The case for a voluntary student union

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, walk around UQ St Lucia, or any Australian university campus these days, and you’ll invariably run into a myriad of anti-Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) posters and stickers. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter an anti-vsu campaigner, usually an 8th year arts student who doesn’t believe in wearing shoes. Or taking showers for that matter.

What is VSU? Basically, all university students upon enrollment become members of their respective student union and pay a student services charge, ranging from $200 to $500 a year at some campuses. Most of this money goes to the student union and sporting clubs. Student unions in turn use this money to provide services such as campus refectories, clubs and societies, counseling, legal services, advocacy, etc.

The objectivity of this rant stops here.

What VSU means is that students will now have the choice whether or not they wish to join the student union, hence whether or not they pay.

The main arguments against VSU include (a lot of this is UQ specific, as I don’t really know the workings of other student unions around the country):

1.Student unions provide essential services to students. These services will no longer exist under VSU.

VSU isn’t about destroying unions. Unions will still exist, only membership will not be compulsory. If student unions provide services which are indeed ‘essential’, then they have nothing to be afraid of. Students will be more than willing to join voluntarily. Conversely, if students don’t see union services as essential, then they won’t join. If most students do not join, then doesn’t that mean that the union is failing most students?

A counterargument to this is that student fees are like taxes. Not everyone may use all the services, but society is better off for it.

Firstly, a student union is not a fourth tier of Government, regardless of what some within it would like you to believe. Governments represent the entire population, and are elected when all citizens vote. Student union elections are lucky if they can attract a 10% turnout, with many office bearers elected through the ‘mate’s vote’ system. Governments provide schools, hospitals, police, defense, and a common rule of law, all of which are essential for society to properly function. A student goes to uni to be educated, which can be done with or without a union. A Government will not shut down it’s services as a protest, unlike what student unions around the country are planning to do next Thursday.

Finally, even if you can equate student services charges with taxation, taxes are progressive. The more income you earn, the more tax you pay. If you don’t earn any income, you don’t pay any tax. The student services charge on the other hand, are regressive. Rich or poor, we are all forced pay the same amount. This hurts the poor the most.

2.Students will lose their only form of representation

Most forms of representation are already provided free of charge by many clubs and societies, such as the Law Society, Undergraduate Science, Engineers, and Architecture. These clubs don’t need money or anything more than their belief in students rights to do it.

Again, if most students believe in the value of student representation by the union, they would voluntarily join.

3.There will be massive job losses amongst union staff

Amongst the 300 or so employees of the union, only 10% are in support services rolls. The remainder are in management and business services, most of which are very profitable. At the last meeting of the UQ Union Admin Committee, the Business Trading Manager, Ray Thorne, stated he did not see any reason why the Business Trading Division would be retrenching staff.

4.Clubs and societies will go

Clubs and societies should not go under VSU. Of course, funding will be a lot harder to find without the union pouring money into them. On the other hand, a quick look at last year’s Union budget showed that the queer and women’s collectives (with only around 50 members between them) received around $300,000 in funding, which is more than the total amount of funding received by the other 60 or so clubs and societies.

Remember again that students will have an extra $136 to spend every semester. If clubs are as crucial to campus life as the Union would have you believe, won’t some of that $136 go into joining another club or two?

5.Uni sports will go

So what? Students go to uni to study, not to subsidise jocks. If people want to play sport, by all means, do so. But pay for it yourself, don’t expect other people to. In fact, the prices for sports club membership through UQ Sports are only marginally lower than for other sporting clubs. Many of the players on UQ’s sporting teams aren’t even UQ students.

To be continued…

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