Alexander Butterworth is President of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation.
What is the policy of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation (ALSF) on the question of student membership?
The ALSF believes that membership of any organisation should be voluntary. No person should be forced to join an organisation that they do not want to join, nor should they be forced to pay the membership fees of an organisation but be told that they can ‘opt-out’ of official membership.
How has Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) affected student unionism in Australia?
The introduction of voluntary student unionism has been good for good student unions and bad for bad student unions.
By allowing students the choice not to join, unions have been forced to make membership worthwhile. Student unions were previously mere political front groups for Left-wing political parties, but they have now cut their spending on obscure left-wing political causes and adapted to providing valuable services to students. Unions that still spend student money on politics rather than services have lost members or collapsed because they failed to provide a service that their peers were willing to pay for. Unions that have provided valuable services to students are doing better than ever.
How has Voluntary Student Unionism changed the organisational and funding models for student unions in Australia?
The change has basically been from a ‘tax and spend’ model to a ‘performance-based pay’ model. Where the previous funding model relied on receiving a guaranteed revenue every year and finding ways to spend it, the new model is about providing services that add value to membership, thereby increasing revenue.
Based on your own experiences in Australia, what do you think would be the effects on student unionism and the university experience in general if Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) were introduced in New Zealand?
Student unions would become more responsive to their members, get rid of activites that don’t provide value to students and put their entire energy into the services that actually matter to students. Fewer protests against the capitalist system, and more lobbying for cheaper student parking.
What are your counter arguments for the main arguments posited in favour of VSM (specifically, that student advocacy and services would suffer under VSM; that the university would adopt the services formerly offered by unions and charge more for them via the compulsory student levy; that having the university offer or fund these services presents a conflict of interest for students; and that it may be easier to reform the existing system instead)?
The arguments against a voluntary model are scare-tactics pushed by vested interests.
On student advocacy, the voluntary model forces unions to be responsive to their membership. That’s better for student advocacy. Instead of running obscure political campaigns based around changing ‘History’ to ‘Herstory’, unions are campaigning for cheaper car parking at university, or representing students who want to appeal marks. The voluntary model is better for student representaiton because it is more responsive.
On services, student unions have changed their focus from political activity to services. They realise that services are what get members, and with a voluntary fee they need their services to be worth paying for. Rather than cutting services, unions have cut funding to the political activity that doesn’t provide value to members. Universities have not generally taken over services that were previously run by student unions because the services that unions are cutting are the services that provide no value.
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