More VSU


Here’s the commentary of an Aussie university graduate who wants to see the government bring back mandatory student unionism.

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More VSU

  1. If I had to argue in favor of compulsory student union and student services fees (with possibilities of opt-out in certain cases to be specified when the fees are proposed by referendum), I think I would focus on two points, relating to the two “roles” of a students’ association.

    1) Representation: The credibility of a students’ union lobbying efforts depend on whether it’s perceived to represent the whole of the student population or not. If a specific students’ union is not doing so well in that department, it’s up to motivated students to do somethnig about it, and it has been done. VSU encourages a passive response (pull out of the SU) rather than an active response (do something to make it better).

    In addition, whenever the SU makes advocacy gains, all students benefit. This is the parallel with unions and why union membership fees are compulsory in countries such as Canada.

    2) Services: This side of a students’ union role is based on a single principle, that is, pooling resources from all students to create many services that are not individually used by all students, but that together provide a good array of services for everyone. That is a key point. In an extreme VSU case where you would opt-in in every service separately (that is where their logic is going, clearly), then these services essentially become separate, independent entreprises.

    On those two points, it seems to me that the VSU system essentially removes the reason for having a students’ union in the first place. By opting-in for representation, the students’ union goes down to some club status which loses much of its advocacy power. By opting-in for services, you might just as well have a series of independent businesses or non-profit organizations for each service, as there is no central pooling and redistribution of resources.

  2. I think this misses why VSU was imposed in Australia in the first place: right-wing politicians didnt like left-wing student leaders and they used powers of legislation to neuter them. had the student leaders been right-wing, the chances the howard government would have introduced VSU is nil.

    In Canada, the case for VSU is quite different. Our politicians seem to have a much higher tolerance level for left-wing students (or perhaps ours aren;t as left-wing as those in Australia. But our SUs are larger and wealthier than most of the ones in Australia. The best arguments for VSUs (or, at least, increased regulation of student unions) here are related to the fact that every year, you can be more or less guaranteed to find one or two high-profile cases of a student union with execs accused of being on the take and student elections end up in court with distressing frequency. Many SUs are run very well, but others are run incredibly badly and with total disregard for the students they allegedly represent.

    If there’s a threat to SUs here in Canada, that’s going to be the battleground: governments forbidding institutions to collect fees on behalf of student unions that do not meet strict governance standards and accept to have their governance practices audited regularly by a third party.

    I can think of a few institutions where that would be an excellent idea, actually.

  3. For one thing I would argue it would be unfair to punish all Canadian students (present and future) for a few present faults by their representatives. I don’t think your message says the contrary, but I wanted to point it out clearly. Also, regarding regulation of SUs:

    “If there’s a threat to SUs here in Canada, that’s going to be the battleground: governments forbidding institutions to collect fees on behalf of student unions that do not meet strict governance standards and accept to have their governance practices audited regularly by a third party.”

    Student unions are regulated in the province of Quebec, and it’s a good deal for them as well as the institution, because it sets both rights (having the institution collect a levy on their behalf and having a space on campus, for example) and responsabilties (including processes to follow to get accredition) for student unions.

    Link: http://www2.publicationsduquebec.gouv.qc.ca/dynamicSearch/telecharge.php?type=2&file=/A_3_01/A3_01.html

    I assume this legislation would be easy to adapt in other provinces, if both the governments and the SUs are relatively in favor of something similar.

  4. 4. Dans un établissement d’enseignement, tout élève ou étudiant a le droit de faire partie d’une association d’élèves ou d’étudiants de son choix.
    4. In an educational institution, any student has the right to belong to an association of students of his choice.

    This clause seems to have the potential to create VSU in Quebec.

  5. Philippe,

    The Quebec legislation may have changed somewhat since I was there, but to my knowledge, it does not provide oversight or governance standards of SUs *after* they achieve accreditation.

    Why do you think that requiring third-party oversight of SUs would be tantamount to a “punishment” of students (or am I reading you wrong, there)? Wouldn’t improved governance standards at SUs – which collectively oversee budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars – be good for everyone?

  6. As for governance standards: It’s true that it is minimal, I suppose there is also oversight through the corporation act (most SUs are non-profit corporations).

    In any case I don’t disagree with you on the standards aspect, although I think it’s important that any legislation recognizes both rights and responsabilities for the student union, the government and the university, when applicable. The rights aspect was really the only point I wanted to make here, and I gave Québec as the only example I was familiar with.

    The punishment I was referring to was not governance standards, it was imposing VSU nationwide/provincewide, as in Australia. As I explained above (and you might disagree), student unions under VSU would barely be student unions at all. My point was that if the argument for VSU is that some student union leaders don’t act professionally, these people should be punished (by their constituencies, or the law, or both), not all student unions in the country by cutting their funding and representativity.

  7. In British Columbia, students’ unions are required to produce audited financial statements to their members or have their funding cut off, as per the University Act / College and Institute Act.

    In the United Kingdom, most students’ unions are unincorporated charities. They are governed by Part II of the Education Act 1994:
    Under this law the Board of Governors (or equivalent) of the post-secondary educational institution is charged with the oversight of the students’ union. Another feature of UK students’ unions is that they do not charge student fees whatsoever; they are funded by block grants from the institution, and from own-source revenue (mainly from pubs).

    From what I can tell through the Internet (which, admittedly, is not an ideal source), it appears that many Australian students’ union elections (as well as the internal elections of the National Union of Students of Australia) were often hotly contested by the student wings of the major political parties. Consequently, the students’ unions (which were mostly won by Labor Party factions) were extremely partisan, and often spent a lot of money criticizing the Labor Party. This led to a decades-long campaign on the part of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation (http://www.alsf.org.au/) to introduce Voluntary Students’ Unionism.

    Another issue is organized labour. Voluntary Students’ Unionism is essentially analogous to the “open shop” principle (a.k.a. Right to Work). No government in Canada, not even in Alberta, has dared to pass “open shop” laws. In contrast, the Australian Liberal government of John Howard passed a number of very controversial laws (known as “WorkChoices”) that greatly weakened the power of the labour movement.

  8. That’s interesting about the BC legal requirement, Titus. So how did DSU get away with not handing in audited statements for as long as they did?

    Now that I understand your point, Philippe, I do agree with you. Although, if student associations could lose the right to levy fees for repeated infractions of governance standards (and for the moment, let’s assume that governance standards were restricted to issues of the conduct of elections, financial controls and financial transparency), you would almost certainly end up with some campuses without student unions. Would you find that acceptable?

  9. I’m not sure if the government or the school should be getting involved in the conduct of the elections, because there is a possibility of political interference there. I think all political matters (including the internal by-laws and policies of the student association) should be dealt with by the members. I’ve seen the political culture of my former SU (of which I was a member but not a representative) change greatly in only two years. And there’s a certain empowerment benefit when students work to change the culture in their SU, which should not be neglected.

    However, the idea of linking the right to perceive a levy to financial responsibilities seems logical. I’m not an expert enough to figure out what would be the best gradation of sanctions in that case.

  10. For four consecutive years, the Douglas Students’ Union wrote letters to the Douglas College Board of Governors falsely informing them that the DSU had made available audited financial statements to its members. When Douglas College found out that the DSU had been lying (by talking directly to the DSU’s auditor), they cut off funding.

  11. There is definitely a need for some form of independent oversight of elections and referendums.

    In my area of the country, there are four students unions with legitimacy issues due to questionable elections.

    As student unions have grown into massive business in the last few decades, the incentives for outsiders looking to control the money of the students union has grown, and the stakes for those controlling the money presently have increased.

    One only needs to look at health and dental plans as the perfect example. We have three main providers for student union coverage in this country. Two of them are associated with questionable practises. One gives out gifts and funds junkets for student politicians, the other is associated with student politicians who fired a staff member who assisted a committee which voted against that plan.

    Who can blame the players, tens of millions of dollars are at stake in a lucrative venture.

    A couple of students unions are paying their “student” executives amounts that give them incentive to hold onto their position out of personal financial interest.

    The problems with students unions in Canada can all be traced to money.

    Governments feed to legislate more transparency upon students unions. I go so far as to say there should be a requirement that all transactions and contracts entered into by a students union over $1000 dollars must be made public on the Internet. (This includes the CFS, CASA, OUSA, and other similar organizations)

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