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In defence of student unions

By Ronan Lee and Jess Pugh - posted Thursday, 14 July 2005

Michael is 17, from country New South Wales, new to Brisbane and living away from home for the first time. He has no family in Queensland and knows only a handful of people in his new city. Studying for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Queensland, Michael will rely on his student union to help him find a share house near to the university, he will look for part-time work with the help of the union’s employment service, and will rely heavily upon union funded clubs and societies to make friends and socialise now that he is living in a new city.

Michael’s story is not unusual. Michael is a typical university student. He will use some student union services sometimes and other services never. Michael hopes that he will never need assistance from the union with an academic appeal, but he knows that some students will. Michael hopes never to need call upon the unions free legal advice service, but he knows that some students will. And like most students Michael will read the campus newspaper occasionally.

Without universal student union coverage university students would not have ready access to free on-campus services like the University of Queensland Union’s employment and accommodation services, the Queensland University of Technology Student Guild’s child care facilities or their excellent academic appeals assistance and the Federal Government’s voluntary student unionism legislation will certainly spell the end of the Griffith University Student Representative Council’s excellent student magazine Gravity and the SRC’s legendary social events.


Student unions play a significant, often unnoticed and certainly unrecognised role in students' university lives. For this reason alone they deserve not to be destroyed. But aside from the simple reality that student unions provide for students material wellbeing while they are at university, student unions are important to students’ university experience for another important reason.

Universities are places of higher learning, where students learn not only to think about the nuts and bolts of their coursework but also where they learn how to really think deeply about the world in which we live. Most graduates will happily admit during their student days they learned almost as much outside their formal lectures as they did within them.

The political activity of student unions is an integral part of what they do. In fact it is an intrinsic part of the university educational process. Indeed, so much so that to not have the opportunity to experience this informal aspect of university life would leave one’s university experience incomplete. Universities are more than degree factories and the on-campus political activity, which is for the most part facilitated by student unions, is an important part of the university experience.

The advocates of VSU would be appalled were a student allowed to graduate from their degree without completing any particular part of their coursework. If this formal part of one’s university experience is compulsory, where is the logic in not also making the informal part of their university experience compulsory? In my view, student freedom of association lies, not in the ability to join or not to join a student union but instead in whether or not to enrol in a university degree. Student unions are more than mere voluntary associations, they are an intrinsic part of university life.

In a recent On Line Opinion article Alistair Campbell, a NSW Young Liberal, made his case for voluntary student unionism with two principal arguments against compulsory student unionism: first, the regressive nature of the student fees and second, Campbell objects to the comparison of student unions to governments. While I would be stunned and amazed if Campbell could find a single student who considered either of these issues “deal breakers” in so much as joining the student union is concerned I will none the less address his concerns.

Campbell’s first criticism is that student unions charge a regressive fee. True. The student union fee is regressive. It is also so small that to collect union fees in any other manner would simply mean a massive bureaucracy would need to be created, for which students would bear an even greater financial burden. The fees would then be progressive but massive. Most would agree that this is a ridiculous suggestion but resembles the kind of taxation wizardry that has made Peter Costello Australia’s highest taxing Treasurer.


Some government fees are simply of a scale that it makes financial sense to charge a flat rate. That’s why when you purchase a bus, ferry or train ticket you are charged a flat rate each journey and are not required to produce your last five tax returns to prove your income to some hapless ticket clerk. This is not rocket science, just common sense. This is not to be confused in any way with an endorsement of the Federal Liberal government’s desire to collect the bulk of its revenue by means of the regressive GST (didn’t notice Campbell calling for the abolition of the Commonwealth): it is just cheaper to charge a single student union fee. This part of Campbell’s anti-student union argument is simply invalid.

So too is Campbell’s refusal to see student unions as organisations that operate on similar lines to governments. Campbell’s argument here is based on his view that student unions do not spend as much money on welfare and education services or subsidised food as he considers adequate. This argument seems to stem more from Campbell’s confusion about the philosophical underpinnings of government than any significant difference between the fundamental structures of a government and those of student unions.

Governments in Australia are democratic, they collectively pool the resources of their residents to provide services to these residents, some of these services are essential and some simply make their lives better. As far as this basic definition is concerned student unions get a tick in every box. Government cannot be defined by how it spends its money or divides its resources. These are decisions made by decision-makers within a government. You might not always agree with the decisions made by our decision-makers but that is no excuse to tear down the structure.

Personally I think that many of the Howard Government’s actions have been reprehensible - from sending Australians to war without the approval of the United Nations, to locking asylum-seeking children in detention centres for years on end, but that does not give me justification to seek to abolish the Australian nation claiming that it is not a real government structure. Just because I disagree with the decisions doesn’t mean the structure is not sound. Again, Campbell’s anti-student union argument doesn’t add up.

But we all know the proponents of voluntary student unionism do not argue their case with a pure heart. No thinking policy maker could plausibly argue the case against universal student unions with a universal fee. It makes little policy sense. Students need the services provided by their student unions that is why student unions have existed almost as long as the institutions in which they exist. The case against compulsory student unions is more to do with ideological zeal than it is to do with students’ interests. Australians deserve better from their national government.

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About the Authors

Ronan Lee is a political consultant and former Greens MP and adviser. He has traveled extensively in Burma, observing the 2010 elections and meeting Aung San Suu Kyi in the days following her release from house arrest.

Jess Pugh is the National Union of Students Queensland Secretary.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Ronan Lee
All articles by Jess Pugh
Related Links
On Line Opinion - The case against compulsory student unionism

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