VSU Is Not Dead!

Ben Riley

Ben Riley charts a new course in the fight to reintroduce Voluntary Student Unionism

Following the passing of Labor’s Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act 2011 (Cth) (SSAF), many students have resigned themselves to not seeing a return to Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) in the near future (at the least, not until the coalition next win a federal election with a Senate majority – most likely after they have graduated).

Unfortunately, and understandably, this has drawn much of the urgency and direction out of the fight for VSU, as students await a political climate more conducive to their cause. This needn’t be the case. With state Liberal/National governments now covering the eastern and western seaboards of Australia, the climate is ripe for a return to VSU: this time by the states.

At various young/student liberal conferences over the past 18 months, the suggestion of a return to VSU through state enactment has often been raised. Sadly, it has always been casually dismissed by those who instinctively, and indeed tragically, capitulate to the rule of Commonwealth supremacy.

However, if we look at the Federal statue in depth, it appears that legislative action to restore VSU can be taken by state governments, simply by prohibiting the compulsory exaction of the ‘Student Services and Amenities Fee’ within a university’s constituting act.

Let’s look at the VSU and SSAF legislation more closely.

The operative provision of the VSU Act is s19-37 (2):

(2) A higher education provider must not require a person enrolled with, or seeking to enrol with, the provider to pay to the provider or any other entity an amount for the provision to students of an amenity, facility or service that is not of an academic nature, unless the person has chosen to use the amenity, facility or service.

The SSAF Act does not seek to reverse or repeal any portion of the operative provisions of the VSU Act. Rather, it creates an exception to the prohibition placed on universities with regard to the compulsory exaction of a fee for student services and amenities of a non-academic nature. It does so by inserting 19-37 (4).

(4) Subsection (2) does not apply to a *student services and amenities fee that the higher education provider requires the person to pay.

The legislation is clear: The SSAF Act does not require any university to charge the SSAF; rather, it merely permits them to do so. As such, the SSAF Act should not be seen as reversing the VSU Act as it does not compel universities to charge the SSAF as a condition of Commonwealth funding. Rather, the exception merely provides Commonwealth consent to universities compulsorily charging an amenities fee.  Where they choose not to do so, it does not result in a mandatory loss of funding.

Almost all universities in Australia are the creation of state legislation. These constituting acts commonly set out the powers and responsibilities of a university and outline, amongst other things, the ability to charge fees. It is therefore within the power of a state legislature to amend these constituting acts, and include any prohibitions it considers appropriate – such as one against a SSAF-type fee.

Introducing VSU at a state level is not unprecedented. The best example of this was the tit-for-tat battle in Western Australia.VSU legislation was first introduced in 1977 by the late Sir Charles Court, then repealed in 1983 by Brian Burke. It was then again introduced in 1994 by Richard Court, before its most recent repeal in 2002 under Geoff Gallop.

The Voluntary Membership of Student Guilds and Associations Act 1994 (WA) (‘WA VSU Act’) effected substantially identical amendments to every one of WA’s university governing Acts. The amendments provided that:

  1.  it was not compulsory for a student to be a member of a union/guild;
  2. unless the student chose to join a union/guild or use an amenity/service, it was not compulsory for a student or prospective student to pay:

                a. a fee or subscription required by the union/guild or any amount in lieu of said fee;

                 b. an amount required by the university for an amenity/service which was not related                     to an educational course;

    3.       the university (on behalf of a union/guild) and the union/guild itself were prohibited from accepting Commonwealth grants where the intent of the grant was to overcome the WA government’s VSU policy and compensate the union/guild for the WA prohibitions.

If a university is prohibited from charging a SSAF-type fee by virtue of its governing act, a mere Commonwealth permission to do so, cannot override the university’s institutional disability. Therefore, it is not possible for mere permission per the SSAF Act to override a ban on SSAF-type fees within a university’s governing act by citing s109 of the constitution, thereby allowing for state-based VSU to be implemented

Unless there is soon a Federal Election and a coalition win of Newman/O’Farrell-esque proportions, (which is not out of the question), it will be a long wait until we hold the numbers in the Senate to reinstate VSU federally.

As political circumstances change, so too must our strategy. Liberal students and alumni ought to adjust accordingly and refocus our efforts on lobbying liberal/national state governments for a reintroduction of VSU.

Fighting for VSU has bonded liberal students for generations – this is the opportunity for the next generation to make their mark.

Ben Riley is the President of the Queensland YLNP. Ben has played a central role in the successful Fresh and Epic student election teams at the University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology, and has served as Treasurer of the UQ Union and as a member of the UQ Senate. He acknowledges Steven Mammarella and Andrew Stirling for their detailed research in preparing this article.

A motion to urge Premiers to introduce VSU at a state level is scheduled to be debated at this weekend’s Liberal Party Federal Council.