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.

10 thoughts on “The case for voluntary unionism”

  1. At first glance all this sounds very convincing, and I have to say that student fees for unions etc. seem to be very high (much higher than for example fees for Academic unions). However, I would like to know how great (as a percent of the total) costs for such “illegitimate” purposes really are. Sport unions etc.etc. certainly cost much more. Also, it does not seem to be fair to compare prices at supermarkets with those in cafeterias. After all, cafeterias provide some services not provided by supermarkets. Also, do student unions have to pay rent for premises? If so, (and I admit i don’t know) why should they not object to have other outlets there. The primary purpose of the whole exercise of shutting down unions seems to be political: young people often are more leftwing than older ones and this is reflected in the activities of student unions. (in this context: ABS and SBS have, at least until now, refused to air advertisments of a businessman accusing the government of exploiting Timorese and being responsible for the deaths of large numbers of children (unfair treaty!). This seems to be very disturbing and reminds me of suppression of press freedom by totalitarian countries. Such developments are just one of those suggestive of similar trends and (perhaps) in line with the attempts to get rid of unions (and not only of student unions). At the time of the cold war, western countries continually accused communist ones of suppressing “free” unions, and the American government (via various institutions) supported supposedly free unions financially and otherwise, because they were a valuable ally in the war against communism. So, to cut it short: not everything that sounds convincing is convincing, if one looks a bit deeper. And certainly, one should not base one’s political convictions on something that is rather marginal: “green” issues (something you seem to imply is something “illegitimately” supported by student fees) are central to the fate of this earth, and I congratulate those students who become involved in them. I would consider it quite legitimate to suppport student associations that deal with them; again, something that does not go well down with a government whose primary concern is “welfare” of the richer at the expense of our future.

  2. Do student unions have to pay rent for premises?
    No, the union does not pay rent for its premises. The the union areas are union-owned, and the union charges rent from outside businesses which operate there (such as the bank, optometrist etc.).

    It does not seem to be fair to compare prices at supermarkets with those in cafeterias.
    I agree that there are clear differences to supermarkets. However, the point remains that the refectories make large profits, when, in my opinion, they should be running at a break even point. After all, the refectories are indirectly ‘owned’ by the students, and they shouldn’t be there to profiteer from us. Consequently, I believe that opening up the union to competition from private enterprise could be beneficial.

    The primary purpose of the whole exercise of shutting down unions seems to be political: young people often are more leftwing than older ones and this is reflected in the activities of student unions.
    Undoubtedly this is one of the motivations, which I think is legitimate. I’m not suggesting that I disagree with every political ideal pursued by the student union. All I’m suggesting is that the purpose of the student union is to provide services to students, not to promote a political agenda, be it left-wing or right-wing. If students want to become involved in politics, they can, but it isn’t something which should be forced upon them.

    “Green” issues (something you seem to imply is something “illegitimately” supported by student fees) are central to the fate of this earth, and I congratulate those students who become involved in them”
    I agree that concern for the environement is extremely important, and I too congratulate those who become involved in this cause. If students wish to do this, they are welcome to join Greenpeace, the WWF or any other environmentalist organisation. Once again however, this is not something that should be forced upon students against their will. Some students are environmentalists, while others are not. Forcing all students to pay to support this cause would be akin to me trying to force all students to pay to lobby the government to reform the tax and welfare systems. I have a feeling that if the union were instead doing that, your attitude towards compulsory support for union acitivities might be somewhat different.

  3. An important question has not been answered: what are the costs of supporting supposedly illegitimate activities as a percent of the total. I suspect they are quite minimal.- Concerning charges by student unions at cafeterias etc., why not try to streamline, i.e. reform the unions? After all, there can be little doubt that many activities of student unions benefit students, and universities would find it difficult to finance such activities, if fees are abolished and the government does not make up for them.

    The most important point I really wanted to make was that there are far more important political issues than student fees that deserve attention and should determine one’s political affilitation and attitude. I fully agree that misuses, wherever they occur, should be corrected, but all this has to be seen in perspective.

  4. What are the costs of supporting supposedly illegitimate activities as a percent of the total?
    I’m afraid I don’t know numbers off the top of my head. However, the union has an annual budget of approximately 30,000 (students) x $300 (approx. cost per students per year) = $9m. Of this, just under half goes directly to the Sports Union. The remainder goes to the Student Union, which consequently spends it on clubs & societies, semper (the student magazine), the Red Room (student bar) etc.

    Why not try to streamline, i.e. reform the unions?
    I think this needs to be done anyway. However, reform is very difficult to implement since the union is not accountable to anybody. On the other hand, if students have a choice whether to join the union then it must reform itself if it wishes to attract students.

    There can be little doubt that many activities of student unions benefit students, and universities would find it difficult to finance such activities
    Those union activities which do truly benefit the majority of students, such as the refectories, are also the ones which do not receive union subsidisation and would be economically viable without the union. Personally, the refectories are the only union service that I make use of, and, considering their profitability, I fail to see how $300 a year is justified (that’s enough to pay for a couple of months rent, or buy textbooks for a year).

    …if fees are abolished and the government does not make up for them
    The government isn’t abolishing fees, nor is it banning student unionism. All the legislation does is make it voluntary. Therefore, one would expect that if indeed the union’s services are of benefit to the average student, students would continue to become members on their own accord.

  5. Concerning abolishment of fees: the meaning of my comment was that fees would be greatly reduced if membership would decline, or that fees would disappear altogether if unions cease to exist.

  6. Peter,

    You make some interesting points. I didn’t know that the refectory runs for profit and that it is not subsidised. It too is the only service I use on the campus. I also agree that introducing competition will make the union more efficient, as it does in economic situations.

    I’m not overly concerned about this VSU/CSU thing, but now that I know the refec isn’t even subsidised, VSU doesn’t look so bad to me. I don’t have anything against paying for services I don’t use, as long as it is reasonable. A parallel I would draw here is how working people pay for welfare through taxation. I don’t have a problem with that. If the union is, say, providing services for people that need help with something, that is ok with me. The food and wine appreciation society though… doesn’t look like something the union should be spending money on. How much do they get? What about the high society? It would be interesting how much money they get.

    I’m curious why just under half the money goes to the sports union. How does the money get spent? Are there difficulties in getting people to pay for sports services themselves? I can understand if the union has a one-time expenditure to construct something, but are they subsidising what should really be a membership fee for people *using* the facility?

    PS. Where do you get your expenditure figures from?

  7. Courtney,

    I’m afraid I don’t know how much the various societies are all allocated. You would have to refer to the union’s budget for that (if you want a copy, every student is entitled to one. Simply drop by the union and ask). However, I believe the Food & Wine Appreciation Society (FAWAS) gets on the order of a few thousand dollars a year. Incidentally, I am actually a member of FAWAS and have been since it started. A close friend of mine started it on the basis that we didn’t feel we were getting anything out of the union, but that we were entitled to. As for the High Society, I’m afraid I have no idea how much they get. Funding is typically received on a per-member basis.

    The Sports Union spends its money primarily on subsidising sporting clubs, i.e. membership fees. This is why the sports clubs are generally quite cheap to join. Personally however, I believe in user pays and people should only pay for club membership if they choose to join a club.

    My expenditure figures, which are only approximate, are based on the union buget. For any further clarifications on expenditure I suggest to grab yourself a copy.

  8. Peter,

    Interesting to see how FAWAS started. I like that kind of reasoning. 😉

    I’m just curious though, does the UQU pay for all expenses for this club? I mean, if you all go out to some restaurant, do you pay a reduced bill or is it completely paid for by the UQU? How much money do membership fees contribute?

    You’ve got me thinking about a “physics book collection club”…

    I agree that sports membership should be user pays. I mean, depending on how many students actually use the facilities, it should be able to support itself through membership fees; if not, well, maybe they need to restructure. Or maybe they can continue what they are doing if they divert some of the money back into the refectory to lower the prices, since at this moment I get nothing from the union at all.

    I’m interested in this stuff, but not enough to get a copy of the budget. If it were on the Internet I would probably take a look though. I’ve looked at the UQU website, but I didn’t find anything.

    Do you know of what other coutries do in regards to student unions? Do they have VSU or CSU? It would be interesting to compare the services provided by the two systems. Now that I know the refec isn’t subsidised, I’m not too worried if Howard wants to bring VSU. Actually, I wasn’t too worried at first either, but I am even less concerned about a VSU now. $300 is a lot of money for me, that I would find quick use for if it was in my hand.

  9. The union gives money to the various clubs and societies, who then have control over how they go about spending it. In the case of FAWAS we received a large subsidy on our meal costs, so we still had to pay some ourselves. As far as I know clubs are free to specify their membership fees, which is rarely more than $5. The clubs tend to rely on union subsidy rather than membership fees for financing.

    I’m not too familiar with other countries’ approaches to student unionism.

  10. With regard to your point three, you suggest that only those who directly benefit from something being provided should be the ones who bear the cost. This is only really fair if there are no indirect benefits for everyone else in having the services provided. In past years I have had no need to use services provided by hospitals, the police, the defense forces, and many other government departments, but I don’t think you would argue that these should be converted to a user pays system.
    I agree that some of the money spent by the union is used inappropriately, but I’d say that about money spent by pretty much any large organisation.

    About competition, the main aim of the union is not providing cheap food for students. And in any case, VSU does not establish proper competition for an union. Competition is the relationship between Coles and Woolworths. They both provide similar services and so compete to atract customers. True competition for a union would mean having other unions and letting students decide which if any they wish to join. Giving students a choice simply between joining one union and not joining but still gaining the advantages of membership isn’t really competition.

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