Thursday, August 17, 2006

VSU: forcing efficiency or silencing students?

Last year in Parliament, Labor Senator Penny Wong outlined the possible ramifications of the Government’s VSU legislation, which removes the dedicated funding stream previously provided to student organisations: “Health services, child care, sporting infrastructure, counselling, clubs and societies, orientation activities, financial services, housing services and legal support services are all hanging in the balance.”

Similar concerns are shared by some in the Nationals, the Democrats and the Greens. But are they right?

According to Jenny Macklin, Shadow Minister for Education, the “experience in Western Australia when they implemented the same legislation over there a few years ago” meant “many of the universities lost a wide range of different services...One of the university student associations actually went into liquidation.” Showing the important of perspective, the Liberals argue that the experience in Western Australia has actually shown that half-decent student organisations can attract financial members without compulsion.

What’s true is that most of the items outlined by Senator Wong can be provided at competitive rates by the marketplace. For some students removal of the compulsory fee will mean a saving in excess of $400 each year, which students might use to pay for on an individual basis services previously bundled together in the one fee. This adds a new dimension of accountability that previously didn’t exist.

However, the suggestion that students are being forced to join affiliated organisations as a condition of enrolment has been a furphy. Macklin contends “students have [already] had the right not to belong to their student associations if they don’t want to. We haven’t had universities insisting that students must join their student association.”

Rachel Hills, a recent graduate of Sydney University, feels many students support the Government, and not just because of politics or ideology. “A lot of students don't feel that student organisations are relevant to them anymore,” she notes. “…while most students recognise the benefits of things like subsidised legal aid and emergency loans, if they don't foresee themselves needing to use it, they may be reluctant to pay the fees.”

Yet it’s not just reluctance. Melbourne University Science/Law students Narthana Epa and Nicholas Liau find it difficult to see clear-cut benefits. “[T]o play soccer this year for the university would have cost me $220 plus the cost of a uniform and gear,” says Liau. “To play soccer for an outside club would have cost just $150 including uniform... our fees are not being spent prudently given the outrageously high cost of joining supposedly subsidised clubs.”

At Melbourne the amenities fee for 2006 was $392 says Epa. He finds it “hard to imagine anyone recouping this amount through free barbecues”, instead suggesting “free second hand textbooks” to the disadvantaged be the union’s main priority. The union does not focus on welfare, he argues, “it just provides various services most of which are recreational... I don't see why I need to fund the recreation of my fellow students”.

Both agree fees for extra-curricular services are a burden on poorer students. And Liau would not like to see the death of student clubs. “Hopefully these clubs will survive by charging more for membership,” he says. “This way clubs will still survive, and students will be able to choose how to spend their own money.”

These sorts of fees are only a barrier to study because they must be paid up-front. In addition to giving universities the choice of implementing VSU, some like Andrew Norton (a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies) have supported a compromise involving the merging of the amenities fee under the HECS loan scheme. This would improve equity as disadvantaged students could defer the fee.

The ALP remains undecided on whether it would support such a scheme, says Macklin. “What Labor said we’ll do is look at a variety of ways that we can make sure these services and the representation role that student associations play on our campuses can continue. So we haven’t finalised what our position will be or how we’ll do that but we have a very clear objective…”

Although some students have a vested financial interest in supporting VSU, according to Rick Kuhn of the Australian National University that shouldn’t be what drives good policy. “The idea of ‘voluntary student unionism’ is like that of ‘voluntary taxation’” he writes. “Student unions provide services… from which all students benefit…Making student union membership and fees voluntary is as much of a nonsense as making membership of the Australian political system and the payment of taxes voluntary.”

The impact of the legislation will be felt particularly, but not exclusively, in regional areas, warns Macklin. “There’s no doubt that regional universities are under very serious financial pressure… But it’s true in the city as well, many of the suburban city universities, they have facilities that are widely used and it’s going to have a very big impact both on the student population [and] the surrounding community.” Macklin concedes however, that “it’s a little too early to say what it’s going to be like exactly at each university.”

Sports and clubs will survive without subsidy, argues Norton, as they do in thousands of voluntary associations across Australia. “Health services, apart from dental services, are largely funded by Medicare anyway… Universities will pay for some other essential services.”

As far as financial models go, the Monash Association of Debaters is an interesting sample of what the future might be like. Its 275 members receive only a fraction of their budget through the union – most funding comes from the university itself, the law school and law firm Freehills.

That VSU has the potential to hurt the Government is clear: a Roy Morgan poll published in December 2005 showed a swing back to the Coalition, but largely because VSU had ceased to become a hot issue. Clearly, tentative support from the ‘silent majority’ does not translate to political immunity. For the Government’s sake, it should hope things turn out well on Australian campuses.


At August 18, 2006 10:09 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

If something is good, people will pay for it. Of course, people have been known to pay for shite - think Windoze - but this is the exception, not the norm, and probably arises from market distortions.

I didn't like having to pay for something regardless. I was one of those poor students who found the bloody union fee an endless struggle.

At August 22, 2006 11:36 am, Anonymous Joel said...

Solid article.

I particularly like the example relating to the high cost of many union provided activities such as soccer clubs.

Last year at Melbourne Uni, students got the privelige of using a union subsidised dentist for $50 a visit - $5 more than my local, unsubsidised dentist charges. Non-students get charged even more exhorbitant fees, $80 per visit.


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