Padraic P. McGuinness, “Student unions — time to end the closed shop,”
The Sydney Morning Herald, February 25, 1999, p. 13.

As with most issues in politics, the argument about student unions is more about power and doing down one side or the other than any real principle.

Arguments in favour of compulsory student unionism come from the side which purports to be the advocate of human rights, including the right of free association; arguments against come from those who hate the word “union” but have no objection to the Oxford Union.

There is a lot of quite deliberate confusing of the issues in this argument, and quite a bit of it comes, inexcusably, from the vice-chancellors.

Just what is student unionism?

At the University of Sydney there is the University of Sydney Union, which mainly provides services to students — recreational facilities, meeting rooms, subsidised canteens, some shops and so on. There is also the Sports Union, which caters for sporting activities and which is generally uncontroversial, though it is unfair that those who are not interested in organised sport should be compelled to pay for the rest. There is also the Students Representative Council (SRC) which is quite separate.

The distinctions are blurred at some universities, but it is the SRC and its equivalents that the real argument is about. The National Union of Students is, of course, based on these political bodies, not on the university unions, which were originally modelled on the Oxford Union and similar bodies. They hosted debates, but otherwise indulged in little political activity. The word “union” does not always have an industrial or political meaning.

The real issue is simply that student associations usually favour the Left, ranging from Labor Party supporters to various lunatic fringe groups, from “red diaper” babies (children of the old communists) to Trotskyites, anarchists and others.

Those who might be inclined actively to support the Coalition parties are in the minority on campus, and are often thought of as peculiar or young fogies. Indeed, some of them are. But Liberal activists at the universities are usually on the left of the Liberal Party, and espouse many fashionable views — because the climate of universities generally favours supposedly tolerant social views and this influences even the hereditary conservatives.

One of the virtues of universities at their best is that at least a tiny proportion of the students actually think, and such is the variety of people and causes that even the wildest fringes become accepted as part of the scenery. For example, it is difficult to be homophobic when one is used to rubbing shoulders with declared gays and lesbians.

But the elected student “representative” bodies are in now way representative of the full range of student views because the proportion of those compulsorily enrolled who bother to vote is but a tiny fraction of the total.

The proportion of activists is even smaller and most of these come from the “soft” subjects or those, such as women’s studies or cultural studies, where honestly held contrary views are penalised. It is easy for the Left to dominate them. There are some departments where standards are so low that it is possible to get through with virtually no hard study. While this leads some to educate themselves (many of our best lawyers, actors and journalists have come out of student activities), others merely loaf around and agitate.

Perhaps the biggest single reform short of voluntary student unionism — and one which would be acceptable to outsiders though it would be bitterly contested by the crop of student politicians — would be to make voting in SRC elections compulsory along with membership.

It is a glaring inconsistency to have one compulsory but not the other. This would destroy the strength of the professional activists who trade on the indifference of most students.

While it is not surprising that the noisiest voices on campus are those of the loony Left, there is also a current of the nasty Right, which resents the presence and competition of foreign (mainly Asian) students, and makes its feelings known mainly by graffiti. There is an element of intolerance and violence on the extreme Left also. But most students quietly devote themselves to study, particularly in those faculties, such as medicine and science, where a lot of rote learning and application is required.

The vice-chancellors should admit that there is absolutely no reason why the service functions of the university unions could not be organised so as to provide only real services; and it would make sense to put these on a separate financial basis, either required to justify themselves or be contracted out. The University of Sydney Union is quite big business.

But none of this implies that the SRC need be given any funding at all, particularly not compulsory funding. It is squandering of the compulsory levies allocated to the SRCs which is the central issue.

Some of this is relatively harmless. Many of the student clubs have as their main purpose a bit of conversation, socialising and plenty of free beer, paid for out of SRC grants. There is even a case for subsidies for political clubs. But it is objectionable that so much of the money raised is spent on mischievous political activity or fashionable good causes and sometimes even the support of terrorist or quasi-terrorist groups overseas. This will continue as long as there is compulsory SRC (not the university unions) membership, or until voting becomes compulsory.

The vice-chancellors are playing their usual games to disguise the fact that both they and the Government know that they have long ago sold their independence. John Dawkins completed the process by turning lots of reasonably useful colleges of advanced education into third-rate universities.

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