New left taps student pockets compulsorily

Green komsomol coming to a campus near you.

By Lyle Dunne

Recently the Gillard Government, with the support of the Greens, passed legislation that effectively spelled the end of Voluntary Student Unionism, or VSU, and will, according to The Age,

restore certainty to the funding of campus services by allowing universities to charge students a compulsory fee of up to $263 from next year.(“Service fee back for uni students”, The Age, October 12, 2011)

When a subject becomes a symbol, a rallying cry, for an entire social class, there’s not much prospect of a rational analysis of alternative viewpoints – particularly several decades later. There’s not much prospect of persuading a greenie who cut his political teeth on the Lake Pedder or Gordon-below-Franklin battles that some dams may be necessary (which makes it difficult to provide our cities with water security). There’s little chance of convincing a 1970s feminist that “a woman’s right to choose” is a vacuous slogan with no intellectual underpinning.

Thus it has been with VSU, for both sides of politics. It started as a shibboleth for student politics, but of course student politics is a recruiting ground for politics proper for both sides, despite the historical role of the trade union movement for the ALP.

Guns or medicine?

The issue grew out of a concern with the radical politics of student organisations in the 1970s: I seem to recall being assured that the money the ANU Students Association was donating to Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF would not be used to buy guns, but medicine. (Of course. And the guns would be bought with the money they would otherwise have spent on medicine.) And as with any case where a group of people (student representatives, trade union officials, politicians) have control over funds obtained coercively from a larger group, there have been concerns over waste and corruption.

The actual debate, of course, tended to be played out at a level of high principle: on one side, the view that students had a right to be represented, that they needed a well-resourced body to defend their interests; and on the other, the view that freedom of association entailed the right not to join a body purporting to represent one’s interests.

I recall that when the Howard Government was discussing VSU legislation, a number of universities responded by saying, in effect, that they accepted students’ right not to join student organisations – provided they paid the fees anyway! Because for universities, like everyone else, it was always really about the money.

So let’s look at the money arguments for a moment.

When a subject becomes a symbol, a rallying cry, for an entire social class, there’s not much prospect of a rational analysis of alternative viewpoints – particularly several decades later.

The left (which here as ever is those who favour collective approaches to human problems, and are not so concerned about individual rights on the way – equality over liberty, one might say) claim they’re concerned about the facilities available to students.

(The facilities and activities subsidised range from third-world terrorists at one end of the spectrum, through political propaganda and activities for a fairly undemonstrative subset of students, to representing student interests to university management, to social, cultural and sporting activities and facilities.  Somehow the debate seems to focus on the latter end.)

So, the argument goes, students as a group are financially disadvantaged, and wouldn’t be able to afford, say, excellent sporting facilities, left to themselves.

According to Melbourne University vice-chancellor and chairman of Universities Australia, Glyn Davis, quoted in The Age,

This bill will enable universities and student organisations to provide the full range of student services and amenities fundamental to the quality of the student experience.

Nano-truth

This argument sounds plausible for a nanosecond, but it ignores a fundamental law of economics: You can’t subsidise yourself.

I’m open to the view that students are financially disadvantaged and need subsidised facilities. But if that’s what we think, then we have to subsidise those facilities from the public purse. It’s surely obvious to the meanest intellect that we can’t make students as a whole better off by extracting money from them compulsorily, and spending it on things they don’t want to buy – even apart from the administrative costs skimmed off, legitimately or otherwise, on the way through.

For some students, high-level sporting facilities (I nearly said high-level playing fields!) are not a priority, They’d rather spend their money on, say, food. Or textbooks.

This brings out an even-less savoury aspect of the debate. It’s not just a question of Wiser Heads declaring that students ought to be out there playing rugby and attending Iron Man races (which have nothing to do with Uncle Toby’s), even if they’d prefer to be indoors reading about quantum mechanics, accrual accounting or Marcel Proust. (As students, one of our recreational activities was devising clubs and societies to hold subsidised wine and cheese evenings, as a means of recouping what we only vaguely thought of as our money. This was more popular in some cases than attending wine and cheese evenings.)

It’s about taking money from one group and giving it to another, as most of these arguments are when you scratch beneath the surface. (When a millionaire says “millionaires should pay more tax”, it’s obvious he means “other millionaires should pay more tax”: otherwise, a donation to the Treasury would be welcome I’m sure.) It’s about using that money to fund things the decision-makers – including those who are “student politicians” not in the sense of an extracurricular activity – are in favour of. And as is often the case, I suspect this one’s about robbing from the poor to give to the rich.

Let’s for argument’s sake identify two classes of students.

One lives on campus – overwhelmingly studying full-time, mostly young, often from well-to-do families who would be paying their expenses. And well-placed to take advantaged of on-campus activities. This is where we’d expect to find students who were attending university as a kind of gap year, if such still exist.

Those living off campus are likely to be a little older, working full-time or close to full-time to pay their own way (and perhaps support or part-support a family), often therefore studying part-time. They’re unlikely to have the time to spend on campus recreational activities, and for demographic reasons they may not want to.

The question is not “should students in the first group have access to sufficient facilities to make their time at university a golden memory to look back on with affection over a lifetime – perhaps eliding one or two embarrassing details?” (Though we might in difficult economic times want to reflect a little on the opportunity costs here.)

The question is “should students in the second group have to pay for it?”

Postscript

Since writing the above, I’ve had a look among the on-line comments on The Age article – normally the playground of the dangerously bored; however this struck me:

I am a mother of two small children, working full time and undertaking a post-grad degree on a part time basis. I disagree will compulsory student unionism. Outside of attending the university for my classes or using the library, I do not use any other university facilities or services. Why should I pay $300+ pa in addition to the typical fee of $2-3K per unit? I am happy to pay for my education but do not think it fair and reasonable to pay for a ‘service’ that I don’t use. (LK | Melbourne – October 12, 2011, 8:13AM.)

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