So Chris Pyne has decided that, having just become education minister, his most important priority is to revive one of the stupidest ongoing fights in all of Australian politics, that over whether student services fees (“student unionism”) should be compulsory or voluntary. The persistent partisan rancor over this issue is emblematic of so much that is wrong with Australian politics.
Why do politicians care so much about student unionism? It can’t be out of any concern for students’ wellbeing. HECS far outweighs the small services fee — as does the cost of housing faced by students in most major Australian cities. In terms of the income side of the balance sheet, Canberra evinces little interest in increasing youth allowance, Austudy, or Abstudy. The fight over student unionism is one about ancestral allegiance and symbolism, not anything real.
If you go to an Australian university campus in the evening at the right time of semester, you’ll see earnest young things diligently chalking names and slogans on the pavement. The reason they’re doing this is because it’s step one to eventually becoming a very powerful person in Australian politics.
Chalk slogans are apparently the number one means of campaigning for election to the student representative council. For someone interested in politics, this is an important first step to power; Prime Minister Tony Abbott was president of the University of Sydney SRC, for instance, and so was Treasurer Joe Hockey. Anthony Albanese, currently campaigning to be leader of the opposition, was a representative of the same body. Julia Gillard was on the SRC at University of Adelaide (more here). When I see kids campaigning on campus, my blood runs cold; these will be the people running the country in a few decades time.
Student politics is where the overly ambitious compete for positions with no responsibility and no power. Turnout in the elections is low and scrutiny is even lower. As a result, the issues at play tend to be symbolic ones — factional feuds, for instance, and the ideal flashpoint of student unionism. Student unionism is perfect for student politics: it’s irrelevant and it creates ground for a sharp ideological divide.
The left tends to be in favor of student unionism because the money is used to provide students with services, and with enough imagination you can see that this is a little bit like being in grown-up politics, where tax money is used to provide grown-up services like welfare and infrastructure. They also point out, reasonably, that university is more than lectures and tutorials, and well-funded social activities are integral to campus life.
The right tends to loathe student unionism because they break out in hives when they hear the word “union” and because campaigning against it lets them say the word “freedom” a lot. They also point out, reasonably, that a whole lot of the well-funded social activities that are so integral to campus life are actually cheap beer nights for lefty organisations. (There are cheap beer nights for right wing groups, but this is university, so there aren’t many right wing groups to get the cheap beer.)
Now, most of us eventually graduate and stop even vaguely caring about student politics in our early twenties, but one group doesn’t. These are the people who rise from student politics into the national parties and eventually take their place in federal parliament. And when they’re there, they’re still operating under the belief that their silly factional fights from their undergrad days matter. Which leads to a brand new government making its stance on student unionism a key part of its new education policy.
Forget that this should be an administration matter and not the stuff of federal politics. The obvious answer to all this is to simply permit the decision to be made at the university level and allow students who don’t like being charged a services fee to enrol in an institution that doesn’t charge it. The big problem is that our closed party system and cloistered institutional structures mean that our political representatives are people who have spent decades fostering relationships and fomenting resentments that have nothing to do with the problems facing the rest of the country. The fixation on authenticity and ordinariness of populists like Palmer United or Ricky Muir is a furphy, but its an impulse that comes from an entirely sensible place: our parliamentarians should have a background more diverse than the campus political bodies of the 1970s and 1980s.