Back in 1994, I penned an article for the Macquarie University Liberal Club’s organ Liberal University Students’ Tabloid (LUST) supporting the introduction of voluntary student unionism (VSU).
I argued that university services were like textbooks. You didn’t have to buy a brand new textbook. You could borrow someone else’s, buy a second hand copy or borrow one from the library.
Similarly, you don’t have to make use of university union services and facilities. You shouldn’t have to pay for things you don’t use, nor should you have to pay for a representative body you don’t necessarily want representing you. Union fees, whether for services or representation, should be voluntary.
VSU was a sacred cow of the Australian Liberal Students Federation (ALSF), an umbrella body of student Liberal clubs. The NSW Young Libs, then dominated by the small "L" faction known as "the Group", opposed VSU. Instead, they supported Voluntary Student Representation (VSR). This meant that you still had to pay fees for services but not for representation (which, at Macquarie, generally was spent on sending lefties off to some commune in Nicaragua, then ruled by Sandanista communists, or Cuba).
Former Howard staffer and State MP for Lane Cove Adrian Roberts was President of the UTS Union. In those days he was aligned with the Group and supported VSR while opposing VSU. Few NSW State MP’s (including conservatives) supported VSU. In Federal Parliament, VSU was supported by Howard, Abbott and Minchin while it was opposed by Brendan Nelson, Robert Hill and others regarded as small "L" libs.
When Howard became leader in 1996, the internal debate over student unionism was considered won by supporters of VSU. We regarded student unions as baby-parliaments where ALP hacks honed their skills. Liberal students rarely got anywhere unless disguised as something else or running joke tickets. For instance, current right wing Liberal Party President Nick Campbell ran in Macquarie union board elections on a green ticket.
The Howard government brought in VSU. In theory, it was a sound move. Union services are like textbooks. But as in practice, as reported in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, universities often have to make up the shortfall in student union services by spending money that would otherwise go to salaries or research. VSU has hit campuses in regional areas particularly hard, which probably explains why National Party MPs like Barnaby Joyce continue to oppose it.
If Rudd reintroduces compulsory fees for limited student services, that should be a good thing. But any move to force students to pay for student representative bodies could signal a return to the days when student money was spent sending lefties to communes while Labor students get subsidised political training.
First published in the Crikey daily alert for 21 August 2008.
UPDATE I: Here are some responses from Crikey readers in their Comments, corrections, clarifications and c*ckups section for Friday 22 August 2008 ...
Simon Wilkins writes: Re. "Why Rudd shouldn't introduce full-blown compulsory student unionism" (yesterday, item 13). I was an undergrad at the same time as Irfan Yusuf, but at a different Uni, and I have a different recollection of why Young Liberals couldn't get elected (VSU or not). Their lack of support was only bettered by their choice of candidates that seemed to lack the full complement of social, political and possibly genetic abilities. If you can't get elected without running as a joke ticket, perhaps it suggests that when voters recognise who you are, they don't want to vote for you. This fact renders Irfan's vague point about "subsidised political training" pointless. If Young Lib's could have run a decent campaign directed towards the needs of students they would have received the same "subsidy" he is so upset about. As a result of VSU, student campus life and interaction has been significantly diminished by a petty policy that forces Universities to pay for the services that they actually care about (sport) and let shrivel the intangibles like student clubs and societies (including the young liberals, who also received funding from student union fees).
Lastly, comparing union services to textbooks is an odd analogy. Pro-VSUers always tried to convince you it would be a "user-pays" system when in fact it has resulted in complete denial of services. Also "second-hand" text books tend to be obsolete (by definition) and how you can get second hand union services is beyond me. But whether Irfan means it or not, the analogy exposes the true meaning of the pro-VSU position. Those students, and Universities, that can afford to pay from their own pocket get the new books and services and those that can't lose out. What a great system. My advice to the PM? Take the word Unionism out of any Uni fee charge and prevent a repeat of the Liberal lie. An equal levy on all students would at least allow some restoration of campus life. If that means Young Liberals have to run as the "Party Party" again, then so be it.
Jim Hart writes: I suspect the biggest reason Irfan Yusuf and most of the Liberal Party don't like student unions is the name. The word union has a fine tradition in universities but that doesn't seem to stop the right-wingers from equating it with trade unions and from there it's a short step to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua via Moscow. So Irfan thinks student services are like textbooks -- either buy your own or use the library. But hang on, if the library had enough copies for every student who needed one those books would have to be bought by the university which gets its money from... oh dear, that means we all pay fees and taxes to provide books for students who aren't prepared to look after themselves. Sounds a bit like socialism to me Irfan.
Sure, when you pay student union fees you don't use every service. As a student I probably subsidised evil socialists at subversive lefty conferences but I also paid for teams of reactionary sexist footballers to get drunk at interstate competitions. Last year my taxes paid for propaganda for despicable IR policies, while this year I funded a porno art magazine and some Olympic medals. And every few years I am forced to participate in an electoral process dominated by factionalised parties with candidates that never totally represent my views. Many if not all student bodies are poorly run, lop-sided, driven my minorities, and a sandpit for playing with ideals and ideologies. What else would you expect from a bunch of kids who are barely past puberty? It seems like a pretty harmless way to start training the next generation of entrepreneurs, social workers, journalists and politicians. VSU weakens not just our tertiary institutions but society in general.
Piers Kelly writes: Irfan Yusuf wrote: "...nor should you have to pay for a representative body you don't necessarily want representing you". Isn't it a little churlish to want to abolish student representative bodies just because the people you like to vote for don't win very often? If students don't want to be represented they can vote the system out of existence. Democracy is kind of clever like that.