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If it looks like a duck ...

By Lorraine Finlay - posted Monday, 17 November 2008


If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then chances are it probably is a duck.

No matter how much the Rudd Government tries to deny it, the recently announced plan to allow universities to impose a compulsory amenities fee of up to $250 on students is an attempt to sneak compulsory student unionism in through the backdoor. Perhaps they are hoping that if they can just do it quietly enough nobody will notice that this breaks the promise made before the last election that no such tax would be introduced.

The fact that a student won’t be forced to formally join their university’s student union will be of little comfort when they see their hard-earned $250 handed over to the union to spend on services they may not want or need, or in support of political causes they may not agree with. The imposition of a compulsory union fee infringes a student’s right to freedom of association just as surely as compulsory union membership.

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It is also disingenuous to claim, on the one hand, that the new fees will not be used for political purposes but to acknowledge, at the same time, that the money can be used to fund student representation. It is simply not possible to draw a clear dividing line between the two. The attempt to impose a “non-political services only” limit under the voluntary student representation model introduced in Victoria in 1993 showed only that student politicians have a prodigious talent for finding ways to neatly side-step these types of restrictions in their rush to continue channelling money towards their pet political projects.

The line between “political purposes” and “student representation” is, at best, a blurry one. An acceptable “student representation” use of this new compulsory fee would surely be to pay campus affiliation fees to the National Union of Students which is, after all, the “peak representative body of all tertiary students in Australia”? The myth of a clear dividing line is, however, laid bare by a quick glance at the NUS web-site, which openly claims that “activism is at the heart of student representation”.

The NSW State President expands on this, letting us know that “the NUS runs many different campaigns at the cutting edge of progressive social change in Australia”, including “actively campaigning against global warming”, “campaigning with active womyn’s [sic] groups” and “NUS queer campaigns”.

Such political activism is true to form and comes as no surprise. Student unions across the country have a track record of spending student money on favoured political causes, with examples including funding being provided to the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Communist Party of Malaya or, more recently, $10,000 being spent on a referendum seeking to have a university campus declared a “refugee safe haven”.

Why should students be forced to give money to political causes they may not support and that make no direct contribution to the quality of their education?

Of course, many of the activities provided by student unions do directly benefit students. The $163,459 that the UWA Student Guild spent last year on social activities such as O-Day, O-Camp, and bringing bands on to campus, no doubt made for a great campus atmosphere. I’m sure that students also appreciated the discount drinks in the Uni Tavern and the VIP entries to various hip n’ happenin’ clubs around town. I’m just not sure why the student busy studying in the university library or the student working in a part-time job to pay his own way through university should be forced to pay for the cheap drinks enjoyed by other students.

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Voluntary student unionism has the advantage of making student unions more responsive to the needs of their members. If student unions know they can bank on receiving compulsory amenities fees year in and year out what incentive is there for them to actually listen to students and respond to student needs? No matter how badly they perform they’ll still receive the money.

On the other hand, a system based on voluntary contributions requires them to work to attract membership and to convince students that they represent good value for money. Voluntary student unionism means that student unions can’t just take students, or their money, for granted.

It is important to remember that voluntary student unionism doesn’t stop students from joining a student union or from financially supporting the services that student unions provide. It just lets students make that choice for themselves.

As much as the Rudd Government may try to dress it up and hide its true nature, the plan for a compulsory amenities fee is a plan to take that choice away from students. It is the re-introduction of compulsory student unionism in everything other than name.

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About the Author

Lorraine Finlay is a Law Lecturer at Murdoch University, lecturing in constitutional law and international human rights. She is also a former President of the Liberal Women’s Council (WA).

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