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Issue # 1402      11 March 2009

Old habits die hard

Over the past two years, as I have been involved in the Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) campaign, I’ve been to protests, I’ve written submissions and media releases, I’ve met MPs and ministers, and one fact has stuck out like a sore thumb ... some people refuse to leave student politics even years after they’ve graduated. The Labor Party is absolutely riddled with old student politicians: Julia Gillard, Kate Ellis, Penny Wong, Jenny Macklin, Stephen Conroy ...

The Coalition has their fair share too. You can always pick an old student politician: the utter hatred of people they see as political enemies and the pig-headed pursuit of their own political agendas. Despite being well beyond their student years, every politician seems to have their own opinion on VSU and the student fee, which have become issues important enough to devote a significant portion of a minister’s time to this one issue. This, of course, is infuriating for student representatives, most of whom are just trying to get on with our jobs representing students.

The golden question is this: how should student representation be funded, and should it be funded at all? The answer, of course, is that it is none of the government’s business. If they wanted to make the General Services Charge optional, they should have done so years ago when they were students. It is not up to governments to make these decisions – they should respect the decisions of students.

At universities in countries where students have had a referendum to decide whether they want VSU, students have overwhelmingly voted to reject VSU, with only a couple of exceptions. In Australia, students were given no choice and were left up to the whim of the ideological positions of politicians in the government.

All of this begs the question: why do politicians care so much about this? In my lighter moments, I see a lot of truth in the old saying: academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. But of course this is only true up to a point. An Aboriginal elder and sovereignty campaigner recently told me about the effect that VSU had on Aboriginal rights.

The campaign to save Jabiluka from uranium mining, for example, would probably not have been so successful if not for financial support from student unions. The detention centre at Woomera would probably still be open today if it were not for student activism, with hundreds of women, men and children imprisoned in an isolated camp in a desert next to an active rocket range.

The summit mobilisations that occurred in Melbourne and Sydney around the World Economic Forum, the G20, Forbes and the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum concurrently with mobilisations all around the world delegitimised the Bretton Woods institutions so much that Brazil was able to default on its loans, lifting millions out of poverty.

Since VSU, many of these campaigns have been struggling for funds (well, at least the Australian ones). The fact that students spend our time studying questions that were never meant to be asked, discussing taboo topics and being freely exposed to massive amounts of information that most people will never hear about means that we can also be one of the greatest threats to national sovereignty, stability and the established order.

This is great news for the Global South and for the environment, but it is deeply unsettling for governments, corporations and the media (consider for example the Daily Telegraph’s uproar when the Melbourne University Student Union decided to contribute to a legal fund in support of the G20 arrestees).

And yet the question remains: should students have to pay a fee which funds these kinds of things? Again, this should always be up to students to decide, not governments with vested interests. After all, it is students who make the decisions about how their money is spent.

On the other hand, when it comes to the thousands of dollars in HECS fees which we are obliged to pay, a lot of which is spent on controversial things like military, mining and corporate research as well as astronomical executive salaries, students have next to no say at all. It seems upside-down that it is student-controlled fees which are optional rather than University-controlled HECS fees. Student organisations spend money on courses and workshops, direct assistance to worse-off students, educational campaigns and social justice campaigns. If the balance isn’t right, it is up to students to make that decision.

If the government succeeds in passing its new compulsory fee, which will be controlled by universities and is not intended to fund student organisations, it will mean that students will no longer be able to collect autonomous fees. Before VSU, students at Newcastle University were paying $4,000-$6,800 in HECS fees as well as a General Services charge, and they had a say over about $22 of this. If the government’s new law comes through, we will be paying $5,000-$8,600 in HECS fees, $250 as a student amenities charge and we will have a say in none of it. Research constantly shows that while fees and the cost of living go up and up, government support to students is going down and down. It’s hard not to feel a little bit ripped off.

The government needs to let us have control over some of our fees again and let students make their own minds up about student governance. They need to let their inner student politician go and get on with their job of governing the country (or not, as many of us believe). We can no longer have students pretending to be politicians and politicians pretending to be students. Students must have student control of student affairs.

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