of years and has decided to return to study to improve my career opportunities.

    I’ve saved while I’ve been working. I need to fit study in around family care. I have my own recreational and social life outside university. I have no time or interest for any of the activities offered by clubs.

    I’m an adult. I know what’s important to me. I don’t need ‘clubs’ to give me a fuller, more rounded university ‘experience’ thanks very much.

    Why should I be forced to pay for other students to go on boozy football trips, go waterskiing or play war games? Why should I be forced to subsidise other students’ hobbies?

    The people who belong to the clubs should pay for the clubs. If you’re concerned about being fair, that’s as fair as you can get.

  41. Matt says:

    To that I would simply argue ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one”.

    Without the old scheme, it has been shown that student associations and all the programs those associations support collapse and fold which makes University a much less worthwhile place. With those associations unable to support students, no one has a choice because there are no clubs or programs or whatever to choose from. Which is something you have been unable to answer thus far.

    With VSU there is no choice because it has made student association unviable. Especially given the way the VSU was introduced which was very sudden and left associations no practical time to prepare for it by possibly cutting back on services for a while to try to save some cash to keep those services running during VSU, which would hopefully retain/attract members.

    But you have to admit, VSU was never about choice. It was about trying to lessen the power of unions … which the Liberal party still has a notable hatred for. And also lessening student voices, since people of that age are far more likely to vote Labour or Greens than Liberal.

  42. AV says:

    I really don’t understand what Chris is complaining about. His argumentum ad misericordiam (“Imagine I’m a single parent . . .” cue violin strings) is nullified by his own suggestion a few comments earlier that universities charge amenities fees.

    And I don’t see what’s so unfair about universities charging amenities fees, if every student pays the same amount, and–ceteris paribus–students have the same access to the services provided by means of the amenities fee, whether or not they choose to use those services.

  43. Chris says:

    ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one”. Oh yes – some students just “need” to go waterskiing.

    “It was about trying to lessen the power of unions”. So the unions were anti-Liberal? Why should Liberal voting students be forced to join and fund such groups?

    It’s one thing for universities to charge amenity fees for ‘services’ such as health and couselling and creches; it can be argued that the provision of such services enable some people to overcome barriers to study.

    But no such case can be made for clubs – they are additionalities. The absence of a waterskiing club is not going to hinder anyone’s education. Clubs are about some people’s hobbies, interests and enjoyment and as such should be funded by the people who want these things.

    If the price of clubs is loaded onto people who don’t want or use them, that increases the costs of education for those people. It also wastes their money by forcing them to pay for things they don’t want.

    Why are you in favour of a regime that wastes some students’ money? Could it be that both of you have been or are currently members of clubs and really enjoyed having other people subsidise your hobbies? Surely not – that wouldn’t be ‘fair’.

  44. AV says:

    Clubs are about some people’s hobbies, interests and enjoyment and as such should be funded by the people who want these things.

    Sorry, but if you’re going to argue that student clubs should be funded by the people who want them, then in the name of consistency you should extend this principle to health, counselling and child care. Not every student “wants” the latter, and not every student wants to pay for them if they don’t use them. And of these students, I doubt many would be swayed by the “barriers to education” argument: after all, it doesn’t really hinder anyone else’s education (certainly not your average red-blooded anti-VSU dyed-in-the-wool Liberal-voting male student) if (say) a single mum’s education is hindered by a lack of health, counselling or child care services on campus.

    If the price of clubs is loaded onto people who don’t want or use them, that increases the costs of education for those people. It also wastes their money by forcing them to pay for things they don’t want.

    Again, if forcing people to pay for things they don’t want is a waste of their money, then surely that applies equally to counselling and creches as it does to sporting clubs. Since you accept that universities should be allowed to charge amenities fees, you evidently don’t think that forcing people to pay for things they don’t want is a bad thing.

    Why are you in favour of a regime that wastes some students’ money?

    Why are you in favour of strawman arguments? I don’t consider university clubs, or any other service provided by means of the amenities fee, to be a waste of money.

    Who are you to decide on behalf of the rest of us that it is?

    Could it be that both of you have been or are currently members of clubs and really enjoyed having other people subsidise your hobbies?

    I was never a member of any club at university. That had absolutely zero influence on how I felt about paying the amenities fee.

  45. Matt says:

    Indeed. I was never a member of a University club either. I was, however, a paid up member of my University’s Student Association both pre and post VSU.
    I directly saw what a terrible affect VSU had on university campus’. Which is something that Chris has also yet to respond to; no matter what intentions the VSU creators had, it has had nothing but negative effects on Universities and thus students.

  46. Chris says:

    You’ll recall this discussion started from Matt’s post about the loss of ‘services’ since the introduction of VSU. I defended VSU on the grounds that it protected students’ right to freedom of association. However in a situation where services are yoked to membership of student groups there is a problem; if membership is made voluntary it impacts on the funding of services.

    The solution is to remove ‘services’ from the control of student groups, allow institutions to charge for those services but prevent institutions from imposing charges for membership of any form of student group because this impinges on freedom of association. The current law doesn’t allow this and that’s where it falls down.

    Institutions would have to decide what services are important enough that they’re willing to add the price of these to the cost of education. It also prevents universities and student unions from hiding behind the ‘compulsory membership is justified because unions provide services’ argument.

    Such an arrangement would protect students’ right to freedom of association and allow the delivery of important amenities. Under this structure student groups would have to persuade prospective members of the value of membership and would be able to provide whatever services they can fund with voluntary income. Their level of income would be lower but the old regime was always unsustainable. Voluntary membership is how all other incorporated societies work so no big shock there. However student unions don’t want to market themselves and are now focused on attempting to return to the days when they received unearned income.

    Unions are scared of asking a simple question -“would you like to join?”

  47. Michael says:

    Thanks for posting this. I went from uni from 1999-2002, back when student unionism was compulsory but there was a lot of information by the student union about incoming VSU. Now that I don’t keep in touch with the uni, I’ve been curious to know how it’s panned out.

    I even protested once about VSU, but if I had my time again I don’t know if I would have done it. There were services I used, but it was ironic that a left-dominated union would campaign against personal choice.

    While students rallied against it, there were equally (if not more) students who were ho-hum. I remember the student union elections at Uni—I asked a friend of mine, looking to get voted about the voter turnout. I think he said something like five per cent.

    It’s not like VSU has done little; it’s saved hundreds of dollars from the pockets of poor students. If you did a straw poll of uni students 10 years ago “do you think your student union fees should be voluntary” I reckon a lot would have said yes.

    I’m not sure if most Uni students were necessarily anti-Liberal either; that’s more of a stereotype of 19-year-old undergraduates. For all the students from working classes that voted for Labor or the Greens, there were also students from the middle- and upper classes who voted Liberal. There were also postgraduates and part-timers who didn’t really use campus services. There’s a big difference to uni sport in Australia, compared to college sports in America.

  48. AV says:

    I’ve been curious to know how it’s panned out.

    In the Federal Budget the Government granted $500 million to universities in order to restore services lost under VSU.

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