Are student unions anachronisms?

The bill to re-introduce compulsory amenities fees isn’t pleasing even National Union of Students President Carla Drakeford.

In an Age op-ed she complains that

there would be no legislative measure that forces universities to direct funds from the complusory $250 fee to independent student organisations … student associations need autonomy to represent the views of their students.

My view is that the role of student unions is at minimum much diminished compared to the past. When student unions started their universities had within-state monopolies and few formal means of tracking student views. Student unions were a counter-balance to university staff and administrations that had weak mechanisms for feedback and no real incentive to act on it.

Things are very different now. Students are asked their views on the university’s peformance so often that ‘survey fatigue’ is a major issue. Every university depends for its survival on the fees of highly mobile international students. Though I had my doubts about whether the demand-driven system for Australian students would work, the mad rush to enrol more students suggests that universities will compete strongly in this market too.

So there has been a transformation in the information flows and market power of students. Though nobody would pretend that all is well in universities, under these new pressures I believe they are making slow but steady progress from being particularly backward parts of the public service to being modern, professional service organisations.

These changes have greatly reduced the role of student unions. Even with survey fatigue, the response rates are much higher than for student union elections. A turnout of 10% is regarded as high. The elections are a way of giving students political experience and ensuring turnover in office holders, but if the aim is representing students they can only be regarded as sampling errors.

Because their electorate was politicised students, for many decades student unions focused more on political issues than campus concerns. If they had kept to bread-and-butter campus issues rather taking the far-left side in national and global political controversies it is unlikely that VSU would ever have happened. Making student unions voluntary is a way of making them accountable to the people who finance them. Mainstream students are too apathetic to vote, but happy to express their views by withholding their money.

From the perspective of universities, particularly the older institutions are likely to preserve student unions as part of the campus experience. But as they are in a competitive market, they are not going to trust important services to short-term student office holders, with as experience suggests highly varying degrees of competence and integrity. Student unions will have very limited roles on most campuses even if the legislation currently before parliament passes.

Though some unis may choose to give student unions money, given overall changed circumstances the legislation should not mandate it. Having to recruit students to join is a powerful and useful discipline on student organisations. And it means that student unions can plausibly claim to represent some students rather than implausibly claiming to represent all students.

I expand on these views in this 2005 paper.

I expect I will be debating some of these issues with Carla Drakeford on Radio National tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “Are student unions anachronisms?

  1. Dave – The Australian bill does preserve voluntary membership. It is really only about whether unis can charge a fee beyond the current price cap as a condition of enrolment – I’m not sure what the NZ situation is with this.

    The idiosnycrasies of two or more fees for the same bundle of services and the practice of getting student organisations to deliver some student services has made the issue very confusing, and obscured the commercial freedom issues at stake.

    I was also curious about the ‘spirit and intent’ provision in the NZ amendment. Admittedly it is a long time since I have routinely read much legislation outside education, but I don’t recall seeing anything like that before. It seems to give wide scope to strike out schemes that are technically legal based on possibly disputed views of Parliament’s intent.

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  2. In my experience at universities, the level of student political engagement is greatly diminished – certainly compared to when I was a student, but even over the last 10 years. It is very difficult to get any student engagement on any issue these days.
    Its interesting to see some student organisations (not many use “Union” in their titles anymore) are moving towards providing programs in areas such as leadership development, volunteering etc in the absence of having commercial entities to run. I think the more of this the better and will lead eventually to a much more positive perception of these organisations.

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  3. “Students are asked their views on the university’s peformance so often that ‘survey fatigue’ is a major issue.”
    .
    Things like this are entirely true, but I’m not sure they invalidate the need for some independent level of student representation. At present, I think in some places it is now the case that students have no entirely independent representation at the nasty end of the system, such as when they get booted out (i.e., the student representatives that sit on those panels are not voted in by the students, and can also be over-ruled by other members of these panels). Having gone from somewhere where these people were treated too nicely to the opposite, that’s not such a great thing (neither of them are good). Of course, if you are going to treat students like customers and universities like businesses, I presume it’s entirely within the universities rights not to serve some customers.

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  4. I think that’s right conrad, one of the few areas student unions have a legitimate role is in representation on student tribunals. Student unions are effectively apprenticeships in politics and experience at Monash University suggests very expensive ones. If students want political training they can become electorate officers.

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