Union or no union, our campuses need more cash

Kevin Rudd has been busily undoing the worst excesses of the Howard government in its Senate majority or “megalomania” phase, but has generally shied away from simply replacing what was there before Howard. Even with the abolition of WorkChoices, unions haven’t been given carte blanche to wreak revenge on employers. Rudd is more of a centrist than that, and we’re seeing this with the proposals that were reported yesterday to repair the damage voluntary student unionism did to our universities.At the time of writing, it’s not entirely clear what the ALP intends to do, and the apparent leaking of the plans appears to have resulted in denials, while the PM has ruled out reintroducing “compulsory student union fees”. I hope that this is in fact a piece of sophistry to do with whether the fees go to student unions. Some kind of additional funds need to be found, whether or not students technically join the union, or it’s all collected by the university, or even if the government decides to fund it directly. Because the fact is that VSU has gutted university life.

Sure, the funding isn’t applied equally. I nerdily did every activity I could at university, and no doubt received more than my fair share of subsidies what with things like publications and revues. And I’m biased, because without the experience gained from these activities, and our reluctance to give them away and grow up, my friends and I wouldn’t have started The Chaser. Meaning that without well-resourced student organisations, I probably would never have been in trouble with the police.

But student activities were open to everyone, and frankly, those who chose to keep their heads in their books or bongs missed out, because a mindboggling array of activities were available. And the services on offer benefited everyone to some degree. Furthermore, many of them were there as a safety net, and it’s fundamentally contradictory to have a user-pays safety net, as everyone who believes in Medicare will doubtlessly understand. Sure, not every student may have needed advice, or legal help, or counselling, or childcare, or a second-hand textbook shop, or a service that found jobs and housing for struggling students, but the services were there as an insurance policy for those who needed them, and subsidised by everyone equally. And because students paid for them, their representative organisations ran these services, and made sure they delivered what students actually wanted.

And why is it that universities have to be user-pays when the rest of society isn’t, anyway? There is an inherent value in a vibrant culture, and I don’t see why the artists, performers, sports people and the like in our society have to feel guilty because occasionally they are subsidised. No-one seriously objects to the government funding Olympic athletes, or running an art gallery, or paying for community centres, so why is it any worse when a university or a student union does it? The notion that this is somehow unfair, because some of the money invested theoretically comes out of other students’ pockets, is very shortsighted.

To my mind, the analogy with a local council, which Barnaby Joyce made in supporting the legislation, is the right one. You don’t get to say “I don’t like parks, or the lending library, or the streetlamps, or the roadworks, and I won’t use them, so I’m not paying for them.” That just isn’t how complex human societies work, because what user-pays systems actually do is ensure that nobody pays. And for all you might like to bang on about freedom of choice and association, as the Australian editorial page has today, these principles, while admirable in other contexts, are considerably less important than ensuring the vibrancy of our campuses and providing adequate services for the students who need them.

I will be particularly delighted if, as was reported, the Rudd Government has taken steps to ensure that its new system is ideologically fireproofed, so it has a chance of resisting the next conservative purge. And that’s why a ban on the use of the fees for political activities is sensible. There was rorting when I was at university, with Labor students using arts faculty society funds to do a mass mailout of promoting their own candidates a particularly heinous example. And I’ll be delighted if it’s stopped, not just because it’s somewhat immoral, but because it will make the next argument to abolish these kinds of fees that much harder to win. If you want to get elected to the SRC, kids, pay for your own mailouts.

Like the critics of compulsory student unionism, I don’t much like the idea of student funds being spent on banners to use in demonstrations that most students don’t care in the least about, or sending money to help out imprisoned socialist warriors on Death Row in America, as the Sydney Uni SRC once did for Mumia Abu-Jamal (pictured above). Who I’m delighted to see he’s still alive, no doubt thanks to that $200 my fellow students and I sent him in 1995.

But even where that kind of silliness that occurred, it was a tiny part of the overall expenditure of student organisations. Universities are ultimately supposed to be stimulating environments both in and out of the classroom, with the services that help students when they need it so they can finish their courses. It’s in the interests of our society to ensure that as many of its members as possible receive as good an education as they can, particularly as we make the transition to more of a service economy. John Howard destroyed our valuable campus culture to make an unimportant ideological point, and the sooner his work is undone, the better.