The era of blithe collusion between universities and the radical edge of student politics is drawing to an end, writes university student Aaron Russell.
It is a commonplace that student politicians are complacent beneficiaries of electoral arrangements that rival 18th-century England’s rotten boroughs. Just how complacent can be judged from Jodie Jansen’s recent defence of the status quo in The Australian (November 11, 2004).
As president of the National Union of Students, Jansen defends student unions as a “form of government” to which students should pay fees.
But, of course, the difference between the federal, state and local tiers of government and student outfits is that the former all have statutory powers and democratic legitimacy. The latter have neither. They’re quasi-feudal arrangements in which students are obliged to pay and pay, to support a freeloading bureaucracy – most of whom are either unelected or elected on a pathetically small plurality.
Student union hacks don’t recognise that the Federal Government – although democratically elected – has the right to reform mickey mouse campus administrations.
Nor do they admit that it has any business trying to uphold the principle of voluntary unionism, even though it’s formally committed to the principle under the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Jansen morphs student unionism into a form of government. But Sydney University’s vice-chancellor, Professor Gavin Brown, takes a different tack. He sees student unions as loose, ad hoc associations. He thinks they have so few features in common with unionism that arguments about freedom of association are dishonest – mere rhetorical ploys on the Government’s part.
The fact remains that the ACTU accepts student unions as bona fide unions, as Brown must know full well. Reading him, like many of his fellow vice-chancellors, I often wonder: why so many obvious whoppers in defence of the indefensible?
Brown’s pleas for the status quo are about as convincing as arguing for rotten boroughs on the grounds that they were traditional and had provided an assured berth for many a successful politician.
His argument is even weaker than Jansen’s. Boiled down, it’s a “we know best” plea on behalf of the universities that have been prepared to extract fees from students (on pain of being excluded from graduation) in collusion with entrenched student politicians.
Brown assures us that student unions have “a proud history”, which tells us nothing more than that his grasp of history is slender.
Has he forgotten Maoist and Trotskyite-controlled campuses and national unions donating significant sums to terrorist organisations, including the Palestine Liberation Organisation in its most bloodthirsty phase in the 1980s? Has he forgotten all the abuses of process, the chicanery and electoral rorting that Peter Costello, Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz brought to light in the late 1970s and early ’80s, thereby earning their spurs?
Can he be unaware of the general contempt in which, to this day, student politicians are held by most students?
Brown may find it hard to take freedom of association seriously after the long decades in which he and his fellow vice-chancellors systematically violated it. But the old order is going to have to change now that the Senate is no longer the last bastion of ultra-Left ratbaggery.
And the era of blithe collusion between the universities and the radical edge of student politics is at last drawing to an end. The Howard Government is currently considering wholesale abolition of levies on students or simply abolishing the levies that pay for political representation.
I have no fundamental objection to students being obliged to subsidise social clubs, sports associations and some on-campus catering.
The core reform is making student union membership voluntary, as it should be with every other union.
The old order has reason to fear the change. Given a free choice, somewhere between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of students will happily let the student unions starve. It’s unlikely they will be much missed.
- Aaron Russell is president of the Democratic Club of Adelaide University. This article first appeared in The Australian (December 29, 2004) and is reproduced with News Ltd’s kind permission.