This is a new argument


Things are getting interesting in Australia again.

Two years into Voluntary Student Unionism and the new federal government is trying to figure out what to do in order to fulfill its promise to reverse VSU.

The problem is that VSU is not widely unpopular nor is it widely popular, people will settle for the status quo.

There is plenty of debate about the future of student unions in Australia. This argument is unique. (I haven’t come to my own conclusion about it yet.)


This is a new argument

  1. VSU is a great idea and it’s a shame that it’s not at least on the radar at Canadian universities and colleges.

    The people opposed to VSU boggle my mind – where is the logic in wanting to take away a student’s right to choose to be a member of a students’ union? That’s right – there’s no logic.

    We don’t force people to join a particular political party – that brings back too many painful memories. Why does the same policy extend to university students’ unions?

    Bring VSU to Canada.

  2. The sensibility of a compulsory or voluntary model can only really be judged on a campus-by-campus basis. For some universities, student governance is entrenched in the overall decision-making structure (SU prez on the board of governors, VP education/academic on the senate, etc.), they provide substantial services, and they are responsible for the provision of student life activities. In these examples the student union is essentially a government with a defined constituency and often acts responsibly with that authority. Moreover, the responsibility for these various activities means that people take their student government seriously (voter turnout at many campuses regularly compares to municipal turnout) with competitive elections and press coverage (including the mainstream press, occasionally). I can see few reasons why these forms of student government should not have a well-regulated taxation authority, just as a city government does.

    On the other hand there are definitely student governments that are more concerned with loud, marginal interests and protest. I’m not saying those interests are illegitimate, but they take away attention from the issues/activities that affect the daily lives of students. This makes the student union less relevant in the eyes of their constituents, lowers voter turnout, reduces competition in elections, makes the union susceptible to hijacking by marginal interests, and continues to delegitimize the government.

    That said, I more or less agree with the linked post. I don’t think there’s a fear of accountability as he asserts, but I think there would be tremendous benefit if governments gave charters to our student unions similar to the way they charter our universities, and make them fully integrated components of the university structure that are accountable for their actions and expenditures. Universities use government grants and student tuition dollars to lobby governments and students to get on side with their views. Governments use tax dollars to convince citizens to agree with them. Why shouldn’t a relevant, well-regulated student union be able to do the same?

    Thanks for the link, Joey. Very interesting stuff.

  3. Three quick points:

    1) The linked text “new argument” seems to call for the government to fund student unions instead of a student levy. In one way, it seems that it would potentially damage the political independence of the student union. In addition, it seems to me as a waste of time to expect the taxpayers to start funding “ancillary fees” unless they are already funding all the tuition fees (which is certainly not the case in Canada).

    2) If you allowed opting out of a students’ union, does that means that everything student union service/event would have to be restricted to only students who don’t opt out? (In order to be fair and avoid some people getting a free ride.) There is a potential logistical nightmare here.

    This is even harder to apply to the advocacy part of the students’ union. Should a student union not support a student in conflict with a professor because he/she opted out?

    3) At our university, the sports fee (for use of the gyms, etc.) is much higher than the student union levy. It would also seem easier to make an opt-out, since access to the gym is done by a magnetic card. So students who want opt-out fees should probably target this first.

  4. “I don’t think there’s a fear of accountability as he asserts, but I think there would be tremendous benefit if governments gave charters to our student unions similar to the way they charter our universities, and make them fully integrated components of the university structure that are accountable for their actions and expenditures.”

    Accountable to whom? Their members or the provincial government?

  5. Accountable in all forms to their members, certainly, but perhaps accountable in some very limited ways similar to how universities are accountable. I think the recent reactions of universities and colleges in BC to the changes in their anticipated funding structure are pretty strong proof that those are independent institutions.

    Though Titus, I take your case that some permanent staffers are worried about such things, however I would suggest that most of those staffers come from the second kind of student government that I described.

  6. “Accountable in some very limited ways” I can get behind, but let’s use a proper comparator. Public educational institutions are truly public institutions, and student unions are not and should not be on the same level. The proper analogy is very simple – other unions. Student unions are in fact accountable in some limited ways already, such as those that extend from their status as not-for-profit corporations. If other regulation is required than so be it, but we need to be aware this is regulation in the form of very limited structural guidelines. Employers recognize unions and there are very specific rules that govern their relationship. Universities recognize student unions and some model code to determine how that works might clean up a few problems. But anyone who sees this as a means to stop student unions from being real unions should think again. They are not and should not be responsible to either the educational institution or to government. Responsible in the abstract, certainly (and I wish students were more vocal about demanding this) but it isn’t for government or educational institutions to decide what they should be doing for their members or how they should be doing it.

    As for voluntarily membership … conflating these topics is just silly. Some institutions (such as labour unions!) only function properly when participation is not voluntary. Insurance works similarly, and please let’s not forget that provision of health and dental insurance to students is one of the signature services offered by student unions. It’s all about using the proper comparator. Student unions may not always reflect each members politics but then neither does CUPE, or the Steelworkers, or any other union. The mere fact that they are political at times doesn’t make them political parties. They are unions. Period. And suggestions about voluntarily membership need to be taken in that context.

  7. Jeff makes a good point about them being political “at times”. And it’s something the members have control of if it crosses a line that is not acceptable to most of them.

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