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The case against compulsory student unionism

By Alistair Campbell - posted Thursday, 16 June 2005


The current voluntary v compulsory student unionism (VSU and CSU) debate is heating up right around the country. Recently about 5,000 NSW students massed in protest to oppose the legislation tipped to be passed after the Government achieves Senate control on July 1. The overwhelming voice in this campaign has come from the Left, in their strong opposition to Brendan Nelson's plan for VSU in Australian universities. They claim the Bill will mean the end of all support services on campus, as well as ending cheap gym memberships and subsidised food.

I have two problems with the current CSU issue that neither side will address.

In the first instance, this concerns the ideologies of the people that back the notion of compulsory unionism. Obviously by its very nature, the current situation is a form of regressive tax. Some may argue that this is more like council rates instead of government taxes, but the underlying point is that it is still a regressive levy.

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The progressives, who in most cases back the CSU scenario, have lobbied at a state and federal level for a progressive tax system. If the governing body (in this case the unions and the Students' Representative Council - SRC) really support a progressive system, then why is the current system solely based around a flat, regressive tax system? Why does someone with a stable job pay as much as someone just above the poverty line? This is clearly a contradiction for the progressive ideologies on campus.

The other problem is in comparing current university unions to governments. This issue was first brought to the fore by Opposition Education spokesperson, Jenny Macklin, at the anti-VSU rally last month. She said, "Let's face it, how many people would voluntarily pay their taxes if they didn't have to".

This got me thinking - so I decided to do some research and really find out how much of the spending by unions is actually spent on welfare and distribution of funds.

A very small percentage of services provided by the union are actually related to students' education. Roughly 40 per cent of Sydney University's union income is spent on subsidising food around the campus. The places that supply this “so called” subsidised food are as expensive as normal retail outlets and are reaping the reward of holding a monopoly on campus.

You simply have to walk into the Wentworth Building at Sydney University to verify this: A variety of stores selling at or above common retail prices. It is also incorrect to say lower income earners benefit more from subsidised food than those in a higher income bracket. The people who can afford to buy from these places are not the poor, but rather the wealthier students. A far cry from benefiting the hard-up as the Left would like you to believe.

The first argument in favour of voluntary unionism is the right to choose. Although the unions will argue that this is simply a moral point and does not affect the debate, it clearly impacts on the running of a union. At present students are forced to become members of a union, which by its very nature is not held accountable. It's argued that by voting a party or person into the council, students have a choice of who runs their campus. It still does not ensure people have a say in where their money goes each year.

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Simply, if people do not use the services then they should not be forced to fund them. That is the basis of the free market. If students see value for money in the union, they will subscribe.

Taking away this right to abstain is taking away a primary right to choice and freedom of association. By introducing VSU, it will be run more like a business and less like a left-wing welfare agency. If membership goes down, it is simply displaying the fact the union has not catered to students’ needs.

The situation under the current system means student unions can take members for granted, knowing that students have no choice in paying the fee, whether they support the union or not.

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Article edited by Patrick O'Neill.
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About the Author

In November 2008, Alistair Campbell travelled around Iraq talking with people from many different tribal, ethnic and religious groups. He was there to assess the viability of a project he is initiating which involves starting a national schools debating league in Iraq, with view of taking the first ever Iraqi team to World Schools Debating Championships to be held in Qatar in 2010. His involvement with Iraq started when he was an organiser and a facilitator of the Youth Initiative for Progress in Iraq conference held in Jordan in July 2008; the conference was the first and only youth policy conference held specifically for Iraqi youth to discuss development issues and the conflict.

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