Voluntary student unionism (VSU) is back in the news. Despite an election promise not to reintroduce compulsory unionism, the Rudd government earlier this month introduced legislation that would again enable universities to levy a fee for non-academic services, and last Thursday Youth Minister Kate Ellis released guidelines for permitted expenditure out of the proposed fees.

As The Age reported on Friday, “Universities will be able to use the fee, of up to $250 a year, to fund 17 types of services, including child care, sport, clubs and societies and student media, but not student representation.” Under a separate guideline, “National Student Representation and Advocacy Protocols”, universities are supposed to fund the representative activities directly.

The Australian Liberal Students’ Federation has condemned the legislation and is running an online campaign against it.

Because so many members of parliament started out in student politics, and rely in turn on the current generation of students for campaign cannon fodder, VSU arouses political passions out of all proportion to its intrinsic importance. It is also a peculiarly fossilised debate, since positions on both sides were set some 30 years ago when university funding arrangements, not to mention the ideological landscape in general, were very different.

But most frustratingly of all, it’s an issue where attempts to compromise between the extreme positions almost invariably seem to end up with the worst elements of both. The current proposal is no exception.

Excluding representation from the list of fee-funded activities is no doubt intended to deflect accusations of “compulsory unionism”. But in reality, the government has it the wrong way around. If anything can justify a compulsory fee, it is the representative services, which benefit all students equally and have some sort of democratic accountability behind them.

Service functions involve much more money, are better able to be funded on a user-pays basis, and are more likely to be provided directly by the universities, without meaningful student input. Not coincidentally, they are also more likely to involve conspicuous waste.

As I put it in a 2005 article that tried to explain the history of VSU:

Political activities, even broadly interpreted, accounted for only a small fraction of student union expenditure, and they had at least the semblance of a rationale for collective provision: student representation, it could be argued, was a public good that could not be funded on a user-pays basis. The service activities — catering, sporting clubs, even dental services — were (and are) much more extravagant and much harder to justify in that fashion.

But because VSU is a totemic debate, not a real one, none of the participants are really interested in looking at how student organisations actually work or how they relate to the universities’ funding arrangements.

The best solution would be to let the universities decide for themselves what fees to charge, whether for academic or non-academic services (since the border between them is inherently fuzzy), subject only to the requirement that student organisations be subject to genuine democratic control. But having acquired the habit of micromanaging university affairs, neither side of politics wants to give it up.

Peter Fray

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