Why mass student activism matters

Sustained political organising and community-building is needed more than ever two decades on from the introduction of voluntary student unionism (VSU).

As Welcome Week comes and goes, and students begin to settle into university life, many will deliberate between the dozens of C&S (Clubs and Societies) that their $5 membership fees sank into. Yet student unionism was not always so strongly associated with student experiences, or even C&S. Instead, as its name suggests, it was a bastion of activism, mobilising massive student movements and forming bulwarks against conservative politics.

In Australia, this shift is primarily the product of voluntary student unionism (VSU) – introduced in 2005 during the Howard era. Prior to its introduction, student unionism was compulsory, marked with raucous, massive student protests and radical mobilisation. In contrast to VSU, compulsory student unionism meant that every enrolled student was automatically a member of their respective institution’s union and paid a small fee accordingly. 

An oft-mentioned example of the radicalism enabled by compulsory student unionism is the huge crowd for the Vietnam Moratorium outside USyd’s Quadrangle on 30 June 1971. This was one of the largest gatherings ever to grace the building. 

Photo courtesy of the University of Sydney Archives. 

It was not until 2011 that Gillard’s Labor government introduced SSAF (Student Services and Amenities Fees) as a means of reintroducing compulsory fees to fund student organisations, albeit with the caveat that SSAF be made available for a wide range of purposes aside from student unions. 

In contrast to compulsory unionism, VSU made student union membership optional and drastically reduced these organisations’ finances by leaving unions to build up a grassroot membership. The policy left student unions poorer in its immediate wake. Prior to VSU, records from Honi in April 2005 indicate that students paid affiliation fees of up to $600 – a far cry from current SSAF fees, which are capped at $300. 

Crucially, another change was that VSU favoured apolitical services, with the Higher Education Act  2003 specifically forbidding the use of fees for political causes. This heralded a watershed shift towards an understanding of student unions as providing apolitical services, rather than primarily as hubs of political organising. 

The corrosive impact of the apolitical 

Once VSU came into effect, student unions across Australia lost significant income streams. Some opted to continue protesting against the measure. Others, on the other hand, opted to negotiate with university management to secure long-term viability. 

The crux of allegedly ‘apolitical’ organisations or electoral groups are claims that they deliver superior fiscal responsibility or student experience. However, this claim is deeply flawed on two grounds. 

First, one pitfall of apolitical, service-focused peak student organisations is that, by virtue of their apolitcality, they reduce student engagement and thereby, transparency. One recent example was when a former CISA (Council of International Students Australia) President, an organisation that identifies as “apolitical”,  resigned over damning allegations of financial misconduct. Another is the ongoing tussle at Adelaide University where secretive in-camera meetings and constitutional machinations are frequently deployed by the Young Liberal-dominated AUU (Adelaide University Union) Board. 

Unbeknown to most students, Executives and some Office Bearers of peak student organisations are well-remunerated. A cursory glance at salaries of Presidents in Sydney’s major universities reveal salaries ranging from $25,000 – $50,000 per annum. At USyd alone, SRC President Lauren Lancaster will be paid more than $44,000, whilst her postgraduate counterparts, SUPRA Co-Presidents Weihong Liang and Yige Peng, can expect approximately $25,000 a year. Given the responsibility and public profile that these positions command, student unions are inherently political. 

Second, a service-led orientation acts as a de facto euphemism favouring apolitical student unions. Last year, La Trobe University made headlines when it cut La Trobe University Student Union (LTSU)’s SSAF allocation by 88% in favour of an explicitly depoliticised alternative called the La Trobe University Student Association (LTSA). In justifying this decision, La Trobe’s management said that LTSA’s successful bid was based on its perceived ability to provide “services to students”. 

Yet the paradox is that such aversion of politicised unions is itself a manifestation of conservatism. Although student politics is exhaustive, laden with questionable machinations, it operates on the assumption that students are, first and foremost, customers and consumers.  

This leads onto an oft-forgotten victim of the post-VSU era – a severely diminished student media landscape. Although Honi proudly claims the mantle of being Australia’s last remaining weekly student newspaper, this is only possible because its counterparts, such as UQ’s Semper Floreat or Adelaide University’s On Dit, owing to significantly smaller stipends and reduced staff allocations, are forced to abandon the weekly routine. 

For example, in 2005, the Honi Soit archives show that editors split approximately $80,000 between them in the 2003-2004 financial year. More than a decade later, ten editors are allocated a smaller pool of $50,000. As a consequence, student media across the country are united in being underpaid, with a recent investigation by Tharunka estimating that editors’ pay varied from $2.5 to $27 an hour. Though underpaid, student media persists in order to preserve their editorial independence as proximity to university management compromises freedom of speech. Hence, in increasing workload burdens by reducing student union funding, VSU harmed the quantity, and arguably, the radicalism of Australian student newspapers.  

Returning to mass student activism 

Although criticisms of student activists are plenty, ranging from a lack of focus or that activists’ demands are naïve and fail to ascertain the political change that they demand, it is their efforts that inform and protect university students against governments’ and universities’ erosion of higher education.   

However, VSU may not be the only culprit of the depoliticised university landscape that plagues Australian higher education. Other factors, such as competing study/work commitments and an increasingly fragmented campus life with the rise of satellite campuses, are also responsible for a lack of unity in political organising. Nonetheless, VSU heralded an era favouring the apolitical. Crucially, it crystallises the logic of the neoliberal university; as Barry York puts it: “technocratic managerial ones”.   

Political organising matters precisely because these activities disrupt and interrogate the status quo that private negotiations with university management and bureaucracy often fail to secure. International students remain barred from accessing travel concessions despite promises. The last time major action took place on this issue was former SUPRA President Jenny Leong’s court battle with the NSW Government. 

Another demonstration of mass student power was when sustained activism at USyd witnessed the defeat of university management’s 12-weeks semester proposal to preserve the current teaching model. This campaign itself followed years of fruitless consultations with Vice-Chancellors and other management figures. This is the power of student activism as opposed to the apolitical vision of higher education envisioned under VSU. 

Other than striving for change, political organising also involves community-building: banner painting, conversations and outreach to affected groups. As such, the benefits of mass activism reaches beyond the hyperlocal or educational activism – it also delivers change, or at least, offers a platform to marginalised communities whose concerns are often ignored by politicians or traditional media. 

Far from being merely a career launching pad for burgeoning student politicians, mass student activism and compulsory unionism gave a powerful platform from which students could enact change at each institution.