Education and central planning
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.