Youth Minister Kate Ellis has announced a ‘consultation’ on the impact of voluntary student unionism. There is a discussion paper available here.

With three weeks to get submissions in, it sounds like the government wants its views confirmed rather than informed. The fun here will be watching all the players in this dispute trying to come up with coherent justifications for their position.

Before the election, Labor’s then shadow education minister Stephen Smith said:

The key thing is making sure the services that have traditionally been sustained by the student groups are there for all students to enjoy into the future: childcare, sport and rec facilities and the like. ..[it is] the responsibility of the National Government and the universities to sustain those services. Those services are currently withering and dwindling on the vine. We will not allow that to occur.

But if the government isn’t offering universities any extra money, that can only be done by taking money away from education or research activities. And why should university students be entitled to childcare assistance not available to the general population? To the extent that student union provided childcare ever made sense, that was before it started raining cash on almost anyone who decided to reproduce. And will Labor’s higher education ‘revolution’ really begin on the sporting field?

As the government’s discussion paper notes, the National Union of Students has previously suggested that students be able to defer amenities fees through a HECS-style loan. While as I said in January this makes more sense than NUS’s previous position, it still leaves me baffled as to why students should be allowed to spend extra on sports centres and student politics, but not on their own education. Only people hoping to have their salaries paid for through amenities fees could think it all perfectly logical.

I will be interested to see how my friends in the Liberal student movement handle this one. For many years I have argued against the de facto price control aspect of VSU legislation, which prevents universities from bundling their academic and non-academic services and selling them at the price the market will pay. Though some Liberal students accepted this in principle, they argued that the university market was too dysfunctional and that universities would never reform themselves without VSU.

After 18 months of VSU, much has changed in the higher education sector. Most of the old inefficiencies have been cleared away. And with student services now generally locked into university budget processes, rather than having set-aside separate funding streams, future requests for cash will receive much more critical scrutiny than they typically did pre-VSU.

With the shock therapy done, I think now would be a good time for Liberal students to take a market approach. Universities should be able to set whatever fee they like for whatever bundle of services they choose, and let the market decide whether or not it is good value for money. It would give Liberal students some ideological consistency lacking to date.

This defence of markets would also mean opposing possible government plans to require universities to have student advocacy services, a sort of VSU in reverse, interfering with universities deciding what bundle of services to offer students. Labor’s rhetoric on university autonomy can be turned back on them if they try to do that.

As with Labor’s full-fee student phase-out policy shambles, the new government is going to find, as the previous government did, that trying to reform the higher education system in a piecemeal fashion is difficult. The system is so poorly designed that almost anything governments do ends up creating new anomalies and inconsistencies.

19 thoughts on “Post-VSU

  1. The Liberal students aren’t in favour of markets. They’re opposed to funding student Wimmin’s officers etc. VSU was an explicit political act from baby boomer Howard ministers as pay back for the student politics battles they lost in the 1970s.

    This said, the government will re-fund stufent organisations by allowing universities to increase their fees by a couple of hundred dollars. It’s small bickies when students are already paying six thousand or so. Membership will be voluntary of course, but since students will be paying anyway, why opt out?

    It’s win-win, except for the Liberal students (current and past). Which is how it should be.


  2. Its going to be hard to sell anything that ends up with students paying more money again, either up-front or over the long term. Especially as in my uni for instance (Uni of Newcastle) services and amenities are better now than they ever were before VSU. The only people who object are the people who lost their jobs in the student unions (as mentioned in the post). Instead all the 18 year old first year students got jobs in the Subway.

    My uni now has a greater number, and more modern computer labs, a subway, gloria jeans, eagle boys pizza and all kinds of stuff it never had before. I am happy to forgo my 20c discount in the uni bar in order to have a bigger variety of things on offer, and I never used the medieval fighting club anyway.

    Meanwhile the University News Magazine which noone seems to read rails against there being a Gloria Jeans on campus, because it was founded by the guy from Hillsong Churches… talk about a waste of time.

    That might also have answered your answer, Vee. Is Newcastle considered a rural uni? Regional? Same diff?


  3. Is compulsory student unionism actually banned?
    That is, can a university legally decide that it wishes to maintain a student union where fees are compulsory?
    If not, any reason it shouldn’t be able to?


  4. According to wikipedia,

    “Since July 1, 2006, Australian universities have faced fines of $A100 per student for compelling payment for any non-academic good or service.”

    Now sure, Australian universities are essentially arms of the government, but surely the best solution is to allow universities to individually decide whether they wish to implement compulsory student unionism?


  5. NPOV – Technically, compulsory student unions are not illegal. If universities don’t take any government money the federal government’s statutes do not cover them. But of course they are all addicted to Commonwealth cash. If there is anything they would not do to get Commonwealth money I am yet to come across it.


  6. True, but that doesn’t actually make them any different from any businesses I know (always looking for research grants and tax breaks).

    However the wikipedia article tends to suggest that compulsory student unionism is illegal, if there such a hefty fine attached to it. In other words, it’s not clear to me that the real motivation was giving students freedom of choice.


  7. NPOV – But there is a huge difference, because while business may look for tax breaks the government does not get power to tell them how to run their business as a result. I tried to argue that here that the government misconceives its relationship with universities.

    The government has always been able to penalise universities for not acting in accordance with whatever conditions the government attaches to its grants. That provision you mention was just setting a minimum, because the government realised that Labor could simply set the penalty to zero, effectively voiding the VSU laws without legislation.

    I don’t see what a penalty has to do with motivations or practical effect.


  8. I realise that Kate Ellis is playing to her own base, but in practice removing VSU would mostly act only to reinvigorate the ALSF, which has been getting a bit moribund lately.

    However I don’t think 18 months makes it very stable. If VSU had been the law of the land for long enough for it to be the norm to almost all students on campus (5 years say) it’d be a very different ask.


  9. Andrew, no disagreement here that governments shouldn’t have the power to tell universities how to run their business.

    If the government’s motivation was to promote freedom of choice for students (something I would happily support), then there shouldn’t be a need to impose a penalty on universities that wish to charge fees for non-academic services.


  10. Concurring with Stephen Lloyd’s comment, the state of affairs at Newcastle is considerably improved since VSU. Compulsory (albeit modest) union fees of $180/semester have been eliminated, and replaced with a voluntary union fee of $17. I am not sure if the new private providers are a result of VSU or budget constraints (the university had a $27mn budget deficit in 2004/05). Either way, services are of a higher quality and satisfy a wider market.
    Student services were guaranteed by the university and are now financed through new advertising in student mess areas. Cuts were made to some areas (notably off-campus political campaigning) with no loss of student amenity.


  11. A consequence of VSU at my university was that the position of a dedicated postgraduate research-advocacy officer, able to be employed by the union, was swallowed into one undergraduate-postgraduate advocacy-research officer role. Rather than the market efficiences, that getting a wider range of fast food and coffee seems to have excited amongst many of the posters here at Newcastle U, long and protracted grievance procedures were the inefficiencies produced by this VSU produced downsizing.

    Most students don’t need advocacy and representation services – and good luck to them. But unfortunately there are sometimes ‘bad people’ and unpleaseant situations that happen at universities and when these ugly events get going, I’d rather have a well-funded student Union, which is not tied to University managed performance indicators or contractual outcomes based agreements, able to resolve disputes, able to give time to negotiate and advocate, than an ‘amenities and services provider’ that serves good coffee.

    I’d be interested to know, Andrew, if you participated in University Student Unions?


  12. Michael C – Yes, I was Treasurer of the Monash Association of Students in 1987. That convinced me that student unions needed massive reform, and while I opposed VSU over the last decade or so I do believe it has had positive as well as negative effects.

    Jacques – In a lot of universities the old structures are gone, and I think unlikely to come back. And even before VSU, the student left was as weak as I have ever seen it, in both the quantity and quality of their activists.


  13. Michael C: I can offer you the flipside of that, even without VSU. I have had the fun of sitting on the opposite side of that committee occasionally, and in my experience the rep almost always supports the students with rose colored glasses on (i.e., ignores reality), whereas most staff are quite realistic (and most want the best outcome for the student). What this often means is that students that should be kicked out don’t get kicked out. Apart from blocking places more able students could be in (often taking scholarships in the case of post graduate stuff), a consequence of this is that it usually takes years to kick people out, so everyone’s time and money gets wasted — including the students at hand. An independent arbritrator would be much better than having someone who mindlessly takes sides.


  14. Andrew, what do you mean you opposed VSU? You opposed students being able to voluntarily join unions, or universities being penalised for choosing to institute compulsory fees?


  15. NPOV – My views are set out in detail here. There are really two issues here. One is whether universities should automatically enrol students in a third party, the student union. In my view, they should not. Students should decide themselves whether or not they wish to be represented by this organisation. I think that is now a near-consensus view. The controversial issue is whether universities should be allowed to charge all students for non-academic services. I think they should, but the VSU legislation prohibits this.


  16. The Howard Government’s ESOS Act requires universities to provide non-academic services to overseas students (and presumably incorporate the costs into their fees). The prohibition on doing the same for domestic students was always quite illogical.


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