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.