Last week The SMH reported that the Rudd government is preparing to rebuild decaying student services at Australian universities by reintroducing mandatory fees. While Minister for Education Julia Gillard insists Labor will stick to its election promise to uphold VSU, The SMH’s report on the latest proposal of an “opt-out” system looks a lot like compulsory student unionism.

National Union of Students President Angus McFarland told Crikey that the NUS have been discussing options for funding student services with the new government since they came to power last year.

“The opt-out system has been on the cards for awhile,” McFarland said. “The students, government and universities should share the cost for facilities and services. There should be a completely new and more modest levy towards service and representation,” McFarland said.

Since the Howard government introduced VSU in 2005, the loudest complaints have always centred around the cost to sporting clubs – without insurance and heavy subsidisation many sports facilities at universities have crumbled.

But student unions do not exist purely to insure sporting teams and fund clubs and societies. The ability to negotiate with university heavyweights to protect the rights of students was initially a primary role of the unions, a role that appears to have diminished.

Recently a disgruntled group of TAFE students found themselves out in the cold when Melbourne’s RMIT cut the Bachelor of Arts (Multimedia) – the degree their pathway program led to. Program manager Mark Lycette told them they would be able to apply for a Bachelor of Arts (Animation and Interactive Media) instead, but they could not be guaranteed entry. Places in these courses would not necessarily be increased to accommodate them, so they would have to apply through VCAT along with other students from around Australia.

“Commonwealth supported places come and go,” Lycette told Crikey. “No one is ever guaranteed a place… RMIT has to keep taking these students for the pathway course, but that doesn’t mean they have to take them for the degree.”

Another casualty of budget cuts and course streamlining, RMIT multimedia students are not alone — social work students at the University of Melbourne in 2007 came up against similar cuts, as did nursing students at the University of Sydney in 2005.

But unlike those USYD kids who had a large student union behind them – not to mention the nurses union — according to The Sunday Age the RMIT student union has the lowest membership rates in Australia, with just 2% of the student population unionised. This low participation rate not only means fewer student services but also less access to processes that could help them force RMIT to keep the multimedia degree open.

Since the introduction of VSU, universities, already struggling with programming costs, have been forced to fund services like Student Rights Advice. This has led to criticisms that avenues for student negotiation with the university are inherently flawed.

“The independence of student unions has been compromised,” said University of Sydney Student Representative Council president Kate Laing.  “And [it has] possibly disempowered students in the process.”