Student Unionism: what's it all about?

Student unions enjoy a complicated relationship with tertiary students. Which is perhaps not surprising given the high population of anti-institutional hipsters on university campuses. Nevertheless, since the highest saturation of union messages occurs at election time, many of us have come to see our student unions as superfluous nurseries for blossoming young egos, providing a channel for their already overly broadcast personalities, and ample opportunities for the plastering of their faces upon surfaces that were never meant to display the eager smile of a stranger (i.e. surfaces one must inevitably watch whilst peeing).

Against such a backdrop, the Labor Government’s Student Support and Amenities Bill passed in October 2011 has not been consistently well-received. The legislation will be implemented by universities across Australia this year, imposing upon students an upfront fee of up to $250 to support their unions - a figure which I must admit at first had me asking when the price of fliers and campaign materials had escalated so dramatically. The legislation is the latest episode in a vigorous battle of tug-o-war across Parliament over the last decade, repealing the Howard Government’s legislation of 2005 which itself overturned a tradition of compulsory student unionism in favour of voluntary membership.

But while the full spectrum of union activity is often overshadowed by the annual assault of student elections, the reality is that the student experience would be very different without the operation of student unions. I’d venture that at most Australian unis, union activities are so extensive and so ingrained in campus culture that they are often taken for granted by the student beneficiaries who fail to recognise them as the handiwork of their union. I for one only discovered upon my research for this article that the dirt cheap gigs at my uni bar which have faithfully alleviated my post-assessment pain on many a Friday evening were in fact brought to me by the same student union I so often resent. As was the Law Revue in which I passionately embarrassed myself last year, the food lovers’ society whose free sausage sizzles endlessly help me stick to an ever-dwindling budget, the first year camp where I met some of the closest friends I’ve got, and the student magazine that kept me awake during my Civil Procedure lectures. Without the financial and administrative support of the union, my uni experience would be reduced to libraries and lectures, and I’d no doubt be even more broke than I already am. And this is coming from someone who was once chased into a toilet block by a union electioneer.

Representatives of the University of Sydney Union (USU) have estimated that voluntary student unionism has drained a massive $8.4 million in members’ funds from the USU’s budget since 2006. Not only do these funds help provide a campus culture that, let’s be honest, motivates us to actually show up to uni when it’s raining outside and the bed is just so warm; but they also provide services such as counseling, medical and legal support without which many students would be forced to drop out. Yes the student union fee is like a tax; but it’s a tax essential to the maintenance of infrastructure that makes uni a worthy investment of a solid chunk of your youth. When I’m a grown-up working 9 til 5 in an office block, I know I’ll look back on my Friday nights watching bands with friends at the uni bar and say they were priceless.