Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Interview with Andrew Bartlett

Andrew Bartlett is a member of the Australian Democrats and a Queensland Senator in the Federal Parliament. This is the transcript of an interview regarding the effects of Voluntary Student Unionism that I conducted this year in preparation for an article published in The Big Issue.

Why do the Democrats think VSU will "silence student voice"?

Student Unions play an important role in supporting students during their time at university. They achieve this by providing a range of services from sporting facilities to legal advice, advocacy and child care. Without active and dynamic services, students - particularly those who do not have the financial resources - are effectively restricted from full participation in university life. They can essentially become voiceless.

Isn't it true that student elections are poorly attended and student politicians have themselves not been able to capture the interest of students?

Student elections do have a habit of being poorly attended and many students do ignore student politics but this does not mean that the services provided by the unions are not worthwhile and should be done away with nor does it mean that student politics is a basket case. A certain amount of malaise would be evidenced if Australia adopted voluntary voting, but that would not mean that the government should stop providing services to the people.

If these student organisations are so important in protecting student rights, surely indirectly supporting mismanagement (the likes of which led to the dissolving of the Melbourne University student union) is not the right path?

I would agree that supporting mismanagement is not the right path, but neither is throwing the baby out with the bath water. While the system was far from perfect it most certainly wasn't in a state of terminal decline. Recognition of the problems that existed and the implementation of initiatives to reform the system would give a much better outcome than abolishing student unions altogether.

Why is the government's legislation, which bans the up-front financial cost of an amenities fee being extracted from students, unfair? The hefty amenities fee, unlike HECS, cannot be deferred – hurting poorer students even more.

Poorer students, particularly poorer students attending our regional campuses will now be unable to access the diverse range of facilities which have, until now, been available to them.

Child care services, financial help and legal assistance for example, have been provided by the money derived from these up-front fees. They have made it easier for people from low socio-economic backgrounds to attend university without the added financial hardship of seeking these services privately. The up-front fee ensured that all students had equal access to services provided by the student body and without the money coming in to support these services, they will close.

In some regional areas, services provided by the student unions are an integral part of the wider community in which they operate not just the university campus and, therefore, their closure will have financial ramifications well beyond the university campus.

7 Comments:

At August 01, 2006 5:09 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

As someone from the poorest cohort of students to attend university, I found stumping up the annual student fee a real struggle, particularly as I wasn't able to pay it off in installments.

I also resented the way 'hacks' from the major political parties used the student union as political potty training. Student money disappeared never to be seen again, and various people (right, left and centre) behaved atrociously.

I do realise that many of the services offered will finish up being charged out at market rates due to VSU, and that they wil be missed (I'm thinking here of the university gym, which was comfortably the cheapest gym in Brisbane when I went to UQ).

...And sorry I haven't been posting much Sukrit, I'm in Brisbane again for work!

 
At August 01, 2006 9:28 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

If we're talking UQ , what about the cinema? 4 bucks a pop and one of the coolest theatres i've ever been in to boot.

Actually this post allows me to exhibit a rare piece of libertarian cred. For the last two semesters i have been holding out on paying my student fees until the last available moment (6 months after they are due), for similar reason to what sl describes but partly because I am a bit pissed off at the notion. Sure they cut off my uni priveleges, but who needs instituional support anyway. Right?

That said, I'd support a smaller compulsory fee of maybe $50 - with, maybe, an exception for the poorest students - aimed at paying for essential services.

Also I noticed that at my current uni (UTS) immediately upon the passing of legislation they closed down my favourite Union provided amenity - the makeshift theatre. That made me sad.

Nice interview Sukrit.

 
At August 01, 2006 10:40 pm, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

Now that paying fees is voluntary, one of the interesting things I've noticed at Melbourne Uni is that the union has - in putting a figure on the value of their services - come out with a sum significantly lower than it was when it was compulsory. I paid $392 for the year, but now it's $264 - more than a 100 bucks cheaper.

 
At August 02, 2006 3:03 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I'd include the cinema with the gym, although I used the latter a fair bit more. I wonder what they'll do with the building - it's not as they can sell it off. AFAIK it's university property.

 
At August 02, 2006 5:46 pm, Anonymous Sam Ward said...

If the building was at UWA they could donate it the PLO like they did with student guild fees...

 
At August 03, 2006 9:52 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

That's another thing. I remember the student union continually passing resolutions about foreign situations - the Middle East was one such - where they could do nothing (I mean, Condi Rice has her work cut out). Money probably disappeared as well. It was a joke.

 
At August 03, 2006 11:52 am, Anonymous mikey said...

I support VSU, largely because it will destroy student politics as we have come to know them and precisely because I believe student politics is extremely important and shouldn't be corrupted. In our apathetic society USU is bound to lead to crappy distorted politicking (from both sides.)

If I was still a freshfaced undergrad, I would think about trying to get some more grassroots thing happening now. Something which was attractive to the vast majority of students. In short, I think there is a benefit in student populaces passing comment on conflicts and outrages.

 

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