Australian Liberal Students’ Federation
Protégé Magazine – O-week – February 2009
“This is a rather condescending comment, I am afraid, but when you have a group of 18 to 22 year-olds the reality is that their focus is very short term…they are interested in the here and now and are not looking in terms of the long term as to what they might need to invest in, even in the next couple of years.” (Senate Committee Hansard, 4 July 2005)
That was a university vice-chancellor explaining to a 2005 Senate inquiry into the Coalition’s voluntary student unionism legislation that his students were not capable of making long-term decisions. Instead, he argued, they needed to pay a compulsory fee to support services most will never want nor need. He was right about one thing. His comment was condescending.
University students are trusted to choose their own university, their course and their subjects. They don’t do so with a short-term outlook. They make judgements about the long-term career paths they might wish to take. These same students are of an age where they are trusted to vote, drive vehicles, hold firearms licences or serve in the military. Yet many university vice-chancellors, student unionists and the Labor Party argue that they cannot be trusted with the choice whether to join a student union or support certain campus activities. In their view, they must be compelled.
When the Coalition abolished compulsory student unionism in 2005, it brought freedom of association to university students for the first time in over three decades. No longer would students be forced to pay a high, up-front fee to support organisations that provided little value to them and supported causes many found objectionable.
Many students were sick of seeing their money wasted on extreme political campaigns. But ultimately this debate is not about whether student unions promote left-wing or right-wing causes. Student unions should be free to engage in whatever political activity they wish, provided their membership and funding base is entirely voluntary. That is freedom of speech. The central issue is that under Labor’s new plan, many students would again be compelled to support student organisations against their will.
From 1 July 2009, Labor plans to slug Australia’s university students with a new tax of up to $250 per year. It will rise annually with automatic indexation. The Government will establish a new loan scheme to assist some students to defer their fee payments. This is a tacit acknowledgment that many students will struggle to afford the fee up-front.
Prior to the last election, Labor’s Education Spokesperson Stephen Smith “absolutely rule[d] out” a deferred fee “particularly a compulsory HECS style arrangement.”
The Prime Minister has called student debt in Australia “a national disgrace” yet he’s endorsed a plan by one of his ministers to lump students with more debt in the middle of an economic crisis.
The Government claim this is not compulsory student unionism because the university would collect the fee rather than the union. This is a con and a sham. Students can choose not to be a union member, but will still have to pay an equivalent fee, much of which will be passed to student unions. It’s “no fee, no start.”
If you are wondering why you didn’t hear about this during the election campaign, that’s because Labor didn’t mention it. In fact, their then education spokesperson, Stephen Smith, expressly ruled out a compulsory amenities fee. Mr Smith was not making mere idle comment. He was announcing Labor’s policy.
When considering their vote at the last election, no doubt many university students were swayed by Labor’s assurances that they would not seek to return to the days of compulsory amenities fees. Labor have now betrayed the trust those students placed in them with this sneaky return to compulsory student unionism.
Labor claim that this new tax on students is needed to sustain services. But it is not the role of student unions or universities to behave like some fourth tier of government. Federal, state and local governments provide a social safety net for the whole community.
The best way to help struggling students is not to hit them with a new tax to fund services chosen by a university or union. The best way to help students is to allow them to keep more of their own money and let them decide which non-academic services they need.
The viability of university sport is often cited as a concern by opponents of VSU. But the claims don’t withstand scrutiny. Thousands of community sporting clubs exist all over the country. They are mostly funded by participants and run by volunteers. Community sporting clubs survive and prosper because they offer something people want at a price they are willing to pay. There is a lesson in that for student unions.
When a student union claims it cannot survive without compulsory fees it is an admission of failure. It is a confession that what they are offering is not attractive enough to elicit voluntary support, therefore that support must be compelled.
Instead student unions need to change their attitudes and begin to offer what students want, not what unions think students ought to want. The smart student unions will survive, because they will offer students the facilities and services they desire at a price they are willing to pay.
Voluntary student unionism is about a straightforward concept an individual’s right to choose. It empowers students to make their own choices about what sort of university experience they want, rather than forcing them to subsidise the choices of others.
There is an important principle at stake that must be defended. No one should be forced to support any organisation against their will. I will be voting against Labor’s attempt to resurrect compulsory student unionism.