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Education and central planning

March 18th, 2005

The argument about Voluntary Student Unionism is interestingly summed up by a letter in today’s Age, supporting the government. The writer, an employer, asks us to imagine the outrage that would arise if he told his employees that they had to pay $500 in return for a range of the kinds of services typically provided by student unions.

Of course, employers routinely provide fringe benefits of various kinds and (explicitly or implicitly) reduce wages accordingly. Sometimes employees get to choose and sometimes the fringe benefits are part of the basic contract, offered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. As an example, quite a few employers sponsor employee sporting clubs, subsidise gym memberships, or, for the more sedentary, maintain corporate boxes at sporting venues. So a fair analogy for the VSU law would be industrial legislation prohibiting fringe benefits (unless they are individually negotiated).

More generally, the government needs to make up its mind whether it wants the university system to run on a centrally planned basis or as a competitive system. If the system is supposed to be competitive, then universities that choose to offer a traditional ‘full service’ bundle, including student associations, sporting clubs and the like, will have to compete with those (CQU being a prominent example) that offer classes in a city office block.

There are some merits to a centrally planned system, in which we give up the old idea of universities as independent institutions, and regard both unis and TAFEs as providing an extension of the school system to be made available to everyone at minimum cost. We could save a lot of money that’s currently wasted on advertising, marketing, wasteful duplication and so on. There are obvious problems with such an approach, but it would be better than the kind of semiconscious central planning that goes on at present.

What makes no sense is a system in which universities are told to go out and compete with each other, subject to a requirement that the government or the minister can micromanage anything that happens to take their fancy, from ‘cappuccino courses’ to the financing of the rowing club.

Update Andrew Norton and I see eye to eye on this one.

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  1. March 18th, 2005 at 08:27 | #1

    Come on John. Not everything is comparable to business: universities are places of learning, not places of business and students are not employees.

  2. Paul Norton
    March 18th, 2005 at 09:16 | #2

    Alex, John wasn’t making that comparison. He was simply reporting a letter writer who did. Another disanalogy is that students get to vote out their student union leadership and install a new one each year, a right which most employees (regrettably in my opinion) don’t have in relation to their bosses.

  3. Paul Norton
    March 18th, 2005 at 09:29 | #3

    Another letter on the VSU debate in this morning’s Australian caught my eye. It was a pro-VSU letter by Liberal Party activist and RWDB Ian “Niner Charlie” Farrow, complaining about how inequitable it is that he, as an external student, is forced to pay for services he doesn’t use and activities he may disagree with.

    It was not always thus with Ian. In the late 1970s he was an elected office-bearer, and for a time the President, of the La Trobe University Student Representative Council. One of his most significant acts as SRC President was to lobby La Trobe University Council not to adopt Professor Hugo Wolfsohn’s proposal for a form of VSU. In has capacity as a well-known and gregarious student identity, Ian ate a great many subsidised meals in catering outlets run by the La Trobe University Union, and consumed his fair share of subsidised liquor at functions sponsored by SRC-funded clubs. He was also a member of the Skiing Club, and no doubt went on quite a few skiing trips subsidised (through SRC funding of the Skiing Club) by the compulsory contributions of the great majority of students who didn’t ski.

    I have never quite worked out the logic behind his Damascene conversion to the Liberal Party and the VSU cause, although it is probably not coincidental that it occurred at the same time as a similar conversion on the part of his close friend Peter Costello.

    Talking of Peter Costello, am I the only person to have noticed a startling resemblence between the young Peter Costello and the images of Anakin (Darth Vader) Skywalker in the pre-release publicity for Revenge Of The Sith?

  4. grace pettigrew
    March 18th, 2005 at 10:21 | #4

    The Howard Government’s attack on university students has been a long time coming and will only now succeed because voters gave them the Senate at the last election and the parliamentary Liberal Party has no-one of any conscience who will cross the floor.

    The debate being conducted in the media in the past few days about compulsory student union fees has been predictably framed along the lines of consumer choice and anti-unionism, exactly where the government wants the debate to be. Young Liberal aspirants are feeding the press frenzy with neat little personal anecdotes about having to pay for leftist causes and expensive food in the student cafeterias.

    The real story is that the front bench of the Howard Government copped a pummeling at uni back in the seventies when they were outnumbered by the left, and they have never forgotten their rage.

    This is the politics of revenge, an infantile response that sadly pervades many policy decisions since 1996 that defy the national interest, including the dismantling of the apprenticeship system and the under-funding of TAFEs, selling off the national estate to fund the surplus and allowing public infrastructure to decay, structuring the tax system against working mothers and denying us a safe and affordable national child care system and early childhood education, and any other public program that had the Hawke/Keating stamp of approval. Public interest, rational policy and planning for the future be damned.

    Join up the dots and see how Howard and his power-mad cronies are now moving on a number of fronts to attack freedom of association and speech in this country so as to ensure their re-election in perpetuity.

    Abetz wanting to muzzle anti-establishment bloggers whilst talk-back radio flourishes, Minchin wanting to abolish compulsory voting so as to silence the voices of the poor and dispossessed, Nelson hamstringing student dissent and turning our universities into sausage machines for the market-place, the ideological attacks on teachers and public education, the taxpayer funding of right-wing think-tanks while the traditional source of independent advice to government, the public service, is outsourced and dumbed down, locking up asylum seekers in concentration camps without any press access, and taking the country into a war of aggression without any debate in parliament.

    Add in the mismanagement of Telstra so that our national communications system is way behind the rest of the developed world, concentrating media monopolies and privileging government friendly press hacks, and abolishing the industrial arbitration system and demonising unions while driving down wages with the importation of indentured slave labour, and we should really start wondering where all this ideological madness is taking us as a nation.

    When public dissent is silenced and students no longer take to the streets to voice our discontent, how soon before our children are ripped out of their schools by hatchet-faced government agents and driven into prison camps. Oops, sorry, that’s already happening.

  5. observa
    March 18th, 2005 at 10:47 | #5

    To Andrew I’d simply say that it’s possible to drive a car and support Kyoto and to Grace that there may be a bit of getting even here. However the govt is not going to introduce VSU against a very clear majority of student’s wishes. Now most of us may be quite comfortable with the general notion of a compulsory levy to enhance campus life and the university experience generally. However, what may have become increasingly clear to many past and present students is that through mismanagement and politicisation of the student unions, a tipping point of broad acceptance has been reached. Basically many are now asking if they’re really getting value for money. In this respect I think it’s a bit like local council rates for the general community, where there is probably a groundswell of opinion that we need to get back to basics, if we are not to all stagger under an increasingly onerous burden. In this respect our pollies may be picking up a certain resonance and beginning to act, much to the dismay of the conventional, cosy bums on student union seats.

  6. observa
    March 18th, 2005 at 10:56 | #6

    I should point out that past students often have a vested interest in this, because they’re often coughing up for their kids here.

  7. Paul Norton
    March 18th, 2005 at 11:11 | #7

    Observa does have a point insofar as there are some student unions/councils (including the one on the Brisbane campuses of my University) whose performance and internal processes don’t live up to the claims of defenders of the status quo. That said, it remains the case that the effect of the government’s legislation would be to throw out a great many babies with a modest amount of bathwater.

    Grace’s comments about the Howard government are shared by a lot of people on the Left, and are not wrong, but for reasons I explain below they are not the whole truth.

    The problem is that the masses have now elected this government four times, the last time with an increased majority. Now if the Howard government really is the unalloyed radical right outfit portrayed in Grace’s post, its electoral success can reasonably be interpreted as demonstrating a generalised rightward shift in the zeitgeist (as suggested, for example, by Jack Strocchi’s “Decline Of The Wets” thesis). Some commentators on the left who share Grace’s view of the Howard government have drawn exactly this conclusion, and have bifurcated into two camps.

    Some (e.g. Alan Ramsay) have concluded that the Australian electorate is terminally greedy and stupid. Others (e.g. Guy Rundle, Dennis Glover and, in this morning’s Age, Moira Rayner) have concluded that the left is as least partly wrong about a range of socio-cultural questions and must reconsider a number of long-standing feminist, queer-friendly, multi-cultural and socially libertarian commitments.

    I would offer an alternative proposition – that the Howard Government’s continued re-election is in part because it is not the unalloyed radical right outfit we often make it out to be, and that its rad-right impulses have been checked by the Senate, by the imperatives of managing a capitalist economy, and by Howard’s ability to trim his sails and make symbolic and substantive concessions to left-of-centre positions on issues where he knows the wind isn’t blowing to the right. His lack of enthusiasm for the abortion debate is one example. What’s happening, in aggregate, on work and family questions is another interesting example because the long-term trends of increased female workforce participation and “decline of the traditional family” have actually proceeded more rapidly under Howard than under Keating, although less rapidly than under Hawke. It follows from this (and the evidence of public opinion on abortion supports my contention) that there is actually more support for left positions “out there” than is assumed in much of the present debate.

    I would suggest that adopting such a more nuanced analysis of the realities of the Howard government and of current public opinion will be more productive and empowering for the Left than cooking the analysis to justify a simple hatred of Howard which, when the revealed will of the people is factored in, logically leads to either a hatred of our fellow citizens (as in Ramsay) or a hatred of ourselves (as in Rundle, Glover and Rayner), neither of which is terribly helpful.

  8. March 18th, 2005 at 11:17 | #8

    Observa, if there is such a push for this among students, why doesn’t the government hold referenda on campuses about it? I’m always very suspicious of claims about a groundswell of public opinion that isn’t backed up by concrete evdience, and in this case evidence wouldn’t be too hard to come by.

  9. roger o’sullivan
    March 18th, 2005 at 11:28 | #9

    I’m one of a significant number of university students in the ‘old days’ who worked for a living during the day and attended university at night. Student Union fees were compulsory although very few benefits from those fees were accessible to evening students. Even if they had been most of us were too bloody tired or had too little time available to have benefitted from them. University Student Unions were for the priveleged. Several approaches to the ‘Union’ to, at least, have a reduced fee for evening students, received the quaint response, “That’s not possible but you can always vote to have the fees made optional”.

  10. Paul Norton
    March 18th, 2005 at 11:34 | #10

    Roger, that’s interesting. In the student unions I’ve had dealings with the part-time students’ union fee has always been reduced (usually to about half the full-time fee).

  11. grace pettigrew
    March 18th, 2005 at 11:52 | #11

    Paul, sorry to disappoint you, but I do not hate my fellow citizens or myself, so I do not fit into your analysis. (On the other hand, I am proud to be a Howard and Bush hater!)

    I am always suspicious of commentaries about “shifts in the zeitgeist”, as there is little evidence apparent to me that the australian electorate has shifted much in either direction. In other words, it is overstating the case to say that “the masses” elected Howard four times, so we should all just shut up and move with the times.

    We should always remember that 50% minus a few percentage points did not vote for the Howard Government in the past four elections, just as the same number did not vote for Hawke/Keating in the previous four elections. It is the few swinging voters in marginal electorates who essentially decide who governs, and it is the way that the government conducts itself in the national interest once it assumes power that matters.

    The Howard Government, not the electorate at large, has shifted national policy to the radical right, rather than just chugging along on the right of the political sprectrum as most mortgage-belt voters expected. Perhaps the Senate has checked some of Howard’s grosser radical right instincts as you say Paul, but your nuanced analysis will all be history post July.

    The real issue is whether the electorate at large actually agrees with Howard’s personal ideological passions, and my view is that they don’t, but it takes a while for everyone to wake up and take notice. This happens when a confluence of radical policies is revealed in the public domain and is recognised as being unusual. As could be happening around now, with these arrogant, mindless and unnecessary attacks on free speech and association from a government that has been in power too long. People won’t cop this sort of nonsense when it becomes too obvious. And it certainly will when the Senate changes in July.

    The pendulum will swing back electorally, and Howard will be a pock-mark on history, notwithstanding his four election wins. I just hope he does not do too much more damage to our national character in the meantime.

  12. observa
    March 18th, 2005 at 12:04 | #12

    I understand the point you’re making Brian, but I’d come back to the point that parents often coughing up for their students makes such an exercise a bit futile. They own the problem too, many of them as past students themselves. As such they would also have some qualms about throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    Perhaps a more telling survey would be for students to face a menu of expenditure categories and the concomitant cost of each and then ask them to place in order of preference, which they would like cut (ie how they would like to reduce their fee) Perhaps also at the head of the survey it would be relevant to ask them how much they feel they should pay annually overall. Of course we all know what that would mean for those who are holding the fort on their pet expenditure programs now.

    I have a feeling, that given the general ruckus arising over real estate taxing via council rates, land tax, etc, such a survey approach may need to be forthcoming with local govt servicing too. The first council to propose such an exercise and act upon it will see a breathtaking domino effect around the country, in my opinion.

  13. Razor
    March 18th, 2005 at 12:10 | #13

    Dear Grace,

    If, as you appear to firmly believe, the majority of students support the current Compulsory Student Unionism, then this proposed law shouldn’t cause a problem. The majority will continue to join the unions and enable funding for all those terribly important services (which don’t duplicate anything available in the general community, do they!).

    On the other hand, if you are wrong, and the majority of students do not support the current system, then they will vote with their dollars.

    What could be fairer?

    Or, are you suggesting that the majority are wrong and you are right?

    Kind regards

  14. roberto
    March 18th, 2005 at 12:51 | #14

    Stuff compulsory student unions. I am all in favour of voluntary unionism, and more than happy if in that context student unions continue to be ‘political’ and ‘activist’ on a range of issues.

    My own expereince would not be too distant from the experience of other post-grad students who are working while studying.

    When I completed my Masters dgree (part time, as I was working) I never utilised any Student Union facilities. When I questioned the payment of the dues, the Student Union post grad rep said that dues were necessary to pay for all sorts of services and facilities. Fair enough, but I then explained my circumstances that since lectures were held off campus, and I had access to the library of a professional body I was a member thefore not necessitating the need to visit a campus, I was paying for services and facilities I would never use. The reply came: “Yes…well…but dues are paid for student services and facilities’.


  15. March 18th, 2005 at 12:55 | #15

    Paul: Everyone pays the full fee, including external students who may have zero campus contact hours.

  16. grace pettigrew
    March 18th, 2005 at 13:26 | #16

    Razor, I made no such assertion, and I don’t argue with straw men.

  17. March 18th, 2005 at 14:01 | #17

    For what my opinion’s worth (as a recently submitting postgrad student and now a research staffer), I agree as well.

    One point I made on my own post on the matter on the blog, worth briefly repeating here, is the claim by the government that overseas students don’t care about the “beer appreciation club”. As a rule, they may not care about the beer club, but many of the most active clubs on the campuses I’ve been are the overseas student clubs.

  18. still working it out
    March 18th, 2005 at 14:34 | #18

    Its has always seemed hypocritical to me that Student Unions are the first to complain about how poor uni students are and then charge them $500 a year in membership fees. This is huge amount when you’re surviving on Austudy and have to buy textbooks etc at the start of the year.

    I don’t know what the mood on campus’s are like now, but when I was at uni about 5 years ago at UNSW a referendum supporting VSU would have had a good chance of passing. Alot of students would have traded in the services they were getting for $500 in hand. The services like food and stationary did not seem to be substantially cheaper than what was available commercially just near uni. As for clubs etc, well the use of these facilities was extremely uneven. As noted above part time students get a very raw deal, but they are not the only ones. Alot of full time students have to commute long distances each day (especially to a place like UNSW). Partaking in clubs etc is not really practical for them. I had to do this myself. However I later moved to on campus and it was only then that I really saw what the student unions were doing. It seemed to me that the majority of the union’s benefits were going to a fairly small number of the students.

    I don’t mind the idea of compulsory student unionism per se. Many things that a student union should do benefit almost all the students and the only fair way to pay for it are compulsory fees. But the level of fees and the areas in which the student unions involve themselves did not make much sense. Perhaps laws which laid down maximum fees at much more reasonable levels would be fairer on part time students and get unions out of areas where they there is no logic or benefit to their involvement

  19. observa
    March 18th, 2005 at 14:36 | #19

    You might do well to listen to Paul Norton’s(sorry I called him Andrew)call for a more nuanced approach in order to prevent a worthwhile baby being thrown out with bathwater here. Perhaps if student union activists had done this a fair bit earlier in the piece, by listening to some well founded complaints and responding appropriately, they wouldn’t be facing an all or nothing future now. I think we all know what Razor’s probable future will get them now for shooting themselves in the foot over the years. As for the tactics of Young Lib anecdotalism, you might like to ask John Hewson what he thinks of candles and birthday cake arguments nowadays. Personally, I think this approach only gains traction when there’s substance beneath.

  20. Razor
    March 18th, 2005 at 15:37 | #20

    Dear Grace,

    Your very first words were “The Howard Government’s attack on university students . . .”. Those words indicate that you think all university students are being attacked – there is no qualification at all. I would argue that the policy is only seen as an attack by those students who support compulsory student unionism. Your claim that I am building straw-men appears to be an attempt to ignore the plain commonsense logic of my point, which you have failed to refute.

    If you so strongly beleive that you are right and that CSU is highly desirable, then surely you must be able to organise enough support under VSU to maintain membership levels near what they currently are.

    Or, do you believe that the majority of students support VSU and you are in the minority?


  21. grace pettigrew
    March 18th, 2005 at 15:39 | #21

    Observa, had you read my last post properly you would have observed that I listened to and addressed Paul’s comments. Your pompous admonitions are misconceived and misdirected. Which particular “worthwhile baby” are you referring to incidentally? Perhaps you should elaborate.

  22. Fyodor
    March 18th, 2005 at 15:46 | #22

    I agree with Razor [ouch]. If students want a union they can vote with their dollars. I have yet to see a persuasive argument for COMPULSORY membership.


    Your fringe benefits analogy is flawed, as company-provided benefits are mostly not part of a “take-it-or-leave-it” package of benefits. The seats in corporate boxes at sports events, company parties etc. are more in the nature of gifts, not remuneration. Fringe benefits like subsidised car leases, parking, laptops etc. usually ARE part of an employment agreement. More importantly, the benefits are provided by the employer, not a company union which staff are forced to join.

    The idea that union membership is part of “bundle” of goods bought by students from universities is convenient for your argument in terms of university competition, but bundling is often an anti-competitive behaviour in other industries. If I want to study under the Great Neoclassical Iconoclast at UQ, why should I have to join the UQSU (i.e. purchase a good I would not buy normally) for the privilege?

  23. grace pettigrew
    March 18th, 2005 at 15:55 | #23

    Razor, your straw man is listing and will soon fall over if you don’t give him a rest. Apparently you believe that I am a student activist and should go out and “organise support” for the position you have hoisted me into. Hit me with another of your breathtakingly illogical pieces of textual analysis please, this is becoming quite entertaining.

  24. March 18th, 2005 at 15:58 | #24

    Yobbo said, “Everyone pays the full fee, including external students who may have zero campus contact hours.”

    That’s just not true.

    External: 41% of the full-time on-campus fee.

    Full-time external: 50% of the full-time on-campus fee.
    Part-time external: 75% of the part-time on-campus fee.

    External: 30% of the full-time on-campus fee.

    External: 25% of the full-time on-campus fee.

    Let’s stick to facts when discussing these issues.

  25. Razor
    March 18th, 2005 at 16:00 | #25

    I do find the argument that those who support VSU must also believe that this means they want some form of user pays for everything. The argument that paying taxes is equivalent of CSU. What a load of crud. There are only three tiers of Government, as far as I am aware, and I am (relatively) happy to pay taxes, understanding that some of the money will go to things I do not agree with. We have a democracy where we are able to influence those decisions.

    (I will say that I used to feel I was getting value for my tax dollars when I was firing tank ammunition at +$700 per round and having F18s on call costing about $35,000 per air-hour.)

    Clearly, Universities, in particular the student body, is not a goverment and therefore has no right to tax.

    Why do students need their own legal aid, or health systems? Why aren’t the general public systems good enough? (That argument applies too all “Exclusive” tax payer funded services) Why the duplication? Why should students be forced to pay higher then market prices for Ref food?

    The vast majority of students will aprreciate the reduction up-front costs.

    And, while I’m here, the argument that HECS increases is making Tertiary education unaffordable is a complete furphy. It has to be one of the most succesful deceptions of the Public that has ever been enacted upon it.

  26. Paul Norton
    March 18th, 2005 at 16:29 | #26

    I could say many things in reply to the pro-VSU posts but I have a bus to catch, so:

    1. I have posted an argument for CSU at Catallaxy based on the “public good” character of some benefits yielded by student unions.

    2. VSU as a response to corrupt or unaccountable student union executives is like burning down the house to kill the termites, or shooting the dog to kill the tapeworm, when alternative means of fumigation are available.

  27. Razor
    March 18th, 2005 at 16:56 | #27

    Dearest Grace,

    Why won’t you argue your case? Whether or not you are a student activist, a student, or not a student is not the issue. You are a supporter of CSU and should be able to argue the case for it. Your avoidance of the issue appears to demonstrate that you are unable to make a valid argument to support your beloved and endangered CSU.

    If I have built a straw man – then knock it down!

  28. March 18th, 2005 at 17:32 | #28

    Razor, in the abstract there is no general justification for taxes, not even the “democracy” one. They are – in the abstract – disconnected from free choices by the forced grouping involved, just as with student unions.

    But if you are going to get onto more pragmatic rationales for taxes, including considering what would happen without them, bear in mind that those are merely pragmatic and utilitarian ones related to concepts of lesser evil.

    That’s not the same as justification at all.

    Anyway, that’s getting a bit off topic. I wanted to make the point that there is more similarity between student union fees and taxes than it appeared.

  29. Razor
    March 18th, 2005 at 17:47 | #29

    Dear P.M. – thanks for the pointer, but I would argue that a government cannot operate without taxes? – even using a person’s time voluntarily is a form of tax, therefore tax is inherent in any type of government. And unless you believe in anarchy, you would have to agree that governments are necessary and justified and so are taxes. (Although, they should IMHO as a RWDB be absolutely minimalist and stick to providing public goods like Defence.)

    Perhaps you would like to knock my “straw-man” down. Note that I don’t rate the “Public Goods/Free-loader” argument.

    If students want Unions they will survive!

  30. Mark Upcher
    March 18th, 2005 at 18:11 | #30

    JQ says “Andrew Norton and I see eye to eye on this”

    Does this include Andrew’s closing reference to “new scenes in the long socialist nightmare of Australian higher education policy.”?

  31. cp
    March 18th, 2005 at 18:30 | #31

    Razor (15): A quick google shows that UQ’s student services charge for external students is the princely sum of $21 a semester, ie 15% of the full time internal student charge. Facts, facts…

  32. cp
    March 18th, 2005 at 18:36 | #32

    (UQ’s SSC=union fees, pretty much)

  33. Razor
    March 18th, 2005 at 19:10 | #33

    cp – I think your last may have been directed at Yobbo, God Bless Him.

    While I too have been the victim of Union fees charged to External students I had not previously raised the issue, personally.

  34. Ros
    March 18th, 2005 at 19:22 | #34

    Paul Norton may be in a position to argue that VSU is like burning down the house to get the termites, the Vice Chancellors are not. They have known all along how incompetent and corrupt the student bodies are on many occasions and have chosen to look the other way. If their students knew how incompetent their student representatives were and that the Vice Chancellors chose to allow them to be ripped off then they might feel it was time for another demo outside the VCs offices. And the Unis buy in big, union fees unpaid no library no degree. Now that makes sense in bodies that claim they are about education. The Unis have chosen to act as attack dogs for the unions.
    My experience of some of the howlers. Well 18 and 19 year olds have all the necessary skills for selecting persons for senior management positions ($150,000 plus) so don’t need any assistance from the Uni or professionals. In this case the person was a crook and had to go. The union handled that so well they had to pay out the full contract, or at least they chose to.
    Or at the uni I have currently been working at, 2004 union body signed off on $100,000 refurbishment of cafeteria in 2005. At the beginning of 2006 it is literally to be knocked down. Maybe it is some kind of cunning plan to save a small besser brick building for posterity.
    Small example, when querying why I was being charged $2.45 for a coffee rather than say $2.50 I was advised that the prices was worked out on the basis of what the students would like to pay and then a fixed percentage was added on, hence $2.45. The individual was none too impressed with the remarkable value in having to constantly collect bags of 5 cent pieces from the bank, and all the costs resulting from such stupidities. They were numerous.
    When I have worked in Unis it has not been as an academic and on occasions I have worked in areas where we were well aware of what these bodies were up to, and corruption was certainly the game on too many occasions. Again the VCs would have known this.
    And lets not kid ourselves too much, for many, indeed most of these representatives being elected was about CVs and the pleasure of learning war games. Many are very upfront about it.
    Why should the bulk of students pay for this self impressed minority. And it is not a tax, they are not a government. Unis having abandoned students to these bodies will now just have to work out how to deliver the services that students require. Select medical services for students with no inconvenience in getting these services is not one of them.
    cp what do those external students get for that $21, literature about the student union?

  35. March 18th, 2005 at 19:52 | #35

    Razor, I was trying to make precisely the distinction between “necessary” and “justified”. In an extreme (but real) case, shipwrecked sailors found it necessary to eat one of their number, but they were still tried and found guilty – and the judge remitted the usual sentence. This (and their own awareness, turning themselves in) showed the distinction.

    Similarly, even the necessity of government does not amount to justification. And even that necessity is not itself a fundamental necessity but rather a response to human fallibility, compounded by governments’ unwilingness even to try to work themselves out of a job.

    It is important to distinguish between anarchy and anarchism too.

    At a deep philosophical level, I am indeed an anarchist; that of course is why I find democracy so empty as a justification. But it does not deny either the possibility of outside (non-circular) meaning or a human need for meaning. It merely finds it absurd to think it can come from people themselves – or those claiming to act for them. Thus, republicanism is inherently as absurd and empty as republicans claim monarchy is, missing the human connection (which may or may not exist, but which cannot come from a republic).

    You will see that far from knocking down your views on student unions, I was pointing out that you do not need to distinguish between them and governments to make your argument stand; the same critiscism of principle does apply to governments, whatever our dire need may require in practice. You need only adjust your position to accept governments as a necessity, and not as justifiable things. They aren’t, unless you find some separate and external justification (democracy doesn’t cut it for that, as that is a circular argument).

    To cite another person, Christian texts show Jesus being given a trick question trying to trap him in a contradiction over the acceptability of divorce. His answer was “these things were given for your hardness of heart”. The same applies to governments. That position reconciles the necessity and the lack of justification. And it does not mean all is well and the needs need not be addressed. With that, you should see many parallels to student unions, and the differences that arise in practice from different (smaller) overriding necessities for the latter.

    But there is no difference of principle.

  36. Jill Rush
    March 18th, 2005 at 20:02 | #36

    What is most interesting about this debate is the lack of understanding about obligations to the wider community if we are to have a happy and strong land.

    The government knows that there will be many who will not join the union and therefore there will be less money to spend on a broad education including a range of sports, cultural and intellectual clubs as well as learnings the basics of democracy. One thing that is inevitable are those who will take a free ride and many will not join a union because of this.

    We are fast losing the social capital that was built during the Hawke years.

    What we see here is a diminuation of standards to a lowest common and which because of the painful increase in fees students will drop those that are optional. The way that the government is selling the idea that the real problem in higher education is student union fees is quite masterly.

  37. cp
    March 18th, 2005 at 22:49 | #37

    Razor (33) Oops! You’re right. Sincere apologies! My comment was originally rejected and although I thought I’d written the same thing again, all the scrolling and rewriting ambushed me. Sorry!

  38. cp
    March 18th, 2005 at 23:11 | #38

    Ros: dunno what they would get, it’s just a local example I found. A warm inner glow, perhaps? Advocacy and advice, probably.

  39. March 19th, 2005 at 02:34 | #39

    Rob: In my last semester at ECU I studied in external mode, and paid the same semester A+S Fee ($50) as I did when I studied full time.

    Maybe they just still thought I was a full-time student, I dunno.

  40. March 19th, 2005 at 12:42 | #40

    Yeah, sounds like an admin stuff-up. These things happen. You should try to get a refund.

  41. March 19th, 2005 at 13:26 | #41

    Jill, the only “need” for most of these things in the first place – not just in the student union sphere – is precisely the lack of individual resources and individual familiarity with coping.

    If we could wind back both the directly or indirectly government supplied services, and the things funding them, in such a way that the transition was managed without anybody falling through the cracks, we would all – not just students – be better off in two ways. One is that we would be losing less to churning and to misguided choices. The other is the moral, i.e. principled, gain of real as opposed to theoretical freedom.

    Of course, the trick is doing it (“l’execution c’est tout”, as Napoleon is reputed to have remarked). But there is no justification in principle for compulsory student union fees, not even “community”, since that is a mere huddling together in face of pressures imposed largely from within. Community is only ever justified that way as a response to external threats.

    Ironically, judging from recent performances reported in the Australian among other places, Howard and Costello are firmly in the camp of only winding back government burdens after funding all these supposed intrinsice requirements of government. They are not at all interested in engineering government out of a job.

    The old saying that “that government is best that governs least” is often misunderstood as saying governments should drop everything. Rather, it means the same sort of thing as “happy the land that has no need of heroes” (emphasis added). If all were well conducted, a government would have little to do. that does not mean abdicating a responsibility arising from failing to attain that situation.

    And since we actually have rules that penalise inactive politicians, it is unlikely that the Turkeys will ever be allowed to vote for Christmas, let alone want to. (The only politically realistic transitions to small government I know involve grandfathering, as that implies the old Turkeys kicking the ladder away from all the hungry and eager young Turkeys; see how well the USA actually did its low key nation building in Paraguay, not so long ago.)

  42. March 19th, 2005 at 18:26 | #42

    its funny how i spent a year working overseas last year – for an australian company – and guess what – i still had to pay 47% tax rate….

    hmmm, i don’t think i was any australian government services. I certainly am not happy to be funding senator lightfoots escapedes in iraq.

    And if you haven’t noticed – student unions hold democratic elections. If your unhappy with what student unions do, become involved and change what they do. They are democratic instituions representing students. Sure the outcome of these elections are mostly left wing – but that represents the majority of university students.

    Its just like the disdain that the federal government shows for State governments (simply because they are labor). The feds pretend they have the mandate to over rule the states, but as elections in WA show – the austrlaian people are more interested in stability than ideological economic anarchism causes espoused by the liberal party.

  43. March 19th, 2005 at 20:27 | #43

    No, alphacoward, that’s a fallacy about “vote and run it differently”. The one thing a democratic process cannot do is cease. See, for instance, the result of the regular parties boycotting the Fascist dominated parliament after one early notorious murder – it just gave Mussolini a free rein.

    Voting gets more people on side, but the one thing it will not do is provide people who want “no” with an effective voice. They can’t even vote with their feet, because they will only end up with another university with similar conditions.

    Ask any anarchist about the fallacies involved in this – they have seen through them long ago. Which doesn’t mean they are offering immediately practical alternatives, of course, it just means that if you insist on confining yourself to the possible and assuming that a solution must exist, you rule out the possibility that there is no solution. You will not test for it.

  44. March 19th, 2005 at 23:08 | #44


    i can replace the word university with country and end up at the same conclusion. Should i move to new Zealand with a lower tax, unemployment and interest rate? But no mater how much i move, i can hardly say no to Government.

    The liberals – comprised of social conservatives and economic anarchists – seem intent on the removal of all democratic structures beneath them – be that student unions, state governments or aboriginal. Even global governance (in the form of the UN) is treated with disrepect.

    “The one thing a democratic process cannot do is cease.”

    i totally agree – and actually its a well conceived point i’ve never though about before – so thankyou.

    but i’m not sure it justifies the removal of all other forms of democracy. Its a vital training ground for young policians, as costello and many other politicans know.

    So here is my position:

    there should neither be a law requiring orng student unions.

    At the very minimum, the chancellors of the university should be able to choose. Surely that would be true liberalism, or reduction of government interference.

    Perhaps a move towards deferred payment of student representative and services dues – in addition to the levels of HECS the majority of students are outlaying. Or even a 10% levy on full fee paying students could probably bring about a similar level of funding for Student council activities.

    The governments draconian legislation smacks of idelogical interference, marketed in the form of a self depriving freedom.

  45. March 19th, 2005 at 23:09 | #45

    sorry that should read:

    there should neither be a law requiring or outlawing student unions.

  46. March 20th, 2005 at 02:33 | #46

    Just a small point – in my teaching experience, counselling services for university students are very important. Cutting them would be a disaster.

    And who wants to leave foreign students even further out in the cold?

  47. Molly Rowan
    March 20th, 2005 at 14:44 | #47

    David T, no, it is certainly not a small point losing counselling services for your uni students; or clubs and societies, or advocacy, or a decent, well served up meal for $7.50 (or even a $2 sausage roll), or sporting facilities, or selling/buying second hand books, or finding part-time work, or accommodation, or being able to sit and talk, discuss, debate and argue in comfort, or access affordable child care at times convenient to your studies or, or, or….

    I have spent time in tertiary studies in Oz since 1976, currently I’m on an APA PhD student in my dotage. Most of this study was to refine and progress my nursing/teaching career. Also, most of those times I was part-time/external and can’t recall accessing any service that was paid for by my student’s amenities fees, apart from the bistro. Yet I never begrudged it, and no matter how stretched I was for money, I have always paid it. And I started work here in ’69, as a migrant, scrubbing floors!

    You see it is a community services payment – one for all and all for one. Howard knows that the overstretched student will be glad to be free of one bill, without him/her realising that any of the above services (if they are available) will now come from the private sector as a full cost for each service.

    Mrs. Thatcher said ‘there is no such thing as society, there is only the individual’ (1987), and John Howard said Thatcher was his mentor. He also said that these times would suit him – how right he was.

    Molly Rowan.

  48. March 20th, 2005 at 18:12 | #48

    Actually, Alphacoward, the burden of justification falls on democarcy (or rather particular implementations of It). And you can’t use student unions cultivation of politicians-to-be as a benefit, since you are merely moving the justification of one implementation back one level to another implementation, like skipping the pumps in a mine by draining its water into a nearby deeper one.

    And of course the argument can be transferred to whole countries. Just there I was exploring precisely that sort of general principle that applies everywhere. If you get down to particular cases you will find particular justifications (or not) and particular lesser evils mitigating greater ones temporarily or indefinitely (or not).

    When people make general statements, though, you can work with high level abstractions and only fill in facts occasionally, the way algebra is more abstract than particular calculations with particular numbers – you don’t need actual numbers until you want particular answers, but it gives you a framework to get real again later.

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