With the government’s major legislation for the year mostly out of the way, the last week of parliament provides an opportunity to return to the fascinating debate on voluntary student unionism (VSU) – an issue that arouses passions in Canberra far out of proportion to its intrinsic importance.

Yesterday’s report that education minister Brendan Nelson was planning a nationwide campus vote on VSU sounded like a joke, but it appears he is quite serious: National Party MPs have poured cold water on the idea, but The Australian reports that Nelson is considering implementing the plan even without legislation.

This, of course, is what advocates for VSU should have been doing for years: building support for it on campus instead of spending their time lobbying politicians. Instead, the left has been allowed to make the running by demonising the issue, and on most campuses the odds are that a referendum would go down.

If Nelson’s vote goes ahead, the status quo of compulsory, democratically-controlled and often politicised student unions won’t be on the ballot paper. The alternative to VSU will be what the universities and the National Party want: no “unionism,” but compulsory service fees to fund sports, catering, non-political clubs, and so on.

This compulsory non-political fee actually represents the worst of both worlds. Both sides in the VSU debate want student control of their money, but they disagree on how to achieve it. One prefers a user-pays market model, the other wants democratic control via universal membership. But the universities’ preferred model gives neither: there would be compulsion without accountability.

Andrew Norton, former top adviser to David Kemp, has a good wrap on the issue at Catallaxy:

“Personally, I think this should be a market rather than a political decision. Universities should be able to offer whatever bundle of services they think appropriate, and if students don’t like it they can study somewhere else. But if we are going to decide this matter politically, referendums are a better method than more centralised conformity imposed by Canberra.”