25/07/2006 - 22:00

VSU scare smoke and mirrors

25/07/2006 - 22:00


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For the past two years, parents well-known to State Scene have received a $300-plus bill from an Australian university student union that, if not paid, would have resulted in their child not being permitted to undertake tertiary studies.

For the past two years, parents well-known to State Scene have received a $300-plus bill from an Australian university student union that, if not paid, would have resulted in their child not being permitted to undertake tertiary studies.

Thankfully, just before Christmas last year, this practice of ‘no-ticket-no-study’ was outlawed, even if only narrowly, by the conservative-controlled Senate.

Because of that legislation, the student in question received an email from her campus’s student union last week.

“Following the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) from 1st July 2006, students are no longer required to pay a compulsory Student Services Fee,” it began.

“This fee was collected by the University on behalf of the University Union (UU) for the provision of a range of services.

“Please note that all students are still required to pay the Student Services Fee due for any term prior to the 1st July 2006.

“Under VSU, many of the services previously offered by the UU will con-tinue to be available to you at no charge.

“These include the Education and Welfare Officers, the 24-hour computer suite, the UU Employment Service and access to all food outlets on campus. 

“You will also be able to pay a fee to join a variety of clubs and sporting bodies including the Sports Club.

“If you elect to join the UU, you will receive additional services and discounts. For a membership fee of $99, you will receive:

•           an Ambassador Card, valued at $199.

•           up to 28 per cent off the regular retail price at Unibooks.

•           30 per cent off UU events and activities.

•           discounted Sports Association affiliation fee.

•           heavily discounted gym membership, and so much more!”

Several hundred thousand other students Australia-wide have undoubtedly received similar emails.

Yet for decades those backing the ‘no-ticket-no-study’ compulsory students unionism claimed that if students weren’t forced to pay the fees, campus unions would collapse; so-called campus services would vanish.

The compulsionists’ catch-cry on Western Australia’s campuses – where such unions carry the quaint medieval name, guilds – was, “The Liberals want to geld the guilds”, when, in fact, the guilds were fleecing students with unnecessary and unjust compulsory annual dues.

Now, suddenly, with students no longer compelled to pay up, we discover that for a voluntary $99 they can get a $199 Ambassador Card, up to 28 per cent off books at the campus bookshop, 30 per cent off events and activities, discounted sporting affiliation fee, heavily discounted gym, and, wait for it, “so much more.”

Why, therefore, were students Australia-wide forced for so long to pay even higher compulsory annual dues, which, it must be stressed, if not paid resulted in denial of entry to university studies?

There are several answers to this pertinent question.

Firstly, compulsionists operated on the principle of ‘when you’re on a good thing, stick to it’.

Good, of course, meant fleecing students.

All Australia’s university acts carry a clause stating union dues were compulsory, an idea that hailed from medieval times when anyone wanting to be a tinker, tailor or candlestick maker was indentured to guild masters rather than being employed on the modern principle where voluntary association prevailed.

Apprentices or trainees in the Middle Ages were bonded to employers, so weren’t free agents, a situation that came to prevail in modern times.

In other words, those drafting university acts were behind the times. They were, not to put too fine a point on it, out of date, pre-modern, and thus downright repressive fleecers.

They believed in drafting, conscripting, students in campus unions.

Furthermore, senior level university administrations teamed up with politically active students who dominated the unions to ensure anyone wishing to institute voluntary unionism were opposed.

State Scene vividly recalls when moves to institute voluntarism first surfaced at WA campuses in the mid-1970s. What happened was that all WA’s then vice-chancellors immediately lobbied the Court Liberal government not to outlaw compulsory student unionism.

They did this because the Liberals made the following promise at the 1977 state election: “We will make membership of student unionism voluntary, and remove compulsion.”

Although this was a thoroughly just, respectable and modern undertaking, party backing student union bosses lobbied and teamed up with campus administrators and weak-kneed Liberal MPs to have that promise dishonoured.

But that dishonouring so upset a group of students – some who were members of the then vibrant WA Liberal Party – that they countered by launching what became a 17-year campaign for it to be honoured.

Let me warn readers that this 30-year story has a happy, then an unhappy, and finally a happy end.

In 1993, 17 years after the promise was dishonoured – so after the Burke, Dowding and Lawrence governments were replaced – the Richard Court government honoured it, because Liberal MLC, Norman Moore, became education minister.

Mr Moore had seen the promise being dishonoured in 1977 and resolved to honour it when he had the opportunity, which is what happened in 1993.

The unhappy segment of this story came when the Court government was replaced by Geoff Gallop-led Labor in 2001, which also managed to gain control of the upper house with the leftist Greens.

Labor’s then education minister, Alan Carpenter, a long-time compulsionist, immediately scrapped Mr Moore’s 1993 amendments, thereby taking WA’s tertiary students back to the medieval order of compulsory student unionism.

But a happy ending came last December when the Senate, by a one-vote majority, backed voluntarism Australia-wide. This occurred no thanks to grand standing Queensland Nationals senator, Barnaby Joyce, who voted with Labor, the Greens and Democrats to retain medieval compulsion.

Thankfully Prime Minister John Howard and then education minister, Brendan Nelson, outmanoeuvred Senator Joyce by doing a deal with Victoria’s Family First senator, Steve Fielding.  If that hadn’t been done, hundreds of thousands of parents across Australia who finance their offspring through university would today still have to pay compulsory union dues. And campus unions would continue unnecessarily reaping millions of dollars annually, ad infinitum.

There are many side issues to this compulsory student unionism saga that’s now ended happily, with voluntarism at long last instituted across Australia, and re-instituted in WA.

One is that the Labor Party had been using campus unions as training grounds for its activists for decades. Another is that the fight to have medievalist compulsion outlawed began in WA in the mid-1970s and it took three decades for the slow-learning Canberra Liberals to finally apply it nationally.

Although it would have been far better, in State Scene’s view, if each state had moved on its own rather than having voluntarism instituted centrally via Canberra, that unfortunately was not to be because Labor state governments insist on adhering to the medieval notion of compulsion.

It must be emphasised that state governments years ago deserted funding their respective tertiary educational sectors, thereby leaving Canberra to take over our universities, which really should come under the control of state-based communities, not distant Canberra bureaucrats.

Neither the WA Labor nor Liberal parties can be exonerated in this regard, since both are bereft of modern and imaginative federalist notions.

The last time WA’s Liberals came up with a modern liberating idea was in the mid-1970s, with the proposal that campus unions should be voluntary.

And even then they fumbled the ball for several years, from 1977 until 1993.

But that liberating idea obviously had staying power because 12 years later, in 2005, it was picked-up by the Howard government, much to Labor’s displeasure.

State Scene has quizzed a Liberal senator about the day of that final Senate vote and learned that, when the bill was suddenly brought on for debate to outmanoeuvre Senator Joyce, one red-faced WA Labor began screaming and yelling at those on the government benches.

That’s how impassioned Labor’s dogmatic ranks were when medieval compulsionism was threatened. It also explains why Mr Carpenter moved so quickly in 2001 to ensure WA students were forced back to the medieval practice of compulsion.


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