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Differing views on voluntary student unions.

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MONICA ATTARD: Now to university education and the debate over what role student unionism ought to play.


ROSS LIGHTFOOT: For instance, one child minding centre has closed at one university but at the same campus a hair dressing operation has opened up, and obviously the student union thought that that was a better facility to have there than child minding. And that’s the flexibility that it has.


MONICA ATTARD: Ross Lightfoot, a West Australian MP on what he sees as the benefits of voluntary student unionism, which is already in practice in his state.


Well, if the federal government goes ahead with proposals to abolish compulsory student union fees, the West Australian model could be adopted across Australia. Students say that will only spell the end of important services and extra curricula activities, as Anne Barker reports.


ANNE BARKER: For most tertiary students, university is about far more than just books, lectures and exams. Sport and social clubs, lunch time concerts and gym facilities are a vital part of campus life. Compulsory student union fees, between $180 and $360 a year cover these and other activities, as well as a vast range of student services such as counselling, accommodation and welfare advice, second-hand book shops, discount food and assistance in academic disputes.


Jay, a student at Sydney’s University of Technology, is typical of many.


JAY: I’d like to see the union remain as it is at the moment, and as soon as you start making them non-compulsory, a large majority of students aren’t going to pay them. I mean, why pay if you don’t have to and suddenly all the clubs are just going to disappear because their funds are going to dry up.


ANNE BARKER: What do you get for your money?


JAY: I am a member of a couple of the clubs. It costs $5 or $10 to join the clubs and most of the activities that you do - they’re run basically once a week - are completely free.


ANNE BARKER: You don’t think it should be up to the individual student to decide, then, whether they should pay the fee or not?


JAY: In one way yes, I do believe that it should be, because if you’re not going to take advantage of what the fees lead to, then you shouldn’t be forced to pay them, but from another perspective I think that you should be because I think it’s for the benefit of the university as a whole and for all the students who are interested in their lifestyle.


ANNE BARKER: But not all students agree. Anna is one who thinks students should be allowed to choose whether they pay the union fee.


ANNA: For myself, I don’t really join a lot of clubs and all that, and I have to pay which is compulsory, which is kind of unfair to myself because I don’t really use much of the union facilities that goes on around uni.


ANNE BARKER: So you don’t think you get your money’s worth?




ANNE BARKER: Helen Stitt, president of the student guild at the Australian National University in Canberra, says if compulsory union fees are abolished many students, including those who use student services, will choose not to pay and university life will be pretty dull.


HELEN STITT: The impact would be astonishing. I think we’re all underestimating what would happen. At the moment at the ANU we run over 100 clubs and societies, that the funding comes out of their GSF(?). These clubs and societies cannot exist without student organisations. The life blood, the cultural activities on campus would diminish amazingly and the essential support services like emergency loans, undergraduate loans, would be gutted.


ANNE BARKER: But do you agree, though, that there are many students who just aren’t interested in those sporting facilities and other services that are offered?


HELEN STITT: I totally agree, but those students who aren’t interested in the sporting facilities would no doubt at some stage take advantage of food discounts or they may run in a club and society. It’s understood that every single service that we present would rarely be used by every single student. There’s just not enough time to get to all the services. But at some stage we’ll be there for them, to help them out and provide them with these things.


MONICA ATTARD: Helen Stitt, who’s president of the student guild at the Australian National University in Canberra; and Anne Barker reporting there.