The passing of voluntary student unionism (VSU) legislation by the Senate is sure to please the many members of the Liberal Party room who developed a passionate hatred for student unions while fighting for control of them in the 1970 and 1980s.
While Labor Leader Kim Beazley and renegade National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce have evoked colourful language criticising the bill, what is truly unfortunate is that a hatred of unions seems to have driven Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson to implement a policy that contradicts liberal ideology. This ideology is the right of individuals and businesses to make their own decisions free from government interference. While students will no longer be forced to join student unions, the only voluntary aspect to the legislation is in the rather deceptively named title.
The policy makes it illegal for both student unions and universities to charge up-front mandatory fees for the provision and support of student services such as counselling or sporting facilities, the logic being that if students value such services, then they will be willing to pay for them on an individual basis. However, for a party that traditionally prides itself on a belief in the power and right of individuals and businesses to make their own choices, the Liberal Party has effectively imposed its will on Australian universities.
The decision implies two things. First, that the Federal Government only trusts itself when it comes to making decisions about the provision of higher education in Australia. It obviously doesn't trust our universities. If that were the case, then it would permit universities to make their own decisions as to what fees to charge (if any) and how they will be charged (either through a combination of deferred tuition fees and up-front student services fees or through a single all-inclusive fee). It would also allow universities to make their own decisions as to how they provide student services (either through universal provision for all students or through a user- pays system).
Second, it implies that the Federal Government has little faith in the potential for competition to ensure efficient and fair outcomes in our society and specifically in this case to drive enhancements in the provision of non-academic university facilities and programs.
When students select a university to attend, there are several factors that they consider: entrance requirements and the relative quality and the cost of their preferred course must all be weighed up. The level of mandatory fees is also a consideration. Consequently, given that universities compete with one another for students, their ability to charge high mandatory fees is quite limited because if the fees are too high, students will simply elect to attend other universities whose mandatory fees are lower. These competitive pressures provide an incentive for universities to charge lower mandatory fees and to be efficient in how those funds are spent.
The Federal Government's financial adjustment package will provide some assistance in the short-term, but it is obviously not sustainable in the long-term.
We are acutely aware that student unions are far from perfect. They can be wasteful, and due to student apathy at Australian universities, they are rarely held to proper account through student elections. (At the last Melbourne University Student Union elections, fewer than 10 per cent of students even bothered to vote.) Sadly this means student unions tend to be dominated by the extremities of both sides of politics.
No student should be forced to join a student union or to pay for political activity by student unions. At the same time, other than perhaps capping the level of up front mandatory fees to ensure that there is no substantial financial burden on students, the Government shouldn't be dictating to Australian universities as to how they deliver their student services or what structure they use to fund them.
As players in the internationally competitive tertiary education market, Australian universities need to be able to make their own management decisions with minimal government interference. Australian universities don't need a nanny state to tell them what to do, they need the freedom to make their own decisions as to how they provide quality student services, so that students who need them can access them.
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Krystian Seibert is a public policy professional based in Melbourne. He has worked as a policy adviser to two Australian Ministers and studied regulatory policy at the London School of Economics.