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Opinion: The State of Our Union

By April 1, 2019 October 4th, 2019 No Comments

Part 1: The Impact of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU)

From the archives: The Excitin’ Adventures of Captain Student Guild – This comic was likely produced in mid-to-late 2005, before Voluntary Student Unionism legislation was passed in December of the same year. Full comic here.

In a 2010 document prepared by then Guild President Kat Henderson, nearly five years after the implementation of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), the impacts of this legislation were laid out in detail. Henderson left no doubt in the readers mind, cutting straight to the bad news. 

“We have had to shut-down services, transfer existing services over to external providers or the university and cut funding to core support programs.” Henderson then listed the cuts to services, which included the axing of six full time welfare and advocacy staff and the Guild losing control of O-Week and control of the free inter-campus shuttle bus. 

After the 2004 federal election, the Coalition Government pushed forward a bill that had been lurking in and out of discussion for the previous ten years. In December of 2005, the bill was passed under the title Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005.  

Simply put, this bill mandated that higher education providers must not require students to become a member of their university’s student union. 

A choice to not pay student union fees sounds great, and that was the rhetoric used by backers of the bill, but it wasn’t done to help students, it was an ideological move against unionism.  

Student union fees could, and still can, be paid off later with the rest of your student loans. There weren’t hordes of students struggling to fork out their union fees, there were vibrant student unions which offered much more than they can today. 

The introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) meant that unions suddenly weren’t confirmed a portion of their funding for each year. Some unions had, and still have, comfy commercial endeavours that prop up their services, such as the Botanic Bar here at QUT. For our Guild especially, whose yearly funding was around $12 million at the time, union fees made up roughly 50% of funding. 

Part 2: Revived by the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF)

In October of 2011, the Labor government introduced the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), which mandated that universities could charge fees that would subsidise non-academic services, which they would oversee the spending of. 

Federal legislation details 19 areas where SSAF funding can be spent, including funding clubs, student advocacy and student welfare. Universities are also required to consult with their student unions regarding how the money is spent. Since a university does not have to charge the fee, and they ultimately can choose how much their union gets, unions still aren’t confirmed funding and must negotiate with their university. 

The SSAF is a step back in the right direction, with the possibility for student unions to negotiate a portion of the funding to go back into student services, but it cannot compare to the security that unions had prior to the VSU legislation. Even now, many unions, including the QUT Guild, are shadows of their former self, never able to fully recover.

In Western Australia, universities are required to allocate 50% of the SSAF funding to their student unions. Around Australia, the funding varies drastically. UQ Union, for example, received about 20% ($2.43 million) of their university’s SSAF in 2017, and the University of Melbourne received about 36% ($1.59 million). 

Until this year, the QUT Guild has received nothing. Why? The Guild never asked.

In 2011, the same year the SSAF was introduced, EPIC won their first Student Guild election and begun their seven-year reign of QUT’s student union. Under their governance, the Guild refused to take any of the money and criticised the university for how they spent it. Each year the university set aside a portion of SSAF money, similar to the amount they gave to the Guild after VSU to compensate for lost funds, though the Guild never asked for it. 

In a 2014 edition of the Guild Magazine Universe, Editor and ex-President Tasmin Trezise described the SSAF as “a tax on simply being a student” and a “socialistic mandatory subsidising of initiatives that students don’t want, need or already get for free.”  

Mr Trezise’s comments are simply incorrect. The idea that students don’t want or need services such as Student Assist (FKA Wingman), the food bank and free breakfasts is bullshit. EPIC were loosely affiliated with the Young Liberals and it was clear their intent was to accuse student unionism of being ineffective while simultaneously gutting the one they ran.

Current Guild President Vinnie Batten has been critical of the previous executive for not accepting any of the SSAF funding. 

“It is honestly just disappointing that an ideological view on taxation resulted in voluntarily relinquishing valuable input on how student money is spent for the better part of a decade,” he said. 

“Even if the previous administration was steadfast on their stance towards the fact that the SSAF shouldn’t exist, it was still firmly in the best interests of the student body to negotiate a portion of the money, so the university didn’t have the sole say in how it was spent.” 

Part 3: Where are we now?

EPIC was defeated in the 2018 Guild elections and the new Student Guild quickly came to the table to accept the money the university allocated (roughly 3% of the total SSAF that QUT receives). After brief negotiations with the university, that number was quickly bumped up to $1 million. 

Though this is roughly one-sixth of the pre-VSU funding the Guild received from union fees, and the uni receives most of the SSAF funding, it’ll allow some much-needed repairs to services like social sport, Student Assist and possibly new endeavours that were not possible until now.

Mr Batten is confident moving forward that the Guild will be able to provide better services for students now that there is more funding. 

“We are in a position to grow the organisation in a way we haven’t seen in many years, despite the opportunity being there under the entirety of the opposition’s term,” he said. 

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