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Voluntary student unionism

There was a lovely article from Michelle Grattan in today's Age on voluntary student unionism (VSU). I have touched on this before, but it is topical now, and I think it does deserve its own post. While there is a lot to be said for a campus life, the basic arguments seem to come down to this:

Proponents of VSU
  • Freedom of association
  • A user-pays market-place will provide accountability
  • Opponents of VSU
  • Without the funds childcare and other touchy-feelly things will disappear
  • A thriving student union is essential for (insert opponent's priorities - typically as grandiose statements such as democracy, freedom etc.)
  • Students won't pay an optional fee
  • As Michelle Grattan argues, freedom of association and a compulsory fee are not necessarily intertwined, and I do know people who actively chose not to belong to the student union. They had to - you have to actively tick the box not to join.

    Before I go any further about the compulsory fees, I do want to make a comment on student union promoting democracy. Surely, for this to be a valuable and valued forum for democracy, people need a genuine opportunity to opt out. Telling someone, "You can opt in and pay $400 or ... you can opt out and pay $400. You can pay and be represented or pay and not be represented" is not choice and it is not freedom of association. If I pay rent for a house, I want to be able to live there. If I pay for something, I feel entitled to receive what I have paid for.

    Bill Hicks derided a Catholic teaching he was brought up with that "Eternal Damnation and hellfire awaits those who doubt God's infinite love." He was big on irony. To have a student union as a thriving entity, it seems, we have to force all students to pay for it. It's a shame Hicks only usually used his comedy against one side of politics. Both sides have lots of comic value.

    Anyway, let's get back on to the topic. Student won't pay an optional fee, so it must be compulsory. Let's be honest here. Student unions generally control some large infrastructure. While I have not been to many universities in Australia, I think they generally control food distribution in most universities. This space, commercially, is worth a fortune. You get to supply a market made up of mostly 18-25 year olds with only a limitted range of competitors. How much would McDonalds pay to open a franchise in the middle of any big campus? (Even taking into account the extra costs associated with cleaning up damage from militant Arts students) There are sources of revenue available besides directly levied fees.

    "But childcare will disappear" Only if those in charge let it. Apart from some grandstanding about what will disappear if $170 million dollars is not ripped from the pockets of students each year, the things which are seen as most valuable will stay longest and the things which are more discretionary will disappear first. They will not touch the essential services while channelling money into their own favourite causes. "Yes they will" Oh, that's right. Those in charge are essentially unaccountable and unrepresentative to the average student. Are corrupt and see their views as more important than seeking to represent all students, even those with opposing beliefs. Will happily give open chequebooks of student resources to organisations running protests they see as reasonable. I'm amazed that the union is still able to offer legal services, childcare etc.

    "Students won't pay an optional fee" To be brutally honest, I would not pay the $400 fee if given a choice. Quite frankly, over the 9 years I have been parted from a significant sum at the start of the year, I would be very surprised if I had got anywhere near value for money. I have seen that money squandered on a variety of things ranging from those I believe in to those I am ambivalent to those I object to. I don't object to people's rights to say most of the things that have been said. I just object to them using my money to do so.

    If I was a farmer's son, I'd be very upset at the way the student union money was used to villify farmers during the docks dispute. I'm still not happy about it anyway. As to the statement that a student union isn't a real union, I heard more than one student union representative say "MUA is a union and we're a union, so we'll stand with you." What's the National Farmer's Federation?

    I'm not overly enthused about the idea of my money being used to support posters declaring that the Israeli Government are Nazis and how Israel is a fascist/terrorist/rogue state.

    Even providing facilities such as a women's room or a queer room takes funding from all to provide facilities for some.

    I may well opt to pay a fee of $100, if I thought that 1) I would get some kind of value for money and 2) any extra costs were going towards worthwhile facilities. I think most students would agree. Bearing mind that students would have an extra $400 in their pockets to make such decisions with.

    "But the union will die without the funds" If, as a student populace, we are prepared to let it die, then it can't have been worth saving, can it? If we lost our innocence a long time ago, and have only just noticed, then it can't have been too imporant to us.

    An interesting question, as with most things, is what would we do if something didn't exist and we wanted it to. Certainly, tobacco would not pass regulatory approval if it was a new product on the market. What would happen if you wanted to create a body funded by compulsory fees? What do you think the response would be if you proposed taking $400/ year off every student to do a variety of things, from running some services through to putting on free food for segments of the student populace? Do you think that you could convince students that setting it up would be a good idea? Do you think that you could convince Governments or University administrations?

    Similarly, why stop at $400? If $400 isn't an impost which must be mandatory for all students in order to get a tertiary education, why not add another $400? Try suggesting that the student union fee should be doubled to $800 and see what kind of response you get. The reply to the obvious responses goes along the lines of "think of all the services we could provide. They are essential for..."

    "But if you don't like where the money is going, you can run to change it..." No. I can't. The stipend isn't enough for me to live off permanently and student politics isn't important enough for me to waste my life trying to fix, even if I could. I have an education to think of, and, besides, having had friends who played toy politics, I know that they got elected by deals, not by ideals. They got in by vote sharing. The only way I could do that would be to actually join one of the major parties, whose opinions I generally disagree with. More importantly, I'd be competing against people who would actually want the positions on their CV, and so the year(s) of their life wouldn't be wasted.

    That is the fundamental difference between arguments about VSU funding and taxation. As small as it is, I have a voice in Government. And if I run and get in, then it is worth my while financially. This gives me the option and partially offsets any of the sacrifices necessary.

    Besides, I would like to see various levels of Government abolished, too.

    Addendum submitted by Revi Lubansky on August 12th 2005:

    After a pause Bill adds: "Believe or Die! Thank you for giving, Lord. For all those options."

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