The case for voluntary unionism

Today the government put the controversial “Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005” before Federal Parliament, which would ban compulsory student unionism (CSU) throughout Australia. Over recent months this proposal has been subject to countless protests by activist student groups and much bad-press. Consequently, as a staunch supporter of voluntary student unionism (VSU), I’ll present the supporting case from my personal perspective.

From my point of view, there are four main supporting arguments in favour of VSU:

  • Freedom of association
    One of the fundamental tenets of Democracy is freedom of association. When a student is forced to belong to an organisation which they do not want to belong to, this is a fundamental violation of our personal freedoms. This criticism applies to any sort of forced affiliation, but particularly to student unions since they are not all-inclusive and not representative of the majority (refer to my next point).
  • Student unions are not representative
    Student unions is Australia typically pursue blatant political agendas, usually including socialism, feminism, environmentalism, drug-law reform and countless other leftist ideologies, typically in extreme form. While people are certainly more than entitled to any or all of these points of view, the fact is that they do not represent a majority perspective. I should clarify that I am not suggesting that student unions instead start pursuing right-wing political agendas. Rather, they should pursue strictly apolitical agendas and focus on providing services which are available and useful to all. So long as student unions promote any ideology over any other, they are not, and cannot be the all-inclusive, representative bodies they should. However, student unions are so universally plagued by the problem of partisanship, and the political affiliations so firmly entrenched, that most students, myself included, have no faith whatsoever they will change on their own accord.
  • Students should not have to pay for services they do not use
    At the University of Queensland, where I study, I pay approximately $300 per year in Student Union fees, and I should reasonably be able to expect something in return. Unfortunately, rather than using their massive budget to provide services of benefit to everyone, the money is funnelled into countless causes which are of no benefit to the vast majority of students. Following are a few examples of ways in which Student Union money is spent ‘representing’ students at UQ:

    • The Women’s Collective, a small group of activist feminists, receive approximately $150,000 per year in support from the Student Union. This money is spent on activities such as sending members to surf and meditation camps on the New South Wales North Coast. Needless to say, ‘services’ like this are an extravagance and of no benefit to the average student.
    • The Queer Collective, a group open to gays and lesbians on campus, receives similar levels of funding and spends it in similar ways.
    • The Food and Wine Appreciation Society, a small group of people who regularly eat-out at some of Brisbane’s most expensive and elite restaurants, at the expense of the University of Queensland Student Union.
    • The High Society, my personal favourite, is a group of marijuana smokers whose stated goal is to promote drug-law reform, but in fact organize for drug dealers from all across Brisbane to gather once a week on-campus to sell to UQ students. One of their trading sessions was recently stormed by the police, however they still meet regularly and still actively deal drugs to students on campus. Needless to say, this ‘essential service’ is subsidised by the Student Union.

    In the meantime, facilities like the refectories, which are used at some stage by the vast majority of students, are not subsidised and run at a large profit. In light of this, arguments in favour of CSU, which argue that it facilitates essential student services are not credible.

  • When membership is compulsory, student unions are run inefficiently
    In the absence of competitive forces, student unions have no incentive to run themselves efficiently. As an example, my purchases at the Union-owned refectories are approximately 20% more expensive than if I walk 10 minutes down the street to the nearest supermarket. The same applies to other Union-owned enterprises. Not only is the Union uncompetitive, but it actively seeks to stifle competition. In fact, the Union has regulations in place which forbid non-Union-owned enterprises from operating on Union premises, if they are in direct competition with a Union-owned enterprise.

In summary, the argument in favour of VSU is not one which ruthlessly opposes the existence of student services or student representation, as much of the media, and certainly the CSU supporters, have been making out. In fact, the argument for VSU is that it is in the interests of openness, transparency, competitiveness and personal liberty, to allow every individual the right to choose for themselves what is best for themselves.

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