Monday, May 09, 2005

VSU - Why Student Unions Have Nothing To Fear

I started university in 1988. The Hawke Government had just introduced a tuition fee of $200-odd. I remember lining up for course enrolments and being bombarded with leaflets about free education rallies being organised by seemingly apolitical groups such as “SAFE” (“Student Action for a Free Education”).

I saw a few of the rallies, and was impressed by the turn-out. SAFE appeared to represent a broad cross-section of students. But it was only when a few friends conned me into being part of a joke ticket that I realised who SAFE really represented.

My friends ran a ticket called “SAFER” (which stood for “Students Against Free Education Rallies”). Clearly whoever thought of the name had watched too many Monty Python movies. Most people realised we were a joke ticket. Most, it seemed, except the SAFE people.

What started out as an infantile 1st year undergraduate joke suddenly turned into an ideologically unSAFE exercise. We were branded fascist, one of our female candidates was accused of sexual assault (for the misogynistic act of embracing her boyfriend at the polling booth), and we were kicked out of the election by the Returning Officer.

That was my first brush with student ideologues. It was also my first exposure to the realities of compulsory student representation, an essential element of the movement for compulsory student unionism.

Many students starting university this year might be tempted to think the anti-VSU campaign is just about maintaining student services. Just as I thought SAFE was all about saving students money. But a small proportion of these students will become active in student politics (even if only by accident like myself) and will discover the shallowness of many claims from the anti-VSU faction.

So what exactly do students gain from their membership? I asked my nephew this question. He has just started first year, and has witnessed an active VSU campaign. My nephew had this to say about the Union: “I only joined because it was compulsory and because you get discounts of 10-15% on items from Union stores”.

My nephew is hardly a representative sample of typical undergraduate sentiment. But his comments do make an important point. If student unions provide useful services and benefits to students, few will avoid membership.

Students buy textbooks for their courses. Often, the student is required to buy a textbook (more often than not authored by the lecturer). But is it compulsory to buy the textbook brand new? There are other options. The student might borrow the textbook from the library. S/he might buy a second hand copy. Or perhaps borrow a copy (even if a previous edition) from a friend.

Yet the reality is that, despite this range of choices, most students end up buying a new copy. They can see the tangible benefit of doing so. The lecturer has sold them the idea. The other options often involve too much inconvenience.

Student unions can also sell the convenience and utility of their services to students. They need not hide behind the anti-competitive shield of compulsory membership to boost their numbers. Unions should be able to sell their services and benefits so well that students will regard the need for union membership to be self-evident.

As my nephew enjoys his 15% discounts at university, his uncle is getting ready for the annual renewal of the practising certificate and indemnity insurance. Thankfully, Law Society Membership is not compulsory in NSW. But I know few solicitors who could survive without the benefits of membership. As such, over 90% of solicitors are voluntary members of the Society. Membership is relevant because the benefits are self-evident.

On a final note, it seems supporters of compulsory student unionism are becoming out-of-touch with their prospective members. My nephew attended a lecture where the lecturer encouraged students to attend an anti-VSU rally. And the special attraction? Peter Garrett was addressing the crowd.

To my nephew, commencing his undergraduate studies in 2005, hearing Peter Garrett would probably be as interesting as my hearing Elvis Presley talk about free education in 1988.

(Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and retired student politician who has advised student representative councils in industrial and electoral matters. He has also acted as electoral arbiter in a student election. This article is adapted from an article published in 1994 in the Macquarie University Liberal Club’s official publication “L.U.S.T.” or Liberal University Students’ Tabloid)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005