Page 1418 - Week 05 - Wednesday, 6 April 2005
Why are these important facets of university life to be stripped down? Well, Dr Nelson has used every tactic in the book to misrepresent the activities of student organisations in order to garner public opinion behind his limited arguments against the universal payment of student amenity fees. He and the opposition argue that universal membership of student organizations breaches an individual’s right to freedom of association, and he argues that student organizations are lacking in the necessary accountability requirements of a service provider. However, the Australian legal system has repeatedly upheld the authority of universities to charge a compulsory amenity fee without breaching the rights of students. Universities do not force any member to become a part of their community. In fact, the competition amongst Australian universities means that freedom of association is a right available to all Australian students.
The motivation of the federal Liberal Party for introducing this legislation becomes a lot clearer when we examine Dr Nelson’s second major justification for the legislation, that is, that the funding for student representation is, in effect, unfair because students are forced to finance the activities of representatives they disagree with. This argument is flawed. It does not take into account the extensive accountability mechanisms that are built into student organisation.
Student organisations, like governments, represent diverse constituencies and are democratically accountable in the form of regular elections. In fact, it could be argued that student representatives are made more accountable due to the regularity of their elections. Student organisations in Australia have a mechanism that will allow students to conscientiously object to the activities of organisations. Unlike the federal system of taxation, students can apply to have their financial contribution excluded from the funding allocations for student organisations that undertake activities they disagree with. I would suggest that, if such a provision existed for federal taxes, more than a couple of students would be applying for their taxes to be diverted at the moment.
Student organisations do have a political role. As elected representatives of students, they are best positioned to speak on behalf of student interests in the same way that governments are best positioned to represent society. To argue that this representation is any less valid just because of a difference of opinion is to miss the point of representation. I do not agree that a student representative is able to represent each and every student’s opinion, rather that they are democratically elected on the basis of their commitment to the university community, a sufficient indication of their dedication to true and honest representation.
If this legislation is passed, not only will students lose representation on an external level, but also the ability of university administrations to consult with students will be severely affected. No longer will there be a peak student representative such as the student association president or guild chair with whom the university can consult on the impact of policy changes for students. No longer will students be represented on the boards and council of Australian universities. The direct impact of this will be that university policy will be shaped without the opinion of students, surely at the heart of the university’s existence, being taken into consideration.
The Howard government, in particular Dr Nelson, has neglected its responsibility as shepherds of Australia’s higher education system, a system which is internationally