It seemed a good idea at the time…

02 Nov

I am contrary, I know, but whenever Julie Bishop is enthusiastic about something I tend to take the opposite view. Yesterday, for example, speaking in defence of the ideologically driven (and short-sighted) abolition of compulsory union fees at universities — see The Sydney Morning Herald — she remarked: “The challenge for student unions is to attract student support by being relevant and efficient.” The context for that “Let them eat cake” utterance is this.

Students used to pay several hundred dollars a year in compulsory union fees, which subsidised services such as child care, international student support, food outlets, sporting clubs and infrastructure, student newspapers and social clubs, but the Federal Government passed laws banning the practice in 2005. Since then the sector has lost $167 million in annual income, resulting in a 50 per cent funding cut to inter-university sport, a 40 per cent funding cut to sporting clubs and more than 1000 people employed in student services losing their jobs, the study found.

Nationally 100 sporting services such as elite athlete support have been shut down or reduced, while the same has happened to 261 union services.

But the money students have saved will not necessarily remain in their pockets, with the study calculating they will spend more than that amount in the increased cost of services and rises in HECS fees.

This is a topic The Rabbit felt strongly about — as I think does Thomas — and where we disagreed. I put my case in September 2005 and reported the passing of the bill in December 2005 when I wrote: “Mr R is very happy: this has been a theme for him for a very long time. But I really wonder if it is a famous victory after all… I found the whole issue plagued with distortions and misconceptions, as I said in September. Certainly it wasn’t an issue where conservatives were united.”

Certainly today’s Herald article offers some alternative explanations for the decline of sporting clubs and services, but I think much is to be said for the interpretation I quoted. I never resented the fees when I was at university myself — and believe me I was not rolling in cash — nor when I was for a year at UTS in 1998. Yes, some of the money went to things I would never use and to activities I may have found dubious, but that was not the essential point. What I did use mollified any resentment along those lines. I realised that a university is more than a glorified high school, and also realised that the facilities I enjoyed had to be paid for by somebody. It always struck me that levying everyone was the best approach. “User pays” sounds good, but is often very self-centred and short-sighted. It seems too there is now a blowback: no-one is actually saving any money!

Irrelevant PS

Redfern doc has the blood test results. No, I don’t have diabetes…

Note: Sunday night

A lively discussion has ensued both below and on Jim Belshaw’s blog. It is worth reading Thomas’s latest post, Second Job, as one considers his viewpoint. Seems to have been a degree of misunderstanding here (and at Jim’s)… Obviously I was opposed to voluntary “unionism” (so-called) at university, which means I was in favour of the relevant institutions being supported in part at least from student levies. I felt, as I say above, that the “reform” would prove costly — I really wonder if it is a famous victory after all… — and I believe it has. That remains my position. However, this is not to criticise personally those with a different perspective. I am arguing that voluntary “unionism” has not really been good for the universities, that’s all. I hope that becomes clear in the course of the following comments.

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Posted by on November 2, 2007 in Education, Observations


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27 responses to “It seemed a good idea at the time…

  1. marcellous

    November 5, 2007 at 12:42 am

    I feel I am being accused of promulgating some kind of sumptuary law of international travel here. I was just making a historical point, and it was not meant to be an attack on Thomas at all.

    So many things were different then: there was little or no evening or weekend trading; service jobs were mostly done by the (full-time) working class; air travel was (relatively) much more expensive; and, (and I am anticipating this will be seen as a barbed comment again, but it is just historical) those at university who did have jobs often moved out of home.

    So far as my situation was concerned (to make this specific in the terms of my parenthetic comment which started this), I didn’t have an even half-regular job until my third year of university (that was taxi driving from 3pm to 3 or 4 am most Saturdays), so the question of saving up over many years to that point simply didn’t arise. My few contemporaries who did travel overseas mostly did it by taking a whole year off and working full time for about of half of it and travelling on their savings for the second half.

    Anyway, Thomas, as the late great [?] Deng Xiaoping is said to have said: “致富光荣,” variously translated as “to be rich is glorious” or, probably more accurately, “to get rich is glorious.” So don’t mind me.

  2. ninglun

    November 5, 2007 at 9:50 am

    I feel I am being accused of promulgating some kind of sumptuary law of international travel here. I was just making a historical point, and it was not meant to be an attack on Thomas at all.

    Not “accused”, Marcel; I did suspect Thomas may have taken the comment that way, however. Hence my comment. Thomas did react strongly also to something Jim Belshaw said on this topic — perhaps too strongly, in my opinion, but that is not my call…

  3. ninglun

    November 5, 2007 at 10:15 am

    For those who may be wondering what the controversy has been about, I borrow a clear summary by Jim Belshaw, written as a comment in response to an overseas reader:

    At UNE when I was there there were three such bodies.

    The first was the Sports Union. This maintained, developed and managed the campus sporting facilities. From memory, the uni itself did general grounds maintenance, but everything else was done by the SU. Students got free or low cost access to the facilities. Others couls also use them, but had to pay. The SU also subsidised some sporting activities.

    The Union itself provided central campus facilities such as eateries, common rooms, music room, billiard room. Again, access to facilities was free, including use of rooms by student societies. It also put on activities – speakers, social activities etc – and subsidised a range of student societies from classics through economics to drama to political societies. It also negotiated deals for its members such as a 5% discount at local Department stores.

    The SRC or Students Representative Council was the smallest of the bodies. It’s role was to represent student interests on campus. It also part paid for the student newspaper, bridging the gap between ad revenue and costs. It also made a contribution to funding the national student union.

    Membership of these bodies was compulsory, with universities collecting the fees.

    The Federal Government both abolished compulsory fees and restricted the universities capacity to provide alternative funding. The Government’s argument was expressed in terms of freedom of choice, but also carried a strong ideological overlay. The fact that so many of the bodies were called unions – a term derived from Oxbridge – did not help.

    The universities opposed the move. They argued that it would reduce the diversity of student life, but also had serious concerns about the impact on overall university funding.

    There were particular concerns for the smaller, regionally based, institutions where the various bodies were relatively more important. Here the National Party forced substantial bridging funding to try to ease the impact.

    Nationally, the impact of the changes has varied depending on the specific circumstances of the institution.

    In general, services to which a fee could not be attached ceased. In other areas, fees or prices were increased to compensate for reduced income from membership fees. I think that most universities are now paying to keep some services going within the limits dictated by the Government. Newspaper reports suggest that around 1,000 jobs have so far been lost.

    I also have the impression that the change has forced at least some universities to step in and take direct ownership of union facilities because of the financial risks involved.

    The effect has been greatest on the smaller universities.

    I have not seen a full objective economic analysis of the impact of the change, but it has certainly been significant.

    The Background Briefing I refer to above gives some idea of the impact. Common sense would tell you that reduction from 100% to 15% or even 5% is bound to have a severe impact on services. UNE took the same form as the University of Sydney. The point Jim makes about the “ideological overlay” in the government response, heralded as I recall in the pages of Quadrant and in much right-wing discussion and magnified by the left-wing response, is one that struck me at the time. It is and was simply nonsense, even deceitful, to make any link between University Unions (Guilds) and trade unionism. Hence my use of “unionism” not unionism above.

  4. Jim Belshaw

    November 5, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    By the way, Neil, I had forgotten, but as the Neucleus – student newspaper – business manager I was on the SRC finance committee. I also had to sell the ads, something that I was not especially good at.

    Later, I was co-editor with Winton Bates until a Labor P coup installed Bob Graham as editor. Bob went on to become a Labor minster in Tasmania.

  5. Jim Belshaw

    November 5, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    Neil, by accident this afternoon I found my 1963 UNE Orientation Week handbook. It really does bring out that different world, including then student fees and TC scholarship rates.

    I will write some posts on it, but I could not resist one thing. In the section on student societies – there were a hell of a lot of them – we find:

    Aboriginal Assimilation Sub Committee

    The objective of the group is to promote an active interest in aboriginal welfare in the University and the townshi, and to help aboriginal children to gain higher levels of education.

    As the conditions of aboriginals is a great social problem, in Australia, it should be of interest to everyone, especially in Armidale where the problem is a local one.

    The group was formed in 1961 to raise money to help put an Aboriginal boy through high school amd has organised a number of social activities with the aborigiines.


    Armidale was not perfect, far from it. But if you ignore the word assimiliation – it did not then have quite the same meaning as it does now- and focus on the core it is one element in the changing attitudes that can be seen during the sixties.

  6. ninglun

    November 5, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    Back in the 60s when I was briefly a minor unpaid Trade Union official, keeping the minutes for the Sutherland Shire Teachers Association — which did include at least one Communist — I became aware of a similar local venture, Kirinari, which the Federation supported.

    During the late fifties a group of young women, in suburban Gymea, New South Wales, answered a call by the Aborigines Welfare Board for home billeting of Aboriginal children aged from two to twelve years for periods up to six weeks at a time. Country children needed to stay in Sydney for dental and medical care.

    A small group of women from the Congregational Church in Gymea responded and where possible they contacted the parents to assure them that their children were in safekeeping. Through these efforts it became evident that Aboriginal teenagers faced many problems. Communities were isolated, health and welfare were neglected by the authorities and there was little care for the education of the children.

    Following advice from leading Aboriginal men and women Aboriginal Children’s Advancement Society was founded at a public meeting in February 1963.


    The original intention was to build a hostel for Aboriginal boys to enable them to attend school in the city to further their education.

    The first Kirinari was opened at Sylvania Heights, a southern Sydney suburb, close to schools and recreational facilities including surfing beaches and the Royal National Park.

    One of the Aboriginal advisers was Herbert Stanley Groves JP who supported the establishment of the hostels and was a great stalwart and mentor of the many people who rallied to the cause of the Society. He worked tirelessly to see the achievement of its goals…

    I suspect this and what you mention were parts of the movement that led to the 1967 Referendum outcome. Mind you, I also recall Kirinari was regarded with suspicion by many in The Shire at that time.

  7. Jim Belshaw

    November 5, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    Interesting, Neil. There are a couple of things here that I need to think about. Is this your longest comment series?

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