In the early 1980s, Tony Abbott and Gerard Henderson approached Malcolm Fraser to plead for the introduction of voluntary student unionism. Fraser, true to form, did nothing. Now the Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, has put the issue back on the agenda. Unlike his predecessors, Nelson will have the Senate numbers to turn a long-held Liberal dream into reality.
Vested interests are already seeking to sabotage his efforts. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee is keen not to lose its backdoor mechanism for charging upfront fees to fund peripheral services.
It proposes that Nelson adopt the flawed Victorian model of voluntary unionism where students can stipulate that their money only be used to fund facilities, not political campaigns. Yet they must still pay the full fee.
One flaw is obvious. For each student who opts out, the student union merely allocates to its political campaigns a greater proportion of the fee of those who opt in, while campaigns on refugees, Iraq and so on are reclassified as non-political. But the real argument for voluntary unionism is not about politics.
It is ironic that student unions, whose activist members are never slow to vandalise a HECS-funded university building in their campaign to reduce student fees, charge the only compulsory upfront fees that HECS students face at university. These fees, up to $500 a year, confront poorer students with a daunting financial obstacle. But the use of the funds is the real disgrace.
Take the example of the Melbourne University Student Union, operating under the Victorian model. Student politicians argue that abolishing compulsory fees would destroy the rich tapestry of student life by bankrupting student clubs and societies. Yet, out of $7 million collected in student fees, the union spends about $100,000 on student clubs, and about $3 million on administration.
Student politicians also claim student unions provide important services such as subsidised catering. Yet such arguments are absurd. Collecting money from students compulsorily and then giving it back to them as cheap food can hardly make them better off. And poorer students, who can only afford to bring lunch from home, subsidise the well-off.
In fact, it is not the food at student cafeterias that is subsidised, but the staff. Student union employees include a disproportionate number of student politicians and their mates. Meanwhile, prices are generally no better than at similar commercial outlets.
Unscrupulous professional managers can manipulate inexperienced student politicians, winning their favour with such personal benefits in return for the student politicians funding their bloated administrative empires with student money. Compulsory union fees, taken from students too busy to concern themselves with the administration of unions to which they do not wish to belong, invite corruption and nepotism.
In the case of Melbourne University, operating under the Clayton's model of voluntary unionism that the vice-chancellors now urge on Nelson, the student union is in liquidation after a $44 million property deal went sour. Such financial irresponsibility is encouraged by the availability of compulsory fees to mitigate inefficiency and mismanagement.
The universities fear that real voluntary unionism would force them to pay for services provided by unions. Most of these could be profitable. In any case, better to raise HECS fees than to maintain compulsory upfront fees just to preserve the effects of the small fraction that the unions don't waste.
Real voluntary unionism would prohibit universities from charging compulsory upfront fees of any form. Anything less and the left-wing administrators of our universities would charge the fees and hand them to the student unions under the guise of outsourcing.
For the Coalition, real voluntary unionism is all positive. Politically, it will end the sad legacy of a student-funded playground for aspiring Labor politicians to curry favour by using compulsory fees to fund campaigns with themes like "Students can't afford another Howard Government". Coalition and independent students will be freed from subsidising political campaigns contrary to their beliefs. And real voluntary unionism will "ease the squeeze" on a grateful student body.
Voluntary unionism is thus a litmus test of the Howard Government's sincerity about reform. The only possible reason to adopt the weak vice-chancellors' committee model would be an unwillingness to confront the vested interests this Government was elected to take on. It would be a failure of nerve that would bode ill for the more important struggles ahead. It would make Nelson a target of contempt within the activist grassroots of his party, when he has it within his grasp to become a hero.