Student unions: a history of attacks and resistance

by Rebecca Barrigos • Published 12 July 2014

Since the 1970s, there have been repeated government attempts to introduce legislation to repress student activism on Australian campuses. Student unions have been the target of both state and federal laws aiming to restrict their political functions. The ability of student unions to collect money in order to mobilise against attacks on public education and student rights has been a concern for conservative governments. Of equal concern has been the key role that student unions have played historically as a centre of leftist activity on campus.

Anti-student organisation laws, commonly known as voluntary student unionism (VSU), have often been characterised as petty ideological offensives led by ex-student Liberal politicos obsessed with pursuing personal vendettas and using their parliamentary power to trounce their old rivals, the student left. It is certainly the case that some of the most odious Liberal parliamentarians had their day as office bearers in student unions. Current Prime Minister Tony Abbott was once the president of the Sydney University student union, and the equally obnoxious Christopher Pyne was once the vice-president of the Adelaide University Student Association. These conservatives’ involvement in student unions always included an agenda of attacking the left and the union structures around which it has organised on campus, and they long resented the normalisation of unionism in the lives of young people that universal student unionism represented. But the rise of anti-student union legislation in Australia is not purely ideological. It is also a practical necessity for governments pursuing a neoliberal agenda for higher education. Indeed, the various attempts to introduce anti-student union legislation federally have coincided with government attacks on public education funding, especially since the period of neoliberalisation of tertiary education from the 1980s.[1] The push to introduce a more user-pays education system has been met time and again by student and staff resistance. Therefore, attacking student unions – historically relatively independent organisations with the potential to campaign against both government and hostile university administrations on education as well as broader social issues – has been considered integral to the project of achieving the neoliberal restructuring of the university sector.

Student unions at the campus and national level have also played a crucial role in cohering and supporting progressive social campaigns, such as the campaigns against the Vietnam War and for Aboriginal rights and many others, in the period of radicalisation of the late sixties. In this article I will explain how undermining student organisation has been part of a ruling class offensive to quash the ability of students to campaign around left issues and mobilise support for struggles of workers and the oppressed, and to limit dissent to the neoliberal restructuring of tertiary education that began in earnest in the 1980s with the end of free university education. I will also examine the impact anti-student union legislation has had on the fighting capabilities of student organisations into the present. In doing this, I will necessarily touch on various debates and political issues that have confronted the student movement, and the array of organisations and groupings within it. While the actions and political positions of a range of these groups have at times been important, I will mainly focus on those taken by the Labor students, because they have wielded the most influence and been the most bureaucratically dominant force in the student unions over this period. An assessment and critique of the role played by the non-Labor left, much of which has proved to be a highly dubious ally of student unionism, is warranted but outside the scope of this article.

The 1960s student radicalisation: why conservatives fear student organisation

The experience of the radicalisation of Australian campuses in the sixties proved the potential for students to lead significant campaigns against the government. Internationally students were in revolt and here, just as abroad, opposition to the Vietnam War was a “unifying theme”[2] for student unrest. The anti-war campaign helped forge a new generation of young activists whose militancy and deepening criticism of the capitalist system as a whole transformed the Australian political landscape. Despite the mass expansion of student numbers in the fifties under the Menzies government, most students were still drawn from the ranks of the middle class. Mick Armstrong has calculated that at the beginning of the sixties only about five percent of students came from a working class background.[3] Still, the students chafed against the social conservatism of the preceding period of the fifties, and the bipartisan right wing consensus of both the Liberal and Labor parties on issues like the racist White Australia policy. As more students were drawn into progressive action they also took up the issues of South African apartheid and Aboriginal rights, railed against censorship and capital punishment, and then later brought vital energy to the women’s and gay liberation struggles. They marched alongside thousands of workers at the anti-Vietnam War Moratoriums and attracted the ire of the establishment. Many of the student radicals went on to establish and lead revolutionary organisations.

At the high point of the campus radicalisation, left student activists tended to organise independently of the student unions. The various student representative councils (SRCs) that had been established at most university campuses by the 1920s[4] were often seen as bureaucratic and staid bodies. They had been founded on the initiative of students with the idea that they should be the basis of creating a student culture on the campus outside of academic pursuits, but also to provide student representation on faculty and university boards. By the 1970s, student unions also provided food services and other amenities, and facilitated student sport and recreation and student clubs as well as political representation. They were funded by a fee collected by the university upon enrolment, which remained the situation for student unions well into the 2000s.

This state of affairs was backed by the vice-chancellors and university administrations, who recognised the benefits of relatively independent student bodies in creating at least the semblance of student representation to the university, and who saw keeping a good relationship with the SRC presidents as a crucial safety valve and potential limit on student radicalism.[5] So by and large, student union officialdom was not the centre of dissent in the late sixties; rather the radical clubs organised under its auspices took the initiative in leading social campaigns. For example, it was the Labor clubs at the militant campuses like La Trobe, Sydney and Monash that were the base of the newly radicalised left wing students. These clubs were not social democratic groupings but actually brought together revolutionary students disillusioned with the reformism of the Communist Party, which was thoroughly entrenched by this period, and who argued for more interaction between students’ and workers’ struggles.

So at Monash in the sixties, the Labor club students had their own off-campus centre in an old bakery in Prahran as a way to link up with workers and keep ex-students involved in campaigns.[6] Meanwhile on campus, the radicals actually voted to replace the student representative council’s functions with mass student general meetings that were a regular feature of campus life.[7] At the University of New South Wales, the student left also voted to abolish the SRC. On that campus, the university intervened to keep the union alive. The administration worried about the abolition of an official student body which they could negotiate with in such volatile times. However, the role of the student unions in the radicalisation varied from campus to campus, and there were also instances of SRCs declaring opposition to the Vietnam War as early as 1966, as was the case in Hobart and at the university in Wollongong.[8] Later the student union buildings or offices on many campuses became key organising centres for student protests and campaign meetings, and at the height of the anti-war campaign were used to shelter draft resisters at Sydney and Melbourne Universities.

Additionally, the struggles around the social questions of war, the draft and racism gave students a new confidence to raise education demands. The rapid expansion in student numbers in the sixties, driven by the capitalist class’s desire to create a more skilled workforce, had taken place with very little investment made in upgrading infrastructure or facilities. So the first student occupation at Monash in 1966 took place in the library, with the full backing of the staff, to demand more funding.[9] By the late sixties, some SRCs had imposed boycotts on exams scheduled at night or on weekends and public holidays. In 1974 the Assessment Action Group was formed at Monash University to protest all forms of competitive assessment. Many of the university provisions for students to sit supplementary exams and gain access to special consideration had not always been available to students – they were wrested from administrations in the seventies at the back end of the student radicalisation.[10]

The rising tide of student struggle from the late sixties aroused the indignation of conservative and at times ALP politicians and the university administrations. By the early seventies student radicals had been assailed with a barrage of court injunctions sought by Liberal students against radical activities on campus. Individual university administrations had also resorted to expelling rebel student leaders and invoking disciplinary codes to quell student unrest.

Eventually the student unions proper, not just individual radicals, became a target for legal action. The establishment was concerned by the way the student organisations had become a source of funding for progressive campaigns outside education issues. In particular, student unions commonly gave support funds to the trade unions engaged in workers’ struggles and provided a reservoir of bail funds for arrested protesters. For example, the student union at the University of Queensland was key in lending support, as well as bail money, to the campaign for civil liberties in that state under the conservative premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. By 1977 the Bjelke-Petersen government had imposed a total ban on street marches; there were many thousands of arrests made in the campaign to fight the attacks on civil liberties and as a consequence of the march ban.[11] Much earlier, in 1972, the La Trobe University SRC had its funds frozen by legal action undertaken by the university because it had used SRC money to bail out four students arrested at a demonstration.[12] Amongst the arrested students was Brian Pola, the president of the SRC at the time. The students had been protesting against the La Trobe vice-chancellor, Sir Archibald Glenn, who was the managing director of ICI, a munitions company that had manufactured armaments for use in Vietnam and by the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. Student protests actually forced Glenn to resign, but when the SRC provided the bail funds for Pola and the other radicals, the university administration sought a court injunction to block the payment and ban them from the campus. When the ban was defied, the cops arrested the activists and detained them in Pentridge Prison without trial, bail or right of appeal.[13] Pola and the others were released only after three months and several student protests and occupations.

From 1973, the conservatives turned their fire on the national student organisation, the Australian Union of Students (AUS). There had been some form of a national student union in Australia since the 1930s, but it was not until the sixties that socialists waged a concerted campaign to politicise the national student body that had up until then played a largely ceremonial role, organising delegations to international student union conferences and the like. Early on in the anti-war movement, the small numbers of committed anti-Vietnam activists, mostly socialists, recognised the mobilising potential of a national union to call mass coordinated rallies. This potential was tested positively in 1966, when the forerunner to AUS, the National Union of Australian University Students, called a national student demonstration against military conscription.[14] In 1971, the national union was recast as the Australian Union of Students, aiming to make itself more relevant to the growing militant mood in the campus student movement. By 1973, a broad alliance of student socialists, composed of Maoists, Trotskyists, student members of the Communist Party and numerous unaligned far left activists, had won control of AUS from the former Labor Party student leadership.

For the next three years, AUS not only took up the issues of uranium mining and opposition to US military bases, but also supported the boycott of apartheid South Africa and campaigned in solidarity with the various national liberation struggles of the period. Especially as the campus radicalisation began to wind down and the anti-war movement came to an end, AUS’s left leadership and its culture of taking up broader social campaigns were increasingly important in keeping radical politics alive on campus. Of course this marked AUS out for conservative attack. The Murdoch press championed a campaign to smash the national student union. This project was taken up with gusto by a bevy of campus conservatives including the newly formed Australian Liberal Students’ Federation, the vile Peter Costello (then a Monash student), and the Zionists. This unholy alliance seized the opportunity of an unsuccessful campus referendum on the question of support for the national liberation struggle in Palestine and its then leadership, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, to discredit AUS. In 1974 the AUS council had passed several motions supporting Palestinian rights and decided to take the matter to the campuses and get constitutional ratification from students for this position. There were student general meetings held on the question and unfortunately the campuses voted overwhelmingly against support for Palestine. There was a hysterical right wing backlash against AUS in the press, and the union was smeared for “supporting terrorism”. Although the Palestine debates on campus had made a significant political impact on left students’ consciousness the reality was that by this time the political climate had changed and the student radicals were more isolated. The heyday of radical national student unionism was now over.

No longer satisfied with restraining orders or injunctions, towards the end of the seventies the politicians began to formulate legislation to prevent student money being used to wage left wing campaigns and to decisively crush campus radicalism. This led to the introduction of the first form of voluntary student unionism, in Western Australia in 1977. The law limited the use of the amenities fee collected from students to the funding of non-political clubs and activities. It also attributed a power of veto to the university administration over the unions’ decisions and expenditure, thereby compromising their independence.[15] The VSU law also prohibited unions from using their funds to affiliate to the Australian Union of Students. This legislation was really the culmination of the efforts to contain the student radicalisation which had put both university administrations and the government on notice, had totally shaken up the campuses and given students the confidence to assert their education rights. Over the course of a decade, student unions had become enmeshed in the social movements and, especially at the height of the radicalisation, were a means of strengthening them. As the period of the main student mobilisations came to a close, the legacy of protest established in those years of student struggle, and which the establishment feared, was soon to collide with the period of mass neoliberal restructuring of the universities in the 1980s.

Unions under fire from the 1980s to Howard

The Whitlam Labor government had legislated to make university education free from 1974. Although this policy was popular, its purpose was to deliver to industry the skilled graduates required to modernise its operations and render Australian business more competitive internationally. If a new, highly trained work force was to be created, more students would require a higher level of training. The policy resulted in an influx of enrolments. However, in 1974 the world economy plunged into recession and the government moved quickly to curtail public spending on universities. The capitalist class still required skilled workers, but their representatives in parliament no longer wanted to foot the bill to produce them. From this period on, public funding for universities was under heavy attack. When Whitlam was ousted from government in the 1975 Kerr Coup, the succeeding Fraser Liberal government tried to impose tuition fees. This move was staved off by an AUS-led student campaign, but the days of free tertiary education were now numbered. When Hawke came to power in 1983, his Labor government was determined to preside over the implementation of a user-pays university system. By 1987, under education minister John Dawkins, it had introduced a $250 flat administration fee for all students and had allowed universities to begin charging fees for international students. Dawkins’ education “reforms” began the process of shifting the burden of the costs of education squarely onto the shoulders of students.

Often opposition to attacks on student unions has focused on the ideological intent of VSU legislation but equally important has been the way VSU has assailed the ability of student organisations to take political action and resist government and university attacks. Even a brief glance at the student response to the neoliberal restructure of higher education in the eighties shows why curtailing the political functions of student unions has been seen as desirable by both Liberal and Labor politicians committed to the implementation of a user-pays education system. From 1986, when student fees were first foreshadowed by the government, up until 1989, students waged a pitched battle to defend free education. Their campaign included occupations, national rallies of thousands of students and an attempted boycott of the fees, in what has been described by education historian Graham Hastings as “one of the most significant protest movements in Australia since the peak of the anti-uranium movement of the late seventies”.[16] The students inspired solidarity from staff members organised by the forerunner to the National Tertiary Education Union, the Federated Australian University Staff Association. The national student union, re-formed in 1986 as the National Union of Students (NUS), was central in coordinating national days of student protest, the first of which drew 14,000 students on to the streets of the major cities. Campus activism blossomed again as cross-campus networks were established to coordinate campaign activity. In 1986, thousands of students from at least 12 campuses participated in a boycott of the $250 fee, with hundreds receiving cautions from the university administrations that they would be dis-enrolled. In response to these cautions at La Trobe in Victoria, 600 students held a week-long occupation of the administration building. Dawkins rightly became a target for student anger and was confronted at campuses where he had speaking engagements, from Footscray to the University of Technology in Sydney. On one occasion Dawkins was effectively barricaded in a building for five hours by a student protest in Adelaide.[17]

The restructuring of Australian universities, and especially the Commonwealth defunding of these institutions, was seen as vital to the neoliberal attacks demanded by Australian capital in a climate of international crisis, with the bosses worried about declining profitability as commodity prices fell on the world market. Hawke was therefore vitriolic in his attacks on protesting students, whom he accused of bludging off old-age pensioners and expecting a free ride when they would soon join the ranks of the best paid members of society.[18] The attitude expressed by Hawke in an interview in January 2013 gives some sense of his government’s commitment to attacking public education. In a feature on his three terms in government, Hawke expressed full support for the current Abbott government’s deregulation and fee increases. He said that Abbott faced the same task that he had undertaken as prime minister, stating: “What is required is the same thing. You’ve got to have a prime minister and treasurer, and a competent ministry which understands the issue and is prepared to make the hard decisions. So it’s the same challenge.”[19] The article went on to highlight that Hawke in fact presided over a total cut in government spending of the equivalent of $60 billion in today’s terms.

Unsurprisingly then, by 1989 free education had been entirely scrapped and the $250 administration fee had been replaced by the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), a system of deferred loans which students were required to pay back once they earned an income over a certain threshold. Initially, HECS fees were set at a fixed amount, approximating 20 percent of the average cost of a university degree, or $1,800, but of course they would not stay at this level for long. Increases in HECS and subsequent schemes to impose fees on students have led to massive increases in the cost of education, the reality of which students are suffering today. The national NUS-led “No Fees” campaign had not stopped the implementation of the user-pays system under the guise of HECS, but the scale and impact of student mobilisations against it prompted the right wing think tank, the Australian Institute of Public Policy, to release a collection of pro-VSU essays entitled “Compulsory Student Unionism: Australia’s Last Closed Shop” in 1987, reflecting the long and important role student organisations had played in coordinating action against government attacks.[20]

The conservatives’ fears were confirmed by continued student campaigning against government attacks into the nineties. By this period, the Dawkins reforms had well and truly flowed through to campuses despite resistance to fees. The federal Labor government, now led by Keating, initiated an attack on student income support payments, or Austudy. The government planned to convert the Austudy payments into a loan which would be repaid upon graduation, similar to the HECS fees. Students again organised to combat the attack, and this time succeeded in forcing the government to back down. Even in the context of strident neoliberal reforms and a more conservative climate on campuses, student protests proved themselves capable of winning concessions. In 1994, for example, there was a historic occupation of the Australian National University (ANU) in response to a move by the administration to charge up-front fees for a legal course. Students rightly identified this as a measure that would set a dangerous precedent and pave the way for a more general introduction of such fees. By September, 300 students were occupying the ANU Chancellery building. Students were also able to have workers place a picket on the university mail centre for the duration of the occupation. The occupation was hugely inspiring and revived the ideas of militant student action across campuses. Eventually the university called in the cops to break up the occupation and the fee was maintained, but student protest had once again become a fixture on the political landscape.

The first government to renew efforts to implement VSU as a blanket ban on student activism was the state Liberal government in Western Australia in 1993. In harsher legislation than had previously existed, the WA government actually banned universities from collecting any fee not related directly to courses or educational interests. The law was so undiscriminating in its attempt to ban student unionism that it had to be amended to allow the universities an exemption with regard to charging students car parking fees.[21] In the following year, the Liberal Kennett state government in Victoria also moved to attack student unions. Kennett’s VSU law, tabled in the parliament in 1994, differed from the WA blanket-ban legislation. Victorian VSU retained the provision for a compulsory fee to be collected from the student body, but prohibited it being spent on anything other than certain services deemed appropriate by the government.[22] Predictably political representation was not one of these. The intention behind Kennett’s VSU was made clear by the Liberal Party Education Policy Committee, which affirmed that VSU was required to stop “compulsorily collected student monies flowing out to anti-Kennett and anti-Coalition campaigns and other fringe campaigns of the hard student left”.[23] Student and staff opposition to VSU forced Kennett to widen the list of fundable services, and then effectively rendered the ban on politics a dead letter as the union councils found other budget lines or funding reserves from which to fund campaigns. Moreover, the federal Labor government legislated to maintain funding for student organisations to counter state-based VSU. Labor’s laws made provision for direct grants from the Commonwealth to universities for student unions.

The introduction of state-based VSU provoked a number of debates in the National Union of Students and on campuses between left and Labor students. These debates would later shape responses to attempts by the Howard government to introduce federal VSU laws, and for this reason, they are well worth examining. The first was around the tendency to rely on federal Labor governments to act as the saviours of student unions. Basically the Labor students saw the federal emergency funding provisions as their cue to dump any serious anti-VSU campaign strategy based on student mobilisations. The weakness of this approach was revealed when the Liberals came to power in 1996, and it was apparent that Commonwealth funding for student unions would be under threat (not to mention Labor’s capitulation to VSU further down the track). Yet even before 1996, relying on federal Labor was a fraught strategy which held union funding hostage to a government no less ready and willing to attack the student left. So for instance in 1995, when the La Trobe student paper Rabelais printed an article about shoplifting, Labor education minister Simon Crean cut funding to student papers and then pursued criminal charges against the Rabelais editors. The only way students could retain the ability to use unions to organise progressive action was for their funding to remain independent and under student control.

A second and related argument that emerged in the 1994 campaign against VSU was that the vice-chancellors were key allies in the defence of student unions. It has been noted that vice-chancellors had historically backed the maintenance of student unions, but they had not done so because of any sympathy with student activism or the left. Rather the vice-chancellors’ support for student unions has been shaped by two concerns, the primary one being that a good relationship with some form of student representative body can be vital in policing student dissent. Secondly, the vice-chancellors have benefitted from having student fees fund the host of services that student unions have provided – clubs and societies, student theatre and sport – rather than pay for these directly out of university revenue. Importantly, the vice-chancellors’ role of presiding over university profit margins in an increasingly neoliberal tertiary education sector has frequently brought them into direct conflict with student interests as they cut courses, staff and amenities or lobby the government for the right to charge higher fees.

The Howard government tabled VSU legislation in 1999, which did not make it past the Senate. Writing on the NUS-initiated campaign against VSU in 1999, Mark Frankland noted the connection between introduction of the new laws and a major attack on education funding under hated education minister Amanda Vanstone. He points out that in the 1996 Budget, $623.6 million was cut from university operating grants and students were slugged with increased HECS in this period.[24] Indeed Howard engineered some of the biggest attacks on university funding in the recent period. These measures were resisted by students and staff. In 1997 students unleashed a wave of occupations against education cuts. After two failed attempts to push VSU through the Senate, it was finally introduced in 2005. The rhetoric from the government, and especially education minister Brendan Nelson, painted VSU as being all about freedom of association and choice. Nelson told the ABC’s 7.30 Report: “This is the 21st Century. It’s time students in this country, many of whom come from struggling families, are given the choice as to whether they will part with $500 or $600 to support students’ political representation and services on campus.”[25] Yet with fee increases for students (including those from struggling families that the government claimed to care so much about) re-invigorating student protest, and with Howard’s increasing unpopularity around a whole swathe of social issues, such as attacks on Aboriginal rights, refugees and then later the war on Iraq, the real intent behind federal VSU was clear – to crush the capacity of student unions to coordinate anti-government campaigns.

When it was finally passed in 2005, Howard’s VSU legislation made it illegal for universities to collect fees from students to fund student unions. It also imposed fines on university attempts to circumvent the law. Despite the eventual implementation of the VSU laws, the National Union of Students’ mobilisation to defend student organisations against Howard’s VSU was the most impressive student campaign since the 1990s. A national day of action on 28 April organised by the NUS education department drew 15,000 students out into the streets nationally. Another 10,000 marched in August. The dynamic of a federal Liberal government in office gave impetus to Labor student participation in the campaign, but their propensity to look to the Labor Party and parliamentary machinations in general as the prime strategy to secure student unions meant impending failure.

Federal VSU and Labor’s response

The lively campaign initiated by the National Union of Students in 2005 was undeniably compromised by the capitulation of the Labor Party to VSU. Howard’s VSU legislation was tabled in March, and by August of that year, despite the sizeable student protests, Labor had advanced an amendment to restrict student money being collected to fund political representation but maintain a student fee for services. Worse, the ALP explicitly stated that, if elected, they would not repeal VSU legislation passed under Howard. Just after the amendment was announced, Labor’s education spokesperson Jenny Macklin was heckled at an NUS protest in Melbourne as she took the stage to defend her party’s sell-out. Nonetheless she defended Labor’s decision on the basis of commitment to preserving student services on campus.[26] In reality, Labor wanted to appear as if they had a strategy to temper Howard’s attacks, whilst supporting anti student-union legislation that would have the effect of hindering the student left. The ALP’s support for VSU stemmed from the fact that they were just as committed as the Liberals to an agenda of neoliberalisation of tertiary education.

In 2005, there were two key issues that became central to the national campaign against VSU. The first issue was the excessive focus by the Labor leadership of NUS and of campus student bureaucrats on the need to defend services as the key reason to stop VSU. Student services have never been the objectionable element of unionism for the conservatives. As noted earlier, in the push for VSU in the nineties even the vice-chancellors had defended the service provision functions of student unions. In 2005, in the context of an even more corporatised higher education sector, with intense competition for international students a key preoccupation for university boards, most vice-chancellors saw the services, and especially international student clubs, as vital to the successful marketing of their courses to prospective students. The more prestigious and higher ranked institutions like Melbourne University publicly stated their worries that VSU would gut student clubs and the culture that the student union provided. Throughout the year there had been some logic in activists making a two-pronged argument for the need to stop VSU on the basis of preserving student services as well as political representation. For a start, this argument made the initial NUS mobilisations broader and encouraged the participation of the non-political clubs and societies, sports enthusiasts and so on in the rallies. It made defending VSU seem not just like the responsibility of the small student left, but a broader task for all students. Yet the separation between services and political representation would store up problems for the future student movement, especially since the Labor students basically accepted Labor’s compromise “services” amendment, and refused to push against political VSU for the rest of the year.

This was the first flaw in the campaign strategy of the Labor students leading NUS. Another issue and brake on effective campaigning was a heavy focus on lobbying National Party senators and conservatives like Barnaby Joyce, who had shown some early resistance to Howard’s VSU on the basis of regional interests. This opposition came from the fact that student unions in many of the regional centres provided services and facilities that were used by the whole community, not just enrolled students. The Labor leadership of NUS developed a general orientation to pitching the anti-VSU campaign to students in terms of convincing the likes of Joyce and Family First senator Steven Fielding. This was demobilising and made it seem possible to defeat the laws without pressure and ongoing action from students.

When Fielding actually backed VSU and the legislation came down in December 2005, a mood of inevitability pervaded the national union. Activists were assembled at Ballarat University for the NUS annual conference. There was no protest called, nor was there any kind of immediate response to VSU becoming law beyond some press interviews expressing disappointment. The legislation seemed a fait accompli. Some Labor left bureaucrats cried, but ultimately many of them were happy enough to return to their campuses to run student services bodies or enter into negotiations with the vice-chancellors to secure funding for their organisations. Subsequently, the real value of VSU legislation to the Liberals’ agenda of cuts to higher education was confirmed as Howard passed laws deregulating university fees in 2006, which allowed universities to increase HECS fees by 25 percent. The vice-chancellors were eager partners in Howard’s HECS hike and quite quickly the maximum student contributions under the law became the norm for fee scales across all universities.

The student unions today

In 2008 the Labor minister for youth, Kate Ellis, commissioned a federal report into the impact of VSU. The report canvassed submissions from student unions across the country, and its findings confirmed that the main impact of federal VSU has been the weakening of the representative, political and campaigning capabilities of student organisations. In a few cases, at smaller regional campuses such as Charles Sturt University, the student unions completely folded within months of the legislation being introduced.[27] Some unions were able to limp along for several years on the back of reserve funding, essentially previous years’ savings, only to delay their inevitable collapse, as was the case with the Ballarat University student union.[28] At other campuses, such as Charles Darwin, the functions of the former student union were very quickly swallowed up by the university and contracted out to private companies.[29] However, by and large some form of student organisation, especially in relation to service provision, has been maintained at most campuses. A common arrangement has been the replacement of the previously existing student unions with split-structure organisations that separate student services from advocacy and representation. The result has been the proliferation of service provision companies or bodies governed by university-appointed directors, and the establishment of underfunded SRCs to carry out representative tasks. Some student organisations have been able to retain a higher level of student control over clubs and societies or other services, but even where this has been the case, the new funding climate under VSU, and the inability of student unions to access revenue from student fees, has meant an overall assault on the independence of student unions and their political functions.

Apart from reserve funding or trading revenue, most unions have relied heavily on university funding agreements to secure their operations. In the first instance, this has meant reduced funding for student unions as universities everywhere have made up only some of the unions’ former budgets. In a climate of budgetary constraint it has been the political wings of unions, not services, which have suffered. A report summarising the initial impact of VSU carried out by the NUS in 2007 pointed out that at 13 of 18 student organisations there had been substantial cuts made to departmental funding for campaigns.[30] The Council of Postgraduate Associations released a report in 2007 which found that eight universities had ceased to have a viable postgraduate association as a result of the VSU legislation.[31] VSU has also had a negative impact on the funding base for the NUS, since it is funded by affiliation fees paid to it by member unions on the campuses. Importantly, reliance on university funding agreements has undermined the political independence of student unions, and has acted as a potential constraint on student activism. So at Melbourne University, following a student protest in 2006, senior managers and staff threatened to abolish student representation on university committees and withhold funding as punishment.[32]

When the Labor Party was re-elected to federal government in 2007, there was much speculation that the VSU legislation would be scrapped. Yet it took the government a whole parliamentary term to present an alternative to VSU, in the form of a Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF). The SSAF was introduced by Labor in 2011 and began to be collected by the universities in the following year. The SSAF was widely touted in the media and by Labor students as bringing VSU to an end. However, the SSAF has not remedied the problem of dependent or tied funding for student unions. Under the SSAF the universities that collect the fee from students have the power to determine how much of the fee is passed on to student organisations, if any, and can withhold funding.[33] In some places this has resulted in university consultation with student union office-bearers about the fee; in others, the university has held the SSAF to provide services under its own auspices and with no input from students. Additionally, the SSAF legislation stipulates that the fee should not be used “to support political parties, or to support the election of a person to a Commonwealth or State or Territory Parliament or local Government body”.[34] As recently as this year, Griffith University’s administration has used this stipulation to deny affiliation to left wing clubs. The SSAF has continued to leave student unions at the whim of university administrations and government.

The experience of the Macquarie University Student Representative Association (MUSRA), one of the most recent student associations to go into liquidation, is instructive. Prior to VSU the university had already used the excuse of conservative students’ corruption in the union to intervene and take control of the student organisation’s assets. The university set up a new students’ association, MUSRA, which was never independent and was severely underfunded. When the SSAF was introduced, the university administration did not use the new fee to bolster student representation. Rather, the SSAF became an excuse to kill off MUSRA and set up a student advisory board comprised of students appointed by faculty deans. This board’s function was merely to advise how the SSAF could be spent, with the university not bound by its recommendations. The end result has been the death of any form of student union at Macquarie University, not under VSU, but under Labor’s SSAF, the supposed solution for strengthening student organisations.

Rebuilding fighting student unions

Student unions have played an important role in cohering and resourcing progressive student activism in Australia. This has been the case from the high point of campus radicalisation and left student organising in the late sixties and seventies, through to the campaigns to defend public education in the decades of neoliberal attack since the eighties. Today, albeit weakened by VSU, less independent and with a political leadership commonly dominated by Labor student bureaucrats, the student unions remain organisations capable of fighting for student rights and initiating broader social campaigns. Moreover, universities are still key sites of activism. In recent years progressive students have initiated campaigns against the Iraq war, in support of Palestine, and most lately against the Liberal federal Budget of 2014, which have had a political impact beyond the campus. Their activist potential is why student unions remain in the firing line of university administrations and governments. During the sixties radicalisation, on campuses where there was a strong left, union structures were less central to activism, and mass assemblies posed the most effective and democratic mechanism by which to coordinate struggle. Socialists could afford to effectively ignore the union structures much of the time. But this was a situation only tenable during the period of radicalisation. With student struggle declining by the mid-seventies, the traditional union structures became more important in maintaining a basis for left activism. Today, the defence of student unions is the responsibility of all left wing students who recognise the urgent need for student organisation independent from both university administrations and governments.

One of the main problems in rebuilding independent, fighting student unions is their weakened state. The narrative that the main function of student unions is service provision – pushed by politicians, some student bureaucrats and the universities – has become even more entrenched in the post-VSU climate. Student union funding remains heavily compromised and subject to the whims of federal government. In most states it has been a long time since student unions played a decisive role in mobilising dissent on any social question. However, there is no doubt that historically campus student unions and a national student union have been critical to mobilising student struggles and will continue to be so into the future. This year student protests, including NUS-called national student rallies, have been important in cohering generalised opposition to the Abbott government’s horror budget. The possibilities for significant student protest to impact the political climate, shake governments and inspire dissent, and for student unions to play a key role in organising social struggle, are far from dead. Now more than ever we need to draw on the radical history of student organisations, which can only be strengthened by the participation of socialist activists who recognise their radical potential and fight to revive it.

Armstrong, Mick, 2001, 1, 2, 3, What Are We Fighting For? The Australian Student Movement from its Origins to the 1970s, Socialist Alternative.

Australian Government Department of Education, 2014, “Student Services and Amenities Fee”, 6 March,

Barrigos, Rebecca, 2013, “The neoliberal transformation of higher education”, Marxist Left Review, 6, Winter.

Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, 2007, “The impact of VSU on postgraduate students”, August, home/documents/CAPA.pdf.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2008, The Impact of Voluntary Student Unionism on Services, Amenities and Representation for Australian University Students: Summary Report, April.

Evans, Raymond and Carol Ferrier (eds), 2004, Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History, The Vulgar Press.

Frankland, Mark, 2001, “A community of scholars, a space for dissent: the 1999 campaign against voluntary student unionism – higher education policy, the media, and globalization”, Southern Review: Communication, Politics & Culture 34, 1.

Hastings, Graham, 2003, It Can’t Happen Here: A Political History of Australian Student Activism, Students’ Association of Flinders University.

Hastings, Graham, 2007, First National Report into the Impact of Federal VSU Legislation, National Union of Students, October,

Ryan, Geoffrey, 1987, Compulsory Student Unions: Australia’s Forgotten Closed Shop, Australian Institute for Public Policy.

[1] Barrigos, 2013, pp79-101.

[2] Armstrong, 2001, p50.

[3] Armstrong, 2001, p55.

[4] Hastings, 2007, Appendix 3.

[5] Hastings, 2007, Appendix 3.

[6] Armstrong, 2001, p66.

[7] Hastings, 2003, p205.

[8] Armstrong, 2001, p61.

[9] Armstrong, 2001, p77.

[10] Hastings, 2007, Appendix 3, p45.

[11] Jeff Rickertt, “Right to march movement”, in Evans and Ferrier, 2004, pp291-298, p296.

[12] Hastings, 2003, p206.

[13] Rebecca Camilleri, “‘Bluestone College’ reunion recalls ’70s student protests”,
La Trobe University Bulletin, 4 March 2013.

[14] Carol Ferrier and Ken Mansell, “Student revolt, 1960s and 1970s”, in Evans and Ferrier, 2004, pp266-272.

[15] Hastings, 2003, p212.

[16] Hastings, 2003, p254.

[17] Hastings, 2003, p264.

[18] Hastings, 2003, p258.

[19] Troy Bramston, “Bob Hawke and Keating tell Tony Abbott to slash spending”, The Australian, 1 January 2014.

[20] Ryan, 1987.

[21] Hastings, 2003, p233.

[22] Hastings, 2003, p234.

[23] “‘No ifs no buts’…Victoria’s 1996 campaign against VSU and fees”, Socialist Alternative pamphlet, 1996, p3.

[24] Frankland, 2001, pp84-107, p85.

[25] Transcript of 7.30 Report, 16 March 2005,

[26] “Labor defends VSU backflip”, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August 2005.

[27] Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2008, p13.

[28] Rosa Ellen, “Senate overturns voluntary student unionism”, Bendigo Advertiser, 11 October 2011.

[29] Hastings, 2007, p20.

[30] Hastings, 2007, p26.

[31] Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, 2007, p5.

[32] Hastings, 2007, p20.

[33] Clair Keyes-Liley, “Students ready to take up fight on fee”, The Australian, 26 September, 2013.

[34] Australian Government Department of Education, 2014.

Fighting anti-union laws: the Clarrie O'Shea strikes

Katie Wood looks at the 1969 Clarrie O'Shea strike.

The SWAG years: Revolutionary organising in 1970s Australia

Tess Lee Ack draws together anecdotes and lessons from her involvement in the founding years of international socialism of 1970s Australia, from which Socialist Alternative was formed in 1995.

Disturbing the peace: riots and the working class

Mick Armstrong argues that socialists should recognise riots as an important part of working class struggle and shows the role they have often played in Australia.