Viva Arc?

“They said VSU,
We said ‘Fuck you,’
They said, ‘No, you’re fucked,’
Viva Arc.”

Graffiti in a male toilet cubicle at the Roundhouse.

Experiences of university life have undergone great changes over the past twenty years. Increasing numbers of students balance part-time work and study, opt for combined degrees, and universities develop their global and corporate links in an uncertain political climate for tertiary education. However the granddaddy of all of these changes for students has been the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), enforced on the first of July, 2006 across all Australian universities.

After five years of voluntary student unionism, it’s time to re-explore the issue of VSU, its successes and failures, and its impact upon student life. VSU was premised on three main arguments; firstly, it was thought that compulsory student unionism was contrary to freedom of association whereby students had the right to engage with university services on a user-pay, ad-hoc basis, rather than being forced to pay for services they may not wish to use. Many of these services were thought to be irrelevant to the interests of most students, overly political in nature or incompatible with the need to balance work and study. Finally, its fiscally regressive nature was thought to harm those students from financially worse off backgrounds. Accessing tertiary education was difficult enough for students, and compulsory student unionism placed an undue further financial burden on their economic situation.

While universities and their student unions should be responsive to changes in the political will of their students, the impacts of VSU have nonetheless posed many problems for students. By severing the connection between those students who do not choose to belong to student organisations such as Arc, the capacity for students to have their voices, as the most important stakeholder at universities, heard is eroded. This is because the political authority of student unions lies in the fact they gain their mandate from the voice of their membership. In the absence of a popularly (complete student body) endorsed SRC, students face difficulty getting their needs adequately acknowledged and addressed by the university and the entire SRC process losses some of the legitimacy it once had as the voice of the entire student body.

Since the introduction of VSU at UNSW, the unresponsiveness of the university administration to the political will of students has been shown through the introduction of policies including shortened semester lengths, Saturday exams and larger tutorial sizes. These policies, highly unpopular with most students, have affected all students regardless of their background. Philosophically, the inflexibility of the university on such issues suggests the political role of students in university life has fundamentally shifted from one of students being a key stakeholder in their own education to one in which the way students learn and perceive learning is dictated to them.

Analysing the changes which have taken place in student identity over recent decades, journalist and broadcaster Judith Langridge suggests contributing to students’ diminished political voice is our changed engagement with each other, “today, students are just individual shells negotiating their life highway, obeying the traffic rules society has set before them, rather than fully engaged, integrated participants in the institution.” VSU here is more broadly part of a conceptual shift of the relationship between academics and students from one of colleagues in learning to that of service provider and client. This marginalises students from the academic culture and commodifies the learning experience.

The consequences of VSU for student life can also be seen in terms of their provision of student services. Empirically, student unions have spent the vast majority of their financial resources on non-political causes such as venues, events, student publications, legal support, sporting organisations, clubs and retail outlets. At the University of Sydney, less than 1% of the union budget was spent on student political groups in the last full academic year before VSU (2005).

VSU has resulted in a contraction of student services budgets of $170 million a year across Australian universities. At rural universities the role of student unions as service providers has been worst hit. While UNSW currently has 201 registered clubs and societies, the University of Ballarat Student Union became insolvent in 2010 and Southern Cross University lost its student textbook loan scheme, dental service and has only five registered student clubs. In early 2008, the SRC of its Lismore Campus went under and was only replaced by a new organisation the following year, leaving students without a structured campus cultural life.

Many of the services offered by student unions are also inherently loss making and therefore require broader support from students than that which is enabled by VSU. Information gained by consulting a childcare provider at UNSW has indicated the extensive problems posed by the introduction of VSU to childcare services here. With the markedly diminished budget of the UNSW Student Guild from 2006, the Honey Pot Child Care Centre faced closure and was brought under the control of the university rather than that of the newly formed Arc. While this ensured its survival and resulted in a pay increase for staff, it also effectively represented a reduction in the university’s investment in its other services such as health, human resources, legal and compliance, media and communications, sport and recreation, UNSW Global, UNSW Housing and UNSW Sustainability. Given childcare was an area previously not funded by the university, its financial support utilised resources which had been directed to these other portfolios and thus impacted upon the extent to which they could meet student, staff and university community needs.

Similarly since 2006 the other UNSW childcare facility, House at Pooh Corner, has been receiving annual subsidies from the university to stay afloat. At other universities across Australia affected by reduced post-VSU funding, child care centres have been closed down or their affordability has been impacted upon. For example, at Macquarie University where childcare services receive no funding from the university, the cost per day is $85 for students and $90 for staff and members of the community, as opposed to $65 at UNSW.

Ultimately, the most telling consequence of VSU is the way in which it has impacted upon students’ experiences of learning. Education is most effective when it is a culture rather than a process. What attracted me to university was not ‘graduate attributes’ nor ‘learning outcomes’ or ‘key performance indicators,’ it was the unquantifiable and boundlessly enriching experience of having my thoughts and behaviours constantly tested by other students in an environment which facilitates these things.

Unfortunately, VSU has struck at this culture by making university a less attractive place for all students, with fewer services and weaker advocacy for the issues which face students day to day, including those least well off financially. In the end, as students, our truer wealth should not be measured by our finances, rather our shared university experiences and how our view of the world has been changed by the people we’ve met on campus. This is because inevitably, our strongest recollections of being students at UNSW will not be from the Randwick Racecourse or Mathews Theatre but those times spent at the Roundhouse, the Whitehouse, the Library Lawn or in the hundreds of diverse societies or volunteering groups on campus. I challenge you to think otherwise.

The Labor Government has proposed legislation allowing universities to levy annual fees of up to $250, called Student Services and Amenities Fees. At this stage the Bill has passed through the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Currently it does not include measures forcing universities to direct funds gained from such a fee to the student organisations that provide these services, for example Arc@UNSW. Nor does it provide the means for students to be consulted in the division of their money.

Cameron McPhedran