As a former liberal student, one of my happiest moments as a Senator was to successfully shepherd through the Howard Government’s VSU legislation in 2005 as chair of the Government Education Committee. Sadly, five short years later we saw the return of compulsory student unionism pass through the Parliament. The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010, which passed the Senate in September, will impose a compulsory levy for university students to fund non-academic services, rolling back voluntary student unionism (VSU), which was implemented by the Howard Government in 2006. The Government’s legislation, supported by the Greens, was based on a complete misapprehension of the meaning of voluntary student unionism and on a complete misunderstanding of the effect of the Howard government's voluntary student unionism legislation.
It’s important to be clear about what the Howard Government’s 2006 voluntary student unionism legislation actually did and did not do. The VSU legislation did not ban student unions. It did not ban student associations. It did not ban the collection of fees by student unions or associations. All the VSU legislation did was to prevent the levying of compulsory fees for non-academic services. The VSU legislation ensured that membership of student unions and associations was no longer a prerequisite for university enrolment. Prior to 2006, there existed in Australian universities the ridiculous situation whereby a non-academic service - membership of a student union - was a prerequisite to undertaking academic activities. It was a ridiculous nexus that the Howard government broke.
The effect of the VSU legislation, far from being the doom and gloom and catastrophe predicted by Labor and the Greens, was to put money in the pockets of students. It allowed students to decide what services they wanted and which organisations they wanted to join. It respected the rights, capacity and ability of students to make their own decisions as to how their money is best spent.
It never ceases to amaze me that as a society, we believe that university students possess the critical faculties to decide which university to attend, which degree to undertake and which subjects are right for them but, for some reason, we think those critical faculties depart them when they are faced with the decision as to whether or not to join a student union. Our community should respect the choices students make, not presume to know better than them when it comes to the services they want or need.
Like the carbon tax, the passage of Labor’s compulsory student unionism legislation through the Parliament represents a broken election commitment. Before the 2007 election the then Labor opposition promised not to reintroduce compulsory student unionism or to introduce a compulsory amenities fee for university students. Stephen Smith, the then shadow minister for education and training, expressly ruled out a return to a compulsory amenities fee. Like so many other Labor promises, this soon fell by the wayside.
The reintroduction of a compulsory student union fee has been supported and championed by left wing activists in student unions since the implementation of voluntary student unionism. This is unsurprising, given that many student unions have been reluctant to reform the services they provide to make them responsive to student needs in order to encourage membership. Proponents of compulsory student unionism fail to understand a pretty simple fact: if unions and associations provide services that students want and need, then students will willingly join those organisations and use those services. No compulsion would be necessary.
The arguments in favour of compulsory student unionism become increasingly tenuous when the changing nature of tertiary education are considered. Gone are the days when a majority of university students spent most of their time on campus for the duration of their degree. These days, distance education, part-time study, online study and degrees designed around the working professional and parents have provided flexibility and opportunity to students who cannot spend the majority of their time on campus. These students are unlikely to want or need the services student unions currently provide, yet will still be forced to pay the amenities fee.
Proponents of compulsory student unionism argue that student unions and associations are somehow a fourth tier of government and that therefore they should have the capacity to compel fees for non-academic services. This is completely false. It is the role of federal, state and local governments to provide the safety net for all Australians. Student unions do not fall into that category. We have governments to provide that safety net for people. Universities are not islands – many of the services provided by student unions and associations are replicated and made available to students in the wider community by other organisations and businesses.
Perhaps the biggest fallacy of the whole debate is that students are somehow assisted by this compulsory fee being levied on them. This fee is not an act of kindness. The best way to help struggling students is to allow them to keep more of their own money. Herein lies a fundamental difference between the Coalition on the one hand and Labor and the Greens on the other. We believe that individuals are in a better position to know how to spend their money than someone else, while the ALP and the Greens are of the belief that there is always someone else who knows better how to spend an individual's money than that individual.
The Howard Government’s VSU legislation brought in freedom of choice—the freedom to belong to or not to belong to a student union or association. The freedom to keep your money in your pocket or buy the services of your choice. Labor and the Greens have destroyed that freedom of choice, and students across Australia will be left with the bill.