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- What's going on with VSU
What's going on with VSU
They may not sound like a big deal, but higher education service and amenities fees have managed to cause quite a stir over the years.
This is largely because these non-academic fees have been connected to a choice between two vastly different systems — compulsory student unionism (CSU) and voluntary student unionism (VSU). These terms have the power to ignite the passions of students, university staff, politicians and the Australian public.
At the core of the present debate is a choice between giving students the freedom to choose whether they pay for non-academic fees on top of academic fees, or enforcing compulsory fees to ensure that services such as healthcare, childcare, counselling, legal services and academic advice — as well as well-maintained amenities like computer and sporting facilities — are available to all students.
After decades of inconsistency and debate across the country about whether non-academic fees should be compulsory or voluntary, the Howard Government’s 2005 introduction of federal VSU legislation meant that higher education students nation-wide would no longer have to pay compulsory fees or join student organisations.
While VSU standardised non-academic fee requirements and gave students freedom of choice, concerns have been raised over the effects that VSU is having on student services and campus atmosphere — which is why the issue is still up for debate now, six years later.
In September 2010, the Gillard Government introduced new legislation — the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 — allowing institutions to charge students compulsory fees of up to $250 a year to fund campus services and amenities.
The new legislation attempts to find a middle ground that protects student services without forcing students to join student unions through a return to CSU.
Another key difference about this scheme is that it proposes that the annual fee will be able to be borrowed from the Commonwealth Government in a HECS-style loan system, meaning that students do not have to produce the payment up-front and can instead pay it off over time or when they can afford it.
This addition responds to arguments that the non-academic fees will present a financial burden to students of low socio-economic status.
The bill, which has been introduced largely to combat the negative effects deemed to be the result of VSU, has been met with support by spokespeople from a number of higher education bodies and institutions, who believe that its introduction is vital.
According to an April 2008 study conducted by DEEWR into the impact of VSU, which called for submissions from higher education bodies, ‘most submissions concluded that the abolition of upfront compulsory student union fees had impacted negatively on the provision of amenities and services to university students, with the greatest impact at smaller and regional universities and campuses.’
The report states that in many cases universities were providing financial assistance towards services and amenities but often this money was being diverted from teaching, learning or research funding.
The report goes on to say that many submissions ‘put forward the view that VSU had resulted in a lessening of the vibrancy, diversity and, to some extent, the attractiveness of university life.’
Universities Australia has likewise celebrated the introduction of the Bill. In a submission to a government committee , Universities Australia chief executive Dr Glenn Withers welcomed the introduction of the fee due to its ability to ‘restore essential services’.
Dr Withers writes that Universities Australia ‘is firmly of the view that it is better for all students to contribute to the provision of the services, which are then available to all, than to not have the services available to those who need them’.
While the new legislation contains provisions to prevent the fees being spent by institutions to support political parties or candidates running for election, there is the issue of exactly where and how the fees are being spent by universities.
Greens MP Sarah Hanson-Young has argued that the new legislation needs to include more scope for students to decide how and where the money is spent and avenues need to be established for students to pursue grievances with the new fees.
Aside from the issue of freedom of choice, at the very core of the debate is the question of the role of higher education institutions. Should institutions be restricted to purely academic endeavour, or should they provide more than just an educational experience?
While some see higher education simply as a means to gain professional employment or access to the academic world, others believe that it is a social experience where students have the chance to get involved in clubs, organisations and activities, and that support structures are vital to help students through the ups and downs of university life.
The period between now and July 2011 (when the legislation is likely to be passed) will likely be filled with continuing debate on the issue. Only time will tell what the conclusion will be, so stay tuned for updates on the Good Universities Guide website.