How to build a better campus: the fight to abolish VSU

The suppression of the student political conscience impacts how students, beyond university, think about their role in social and economic systems.

Each club, society, sports club, collective (not to mention this humble newspaper) that sets up a stall at Welcome Week substantially relies on student money to survive. Despite every student being required to pay a fee to fund student life, the vast majority of these organisations actually have very little money. The money they do have is subject to the whims of University management, not students, who decide which organisations to fund and how much to fund them. Both of these problems — a lack of student control of their own money, and a lack of available student money in the first place — are directly responsible for the dreary campus culture at Australian universities, not least USyd. This was not always the way things worked, and students are fighting to change it.

Prior to 2006, students in most states were required to pay money to their student unions (which include the USU and SRC at USyd) in a system known as Compulsory Student Unionism (CSU). However, John Howard’s government abolished CSU in time for the 2006 uni year, meaning that students were not required to pay any money to the organisations which sustain student life.

After five years, the Gillard government introduced the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), which students today will be familiar with: we are required to pay the fee to the University as a part of the enrolment process. Under the current system, the University receives student SSAF fees and distributes them among student organisations, including the Students Representative Council (SRC), the University of Sydney Union (USU) and Sydney University Sports and Fitness (SSUF) (among others) at USyd. Universities are also able to keep SSAF funds to run their own initiatives for students, as occurs at USyd.

The National Union of Students (NUS) – the peak representative body for undergraduates at Australian universities – has been campaigning to improve this system, although it faces significant barriers to success.

NUS President Bailey Riley told Honi that the NUS “of course would love the return of CSU,” and framed CSU’s return as a long-term goal of the NUS. To get there, Riley said that pushing for CSU’s return will be “part of our discussions & future submissions within the accord’s process.” However, citing the difficulty of achieving this reform, Riley said “CSU is not our top priority now.”

A return to CSU would be beneficial in a number of ways. It would mean that student unions receive greatly improved funding: either students would pay the same fees, and the bureaucratic costs involved with universities distributing that money (and the money they withhold from student unions) reduces; or they would pay slightly more, and student unions would have even more resources. Student unions also would have to spend less on convincing students to join them, a process which has to happen each year anew as new students join, and as those already sold on the benefits of student unions leave, uni. This funding could be well used to fund services like legal aid, caseworkers, and student media, and enable student unions to run more effective activist campaigns.

Since funding would no longer be contingent on appeasing university management, student unions would be free to run activist campaigns and provide services purely according to the wishes of students.

The NUS has been lobbying a range of Labor Party members to reintroduce CSU. However, Labor is currently unwilling to legislate this change, with Riley saying that “Labor need[s] the most work” to change their mind. Deep political divisions in the lead up to Howard’s 2005 reforms mean that legislating CSU would use a significant amount of political capital, being a significant deterrent for a Labor Party that is portraying itself as interested in reforming the university sector through consensus.

Accordingly, the NUS has been also lobbying The Greens as they are viewed as “the best ally in this fight,” according to Riley. If the NUS were to succeed in lobbying the Greens to introduce a bill to reintroduce CSU, it would force Labor to address the issue and arrive at a position, thereby opening them up to critique by students and the broader public.

For NUS Education Officer, Xavier Dupé, “lobbying is no solution,” to student unions’ funding problem. He adds that “Labor wants student unions to be bureaucratic and apolitical because they know that historically students have played a role in social struggle.” While Dupé’s vision of mass activism would apply significant pressure on mainstream political parties and effectively insert student perspectives into the CSU debate, the NUS’ ability to create such a movement is questionable in the short-term. An activist campaign to revive CSU would entail a long and hard fight.

In light of these barriers to a return to CSU, the NUS has been prioritising lobbying for changes which, ideally, would see 100% of SSAF fees given to student unions, or at worst, require universities to give 50% of SSAF fees to student unions. Honi understands that some members of the Labor Party whom the NUS has spoken to agree that the current SSAF system is broken and are open to reform. The Greens would also likely support a reform to the SSAF system.

If student unions received 100% of SSAF fees, some of the problems with CSU would be remedied. The sheer weight of bureaucracy would be reduced, and student unions would receive more funding and improve student life and welfare accordingly. Funding would be more secure, which is particularly valuable for activist unions like the SRC at USyd and student unions reliant on more precarious funding, including those at smaller or rural universities.

However, the NUS rightly sees CSU as preferable to 100% SSAF. Dupé told Honi that “even 100% SSAF would not fix” the problem of universities having control over how student unions spend their money and lead activist campaigns, since “the university still has discretion over whether SSAF conditions have been breached.”

More fundamentally, amidst the discussions of whether students should campaign for more achievable SSAF reform or the more ambitious CSU, is the question of how student unions, and thus students, conceptualise their role in the university system, and society.

VSU was ostensibly introduced to limit the political autonomy of students. Instead of university being a democratic place in which students have agency, VSU renders students passive participants, customers and consumers in the higher education system. Without student unions, students have very little capacity to change their university, and as such, fail to develop an understanding of their political power. In turn, students’ ability to demand improvements to student life, and to create their own forms of campus social experience, diminishes. This suppression of the student political conscience has further ramifications on how students, beyond university, think about their role in social and economic systems and their ability to agitate for change.

As the NUS and student unions make the case for CSU or 100% SSAF, they ought to remember that they are not just campaigning for new funding arrangements, but to destabilise the foundations of the neoliberal education system.