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The Forum > Article Comments > The case against compulsory student unionism > Comments

The case against compulsory student unionism : Comments

By Alistair Campbell, published 16/6/2005

Alistair Campbell argues students will be better off under proposed voluntary unionism legislation.

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Well argued Alistair

As a student at UNSW and having previously studied at Macquarie I can vouch for the fact that just as at Sydney and every other Uni, the "subsidised" Union food and retail outlets sell at basically the same prices as normal retail. If there is a 10 cent discount here or there, it certainly doesn't add up to the $500 in fees that I pay. Also, while the Union has been telling anyone that will listen that all services will disappear from campus under VSU, the fact is that we already have non-Union outlets on campus, unsurprisingly small business owners consider a University with over 40 000 students a viable market! And in fact these non Union outlets provide the superior service, they are the only thing open on campus after 4 pm or on weekends.

The incredible contradiction that I see in the anti VSU camp is this: it's proponents carry on and on about how the Union is so important to the campus community and it provides such valuable services to students...etc And then in the same breath try to panic monger by saying that under VSU all of these services and the whole "campus culture" will disappear (because no one will join the Union) now here's my problem, student's aren't stupid, they know value for money, if Unions really do provide them withh all these great services then they would have no problem joining voluntarily rather than voting with their feet. In fact by arguing that student Unions are doomed under VSU, anti VSU campaigners are showing the patent falsity of their assertion that Unions provide valuable services to all students...thus destroying their rationale for why Unions should be "saved"...hilarious, isnt it!
Posted by Lubs, Thursday, 16 June 2005 10:41:24 AM
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In the public sphere the support has certainly come from the left, including campus groups, but among uni students I think it comes from those who actually benefit from the services -- a group I believe to be more right leaning than normal.

As for progressives, many don't want compulsory unionism, but understand that essential services need funding. Ideally they would be provided by the universities themselves, and sufficiently funded by the Government, but that isn't going to happen is it?

Of course the fee is regressive. Unions don't have access to the financial details of individual students, are limited by the rules of the universities and wouldn't be able to justify it as a services fee if it was progressive. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any specific services fees that are weighted to income.

"Value for money" will be relevant only where students expect to be using services and can afford those services - so the free market argument fails for essential services. Not everyone can afford them and how prudent are uni students anyway? Most try to avoid the need to use counselling, career advice, emergency loans, welfare etc. Competition doesn't work in these areas. If the need arises, many will be discouraged from using them because of high prices.

The freedom of association argument doesn't fly with me either - apart from the fee (for services), no one is being forced to participate in the union or restricted from joining another. You can just tell them to piss off; it's done all the time when there's a student election on.

None of this means I'm anti-VSU, quite the opposite, but I think those arguments are bunk. The vast majority of these services fees go to administration, clubs & sports. Many don't want to use these services, many still can't afford them (and might be able to if they didn't have to pay the fee) and many are too busy working so that they can go to uni. The culture argument doesn't justify the burden on those who don't participate.
Posted by Deuc, Thursday, 16 June 2005 12:29:19 PM
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That I’m on the Right might make it easier for me to contest Alistair’s points.

(1) The first issue is the regressive form of the fee. In almost all student unions, there is a process for those most unable to afford the fee to have it partly or completely waived. I'm not suggesting that such a system works perfectly but ameliorating the regressive effects of the fee is a matter of fine-tuning such processes.

In addition to this, many unions, including my own student association, make emergency loans and other forms of assistance available to students who are in dire need and at risk of discontinuing their studies. I concede that inadequate publicity is given on campuses to such services but that is a problem with the administration and culture of student unions and the competence of their office holders, not an argument for VSU.

(2) The second argument relates to union expenditure. In response, there are two points to make.

(a) When you say that a very small percentage of student union expenditures are "actually related to education", you are defining education in a narrow sense. The vocationalization of higher education - which is a trend that has occurred under Labor as well as Liberal governments - has led to a utilitarian conception of what university education is all about. A conception of university education that sees it as a sausage machine to put you through assignments and exams, then churn you out the other end, with a piece of paper, in order to get you a job.

Of course, people with any understanding of universities and their historical mission, know this is an inaccurate concept of education and one which is more commonly held among the less academically-inclined students. The mission of universities is to advance knowledge (as in the ANU's motto "First to know the nature of things") and to educate its undergraduates in the Western canon of arts and sciences, in order to enable them to make rich contributions to society in their future lives.

Continued ...
Posted by Geoffrey Hills, Thursday, 16 June 2005 3:05:29 PM
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If you talk to students from Yale and Princeton, you'll find that most of them will tell you they've learnt more from the inspirational and intellectually stimulating contact with their peer students than from their lectures or tutorials. And that's exactly the way it should be; education is not a professor standing in front of a class, telling you bits of information that you scribble down in a book and regurgitate in an exam.

CSU facilitates an atmosphere where this more holistic concept of education takes place. At my campus, we don't see ourselves as competing - as a university - with the vocational education of a Central Queensland University. How on earth can poor old ANU, inside the world top-20 academically, compete with Oxbridge or the Ivies for top students when its campus culture has been eviscerated by Dr Nelson?

If you're finding my notion of holistic education a bit slippery, I suggest you examine its venerable lineage in conservative philosophy. Get Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, by Michael Oakeshott, the twentieth century's leading conservative philosopher and read the essays on education.

(b) You raised the specific example of food prices. I completely agree. But that's not an argument for VSU. It's an argument for better competitive tender processes to supply student food outlets. When I worked at the National University of Singapore, we had unbelievably good food, provided by scores of private, individual store holders who competed. I think most of our unions here need to change the model for campus food.

(3) You make an argument about the responsibility of student unions and poor management. Again, I agree but that's not an argument for VSU. It's an argument for better management of student unions. At the University of Tasmania, all Union board members, however young they may be, must take the course to become members of the Australian Institute of Company Directors before they may serve. And that is appropriate - student leaders must better understand their legal responsibilities under the Corporations Act.
Posted by Geoffrey Hills, Thursday, 16 June 2005 3:21:24 PM
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Clearly there are many issues to be argued, and everyone will have their own measure as to the effectiveness or necessity of student unions, however I don’t think anyone would argue that there have to be better ways of doing business. Here at uni in Canberra we get the opportunity to see a number of different scenarios played out involving Student Unions and Associations. There’s the ultra-political ANU SU, who has as one of their major reasons for why VSU should be opposed as their ‘essential role’ in political activism on behalf of students, who of course all think the same and have the same day-to-day struggles, such as Australia’s Foreign Policy… University of Canberra has a student association that is often unable to find participants or funding for sports and clubs, however focuses on student welfare and finally somewhere on the outskirts of town is the defence academy, which to the best of my knowledge doesn’t actually have any form of student union, but is still a part of UNSW, I think.

Three different models, all quite feasible, depending on what you think the role of a SU/SA is supposed to be. Whatever your view, I think its clear to see that compulsory student funding of NUS rallies about the war in Iraq or of giant drinking party’s for sham clubs is hardly appropriate. The later is a blatant waste of money, and the political and social activism of the Student Unions has to be questioned as they are spending the money of all students, so shouldn’t they be representing the voice of all students? And as all students do not agree on things such as social issues or political ones, then maybe the unions and associations should just stick to student welfare and accommodation and the like. As for food and services, It’s easy to see that free market forces will ensure cheaper food than the students paying inflated prices and the union paying more.
Posted by gilly-san, Thursday, 16 June 2005 3:31:09 PM
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Yes, the political side of student unionism often gives it a bad name. But a lot of what the union provided at my Uni (Melbourne), was not the sort of thing money that students could afford/would be able to justify as individual costs. Things like emergency loans, legal services, counselling. A lot of these things would be lost if Uni's were not able to charge some sort of attendance fee. Afterall, primary and secondary schools charge fees, and this is acceptable and encouraged by governments. Why are they so against universities charging fees?
Posted by Laurie, Thursday, 16 June 2005 4:59:48 PM
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student unions bring benefit to whole communities, in ways that are not often noted - especially in regional areas.

i have studied at two regional universities, and one of the most important things that the union provides is entertainment - such as that of touring musicians. without unions subsidising the costs of some of the bigger bands travelling through out australia, smaller areas would be unlikely to ever get exposure to this level of live music. then there are other cultural things, such as watt space - the student gallery at the university of newcastle. the union pays for 2/3 of the gallery's costs. the gallery gives a valuable voice and training ground to art practioners from across the uni sector. it also adds to the social and cultural currency of the entire novocastrian art scene.

student papers give students a voice, and experience - which leads them into jobs. sporting groups, and subsidised gym membership make fitness and those social activites accessible. other social groups - like the philosophy club - give people a chance to come together for free debate, and this exchange of ideas is one of the many strengths of universities.

there is so much benefit from unions - and whole communities see the effects. to bottle it down to subsidised food costs it just simplistic and unrealistic. individuals might not use all services, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be there. councils provide public toilets. i might not use them much, but i wouldn't want them taken away...
Posted by Suse, Saturday, 18 June 2005 1:01:17 PM
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The idea of subsidised food on campus is outrageous. I'm involved heavily here at Adelaide Uni and we actually make a profit from food (ie no subsidies).

I'm a big proponent of VSU. There are many arguments like 'VSU will cost jobs', 'Student Unions help the broader community', Uni Sport will die under VSU' etc.

Whatever your feelings about these issues are it all comes back to the fact that every student is compelled to pay flat fee whether or not they access any services. If the students don't want those services those jobs that will be lost shouldn't exist.

Sure the Left claim its all about Liberal Party ideology and it is -- if students want student unions to exist they will. In that sence, VSU is not anti-union.
Posted by tooRight, Monday, 20 June 2005 1:21:57 PM
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I was involved in a public debate about VSU at the University of New South Wales organised by the student guild. The CSU side argued that students are responsible adults and don't need governments telling them how to run their organisations. My reply was, "Exactly! Students can make there own choices and don't need unions to tell them how to spend their own money."
Posted by mykah, Monday, 20 June 2005 5:14:07 PM
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When I see proponents of VSU (especially young liberals) actively supporting low socio economic students, Indigenous students, gay students and others they abhor – and especially when student services no longer exist -- then I'll believe they actually do believe in true liberalism. So what characteristics does one have to have to join Young Liberals on campus? (Besides a bad haircut) Follow this link and don’t say I didn’t warn you: http://www.alsf.org.au/alsf/committee.asp
Posted by Rainier, Monday, 20 June 2005 6:11:09 PM
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Young Alistair wrote:
"Recent evidence shows it has not been the case. Melbourne University, which had revenue of $14 million, recently went into bankruptcy. Without professionals looking over the funds it is obvious that students cannot be trusted with these large amounts of money. The mismanagement at Melbourne University confirms this."

I think he should check copy with Julian Barendse President of the Melbourne University Liberal Club as well as being.....wait for it...

"the current Vice-President of the Melbourne University Student Union"

oh dear...
Posted by Rainier, Monday, 20 June 2005 6:19:42 PM
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There is absolutely nothing wrong with a conservative or Liberal being the vice-president of a student union. They were, after all, elected!

I reiterate, being pro-VSU and a conservative is not neccessarily anti-student union, merely anti-'the way they are run at the moment'.

Take Adelaide Uni for example. The VP there was elected by the Board on a coin toss (vote was 10-10). In this position he is also the Finance Commitee Chair in-charge of the budgets for the 2006 -- he year of VSU. He is working his backside off making sure the union survives under VSU. Tis works in his favour. He can work hard to make it survive, but in the form he wants. Ie little to no money spent on political campaigns and the SRC and Union Board Electoral reforms.

Great bloke to boot. He's constantly in trouble, beginning with a pro-VSU article he wrote published in The Australian in December.
Posted by tooRight, Monday, 20 June 2005 8:30:39 PM
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i heard across the grapevine that there was some liberal "branch stacking" of opinions an ideas. so here is my view. this is a article that was published in the UWS "the Onion" paper. for more VSU opinion peices and other stuff visit www.rcunderground.net. PLUG ASIDE, HERE IS THE ARTICLE:

The crime? The collection of universal student fees.
The punishment. The indirect and gradual destruction of our university.

As many students will know by now, the Howard government is imposing VSU onto all universities nation wide. Philosophically as students we all believe in our democratic rights of freedom of association. This is a philosophical stance that I doubt is not supported by any student. In the ideal world, the philosophical world this ideology is correct, true and valid.
unfortunately we DO NOT live in a ideal world. As many student studying related subjects have realized sometimes our philosophies have to be twisted, bent or adjusted to conform with reality. The Howard government has played with students philosophical positions when attempting to impose VSU. They have euphemistically called it Voluntary student unionism.

Howard has now placed students in a “check” position, Howard has placed us, the students in a catch 22.

Do we adhere to our “perfect world” philosophy, or do we mould it to fit the real world? Our options as students are either:

1) Adhere to our “perfect world” philosophy and await the expected slow death to our universities
Or
2) Change our “perfect world” stance to one that fits in to the real world and support our student unions, because anything other than full, 100% support to our student voice will lead to the inevitable destruction of our universities for future generations. As members of this society it is our duty to protect not only our educational future but the educational future of all Australians.

continued next post
Posted by WorldWide, Monday, 20 June 2005 10:35:58 PM
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As students we must realize the dollar we save today will lead to countless costs incurred for ourselves and other students in the future. The Howard government is dangling in front of us the euphemistically tagged, “VSU carrot of freedom”, if we bite it, we have our student voices cut of, and will see the bleeding of a slow death of our universities. Make no mistake about it, VSU is the destruction of a unified voice. It is the first step to the disenfranchising of our future generations. VSU will lead to a majority of full fee paying courses, the closure of courses, the cutting of funding and the destruction of funding to ALL university amenities and services. UWS courses have already been cut, UWS funding has already been slashed and UWS wide HECS has also gone up. Student unions are the only bastion of support that has hindered Brendan Nelson’s and John Howard’s full privatization of universities. What do we do? Do we adhere to our philosophical beliefs of freedom of association for all or do we modify this position to protect our futures? You will be hard pressed to find any sane, tertiary educated student who, when presented with this reality of the situation chooses option 1. for to be unmoving in your beliefs is, in this situation the most selfish position that can be taken.

With prior knowledge of Howard’s intents we should prepare ourselves and say NO! to VSU, because with VSU there is no future, except apathy and segregation.

Tomas Buratovich. UWS student.
Posted by WorldWide, Monday, 20 June 2005 10:36:54 PM
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Sorry, WorldWide, but that's a load of garbage! VSU is not a euphemism, that's exactly what it is VOLUNTARY! The article you posted hysterically postulates "the destruction of universities" under VSU but provides not a shread on evidence or information as to how/why this would be the case.

As for the argument that VSU will disenfranchise students and remove their unified voice. Here's a newsflash, students don't have a unified political voice (even though the rabid lefties in the NUS like to think that they do and claim to speak for all students)! If anything VSU will enfranchise students, no longer will the Union be able to claim to speak on behalf of all students just because they are forced to join it. No longer will students who disagree with the extreme left stance of most student Unions have to subsidise poltical campaigns put on by the NUS. Stdents are smart enough and diverse enough to have their own political views. It is inaccurate and paternalistic in the extreme to suggest that student unions are capable of representing the political views and interests of all students. Lets call a spade a spade here, the NUS is terrified of losing it's captive catchment of funds, once VSU is introduced it will become painfully clear exactly how few students it actually represnts!
Posted by Lubs, Wednesday, 22 June 2005 12:24:41 AM
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ok, how about this then (feel free to take this seriously or not, its voluntary)

how about voluntary voluntray student unionism or voluntary compulsory student unionism?

leave it up to the students within their own university to decide (i get the feeling that both sides are afraid of how they would vote)

i dont know if this is actualy a liberal party ideological stance, i thought that the liberal ideal of small government would preclude them from forcing controlling legislation on universities and would rather leave them the 'liberty' of deciding for themselves.

or mayby not, like allthings in this government pragmatism above idealism, its probably a good way of keeping any opposition disorganised in the future.

i eagerly await those VSU supporters tell us that we shouldnt be allowed to decide wether to have VSU or not.

or is it because big brother is no their side now?
Posted by its not easy being, Thursday, 23 June 2005 2:59:58 PM
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yes, its like, lets outlaw the right for student unions to democratically decide if they want sudent unionsim and then call it VSU...and they think we can't see past this pathetic card trick
Posted by Rainier, Thursday, 23 June 2005 5:16:11 PM
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if what the previous posts are proposing is for the student body of each university to vote on whether or not that uni should have VSU or not (it for all the students to vote, like a student referndum) I say go ahead! I'd bet on the fact that VSU would be voted in by students at most if not all Unis. If what you are proposing is that the UNIONS at each uni decide whether or no that uni should have VSU- how is that fair, Union office holders obviously have a vested interest.

it's no easy being and Rainer, your argument is actually inherently illogical. If you are arguing that a majority of students would vote against VSU then why is VSU a problem! if the majority of students support student unions then when VSU is introduced empirically there should be no change in the status of student unions, all it should do is allow the (according to you) minority of students who don't support student unions not to join (and not to use the services)
Posted by Lubs, Friday, 24 June 2005 11:05:25 AM
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lubs, its exactly the imposition of an empirical system that i have an issue with, the fact that they have had to wait for a senate majority to get this through makes me wonder who it is designed to benefit.

in reference to your first paragraph, a student referendum (not a union or uni board decision) was exactly what i was suggesting.

surely the situation is unique to the individaul uni's, as those with larger student populations will be able to sustain a critical level of membership under VSU.

just a guess, and im probably making some massive generalisations, but i wonder if the young liberals are precisely the ones best equiped to deal with the loss of funding for political activities.
Posted by its not easy being, Friday, 24 June 2005 12:09:10 PM
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its not easy being wrote: just a guess, and im probably making some massive generalisations, but i wonder if the young liberals are precisely the ones best equiped to deal with the loss of funding for political activities"

Well according to them they are well equipped to deal with this because its the liberal thing to do. There ideological fedelity and logic suggests political activities should not be funded by governments - and especially if they are Lefty political activities. Have they thrown out their own baby with the bath water?
Only time will tell. Will big business fund their activites as they do in countries dominated by dictatorships? As of July 1 this country will be a self elected liberal dictatorship
Posted by Rainier, Friday, 24 June 2005 12:41:15 PM
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If we wanted a Socialist government, we would have voted for them, as I see it, 'compulsory' student unionism is pure and simple socialism by stealth.
The very idea that we HAVE to join a union which is always the target of the highly politically motivated, is anathema !
If the Uni is required to provide particular services, then ADD IT TO THE FEES and RUN THEM, don't have a student union which as some kind of wannabe, tryhard, would be if we could be upstart trainee dictatorial socialists.
The whole idea of 'compulsory' student unionism is the very face of socialism which it seems to try to hide. I.e. that they will FORCE you to comply. They will wax eloquent and long about individual and human rights.....until they get their hands on power and then they will bleed you dry in the name of the 'from each according to his ability and to each according to his need' which was never fulfilled to my knowledge except in the 2nd chapter of the book of Acts, and even then the ethnicities crept in to the point where the Apostles had to eventually appoint a committee to run the daily distribution.

Human nature does NOT want to be giving giving giving, without any 'getting', and the CSU mob simply know this, and that they cannot continue 'their' agenda without making it compulsory to all.
Posted by BOAZ_David, Saturday, 25 June 2005 9:06:23 PM
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A little known fact of history is that since the 1970's university students have had the right to to resign their membership of student unions and this was recognised both in law and by student organisations and their constitutions. The attack by Liberals on unionism is simply that, an attack on organised unionism
Posted by Rainier, Sunday, 26 June 2005 3:41:03 PM
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Yeah Rainier, but those students who have "contientious objections" to joining unions are still mandated to pay EXACTLY THE SAME amount of money as they would have paid in Union fees into some vague general University fund (it's never been quite clear where that money goes) Wow! what practical choice! only in a dictatorship would that be considered voluntary choice, it makes me think of "elections" held in Stalinist Russia, where the Party was the only candidate on the ballot and elections were "voluntary"...but if you didn't vote the KGB would be likely to pay you a visit and soon you would be shovelling snow in Siberia.
Posted by Lubs, Sunday, 26 June 2005 8:42:27 PM
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No-one ever seems to mention Garrett Hardin's essay on "The Tragedy of the Dommons" when discussing VSU. I don't know why. Of course very few will bother to pay for the services student unions provide - and many will be sorry when they've gone. For example, at one of the universities I went to, there was a student union dental service. Since there is little public sector dentistry, as we all know, this was a valuable service, but quite costly for the union. Wouldn't be there under VSU. It doesn't take too many root canals to get your union dues back. And why are we all being so mealy-mouthed about the other huge benefit - those lovely low drink prices at the Union bars?
Posted by anomie, Tuesday, 5 July 2005 9:23:21 PM
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Cheers! anomie.
Posted by Rainier, Tuesday, 5 July 2005 9:55:03 PM
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Hi,

I'm interested to know if there's any benchmark cases of legislation like this getting passed in other countries. Does anyone know?

Cheers
Mandy
Posted by mandy, Wednesday, 14 September 2005 12:26:40 PM
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