Voluntary student unionism

andrew-baker Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) was briefly back on the agenda this week, before the Prime Minister Tony Abbott poured cold water over the idea, stating that it was not a priority for his government.

The VSU debate is about whether students should be forced to pay an up-front fee for services they don't use and in particular, to financially support the political activities of student unions and campus politicians.

In 2005, the Howard government abolished these fees and the compulsion to join student unions, but the fees were re-introduced in 2010 in the form of a student services and amenities fee which subsidises on-campus activities and services.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne described these fees as 'compulsory student unionism by the backdoor.'

The fees effectively entail a redistribution of wealth from students who do not use childcare and other welfare services provided by their university to those that do. In effect it adds another revenue stream to help universities bolster their bottom line.

While students who use these services no doubt love the subsidies, the students who do not use them tend to be forgotten…right up until they are asked to chip in again to pay for another year of services they don't use.

The CIS published a report in 2005 examining the Howard government's Bill and making the case for further deregulation of higher education. The report argued that permitting universities to bundle together academic and non-academic fees would strengthen the market and allow universities to compete on the price and quality of the education they provide.

Greater competition would encourage universities to provide low cost and high quality education tailored to the diverse needs of students. As former CIS research fellow Andrew Norton said, 'we can meet the preferences of single mothers not wanting to subsidise the canoeing club, without denying those who want packaged services the opportunity to purchase them.'

In some sense, the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are providing much needed competition – the courses are free and there is no up-front amenities fee.

But MOOCs are still in their infancy and this new entrant into the higher education marketplace doesn't help students currently paying to attend traditional brick and mortar universities. This means that the fight for VSU and against compulsory up-front fees at traditional universities is still justified to reduce costs and give students more freedom about their education.

Andrew Baker is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.