IT’S BEEN less than two years since the voluntary student unionism (VSU) legislation came into force, but already students are suffering, the federal government has found.
A discussion paper looking at the impact of VSU on students has been released by the Federal Government’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). The government’s view, stated in the paper, echoes what many student feared — that VSU has made it difficult for many university students to access amenities and services such as childcare, health services, counselling, advocacy and sporting facilities.
The paper sets out findings of a review of the impacts of VSU undertaken last year by the Australian University Sport and the Australian Campus Union Managers’ Association. The review found that the total student amenities and service fees collected by universities fell by $166 million in the year after VSU was implemented — from $179 million a year to just $13 million. Further, more than 1,000 jobs had been lost in the student services sector, and over 400 student services (including sporting services, clubs, and child care services) had been shut down or scaled down nationally.
Another review undertaken last year by the National Union of Students, similarly concluded that VSU had failed to promote the development of self-sustaining student organisations able to survive off voluntary memberships, investments and trading operations. Instead, the review found that majority of student organisations had either collapsed, were surviving on very limited reserves or had received substantial university funding to stay afloat — funding which wouldn’t necessarily be continued into the future.
In a submission made in response to the paper, the Australian Law Students’ Association (ALSA) said that the transitional funding arrangements put in place by the former Coalition government had delayed the full impact of VSU being felt.
However, rather than a complete return to the previous system, ALSA has proposed the reinstatement of a compulsory fee to cover “essential services” such as counselling, legal and financial assistance, educational representation and funding for certain societies “that provide activities of direct benefit to student’s education”. The fee could not, however, be used to fund sporting facilities, social events or political activities.
“The problem with services like educational representation and counselling is that these are ‘emergency’ services that nobody ever contemplates having to use,” said Mitch Riley, ALSA’s vice-president (education). “This means that people may choose not to become a member of the union, but later require these services. The same is not true of sporting facilities or social functions, and they can be adequately funded under a user-pays system.”
ALSA also proposed that the fee be deferrable as part of students’ HECS debt, which was not possible under the old system.
According to DEEWR, submissions to the paper, as well as planned consultation with universities, students, small business, sports and community groups from across Australia, will be used to inform any future response to the issue from the government.