Student Unions: A Short History

Student Unions: A Short History

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Following World War II, Australia and the western world experienced high levels of economic growth, high profits, and near to full employment. Nonetheless, in Australia, the living and working conditions had urgent need to be improved, and were improved, through the agency of the state implementing collective type programs for the community. This was so the great majority could enjoy those things which would have been denied them by virtue of their limited purchasing power, and which were standard consumption items for the richer economic cohorts, such as education, housing and health. These collectivist type arrangements, paid for by "progressive taxation" induced a continual and unrelenting reaction from those who thought that taxation and government participation in society and its main economic mode, capitalism, was an infringement on the moral economy of the wealthiest cohort in society, the one percent of the population that controls, by rule of thumb, one third of the wealth, a subset of the 20% who own 80% of all wealth.

This was given expression through the Liberal-Country Party coalition who endeavoured to stop anything that was of a collectivist nature and associated with the Labor Party. Most importantly, unionism.

While unionist's claimed that being in a union enfranchised a person within the economy, as compulsory voting enfranchised people into democratic and participatory government, the conservatives argued that it was all a communist plot.

In more real and practical terms however, President Roosevelt in the US had demonstrated the need for workers enfranchisement within unions so as to off-set the power of corporations, dysfunctionally powerful in American society, and which he blamed for the Great Depression of the 1930s. Roosevelt made unions legal in the US in 1935 with the National Labour Relations Act.

Unions were made legal one hundred and eleven years earlier within the British Dominion's, in 1824. In Australia, unions developed a coherent culture and institutional network before that of capital, which was characterised by the rift between and within the industrial and rural sectors.

This leads us to universities and student unions. One consequence of World War II was the opening up of university to those other than the wealthy. This occurred because the child of the unions, the Labor Government, created education schemes for returned servicemen and women during and following the Second World War. Indeed, Sir Robert Madgwick, the first Vice-Chancellor of the UNE had previously been head of the Army Education Service and noted that the time was ripe for those other than the elite to gain a university education. Even Menzies later concurred. Still, the situation only marginally improved.

However, in 1972, the Whitlam Labor Government came to power, increased the combined primary and high-school expenditure in Australia by 90% and made university free to every Australian Citizen. Consequently, many more people attended universities. Australia awoke one day to the realisation that to attend university had become the right of every person irrespective of their bank balance, colour, or gender. (This situation was, and is being sorely tested, a demonstration in itself that societies can regress and that progress is not inevitable.)

Parallel to this was the growth in voice, and the importance of student unionism. The student and workers uprising in Paris in 1968, and the tragedy of the war in Vietnam played a big part in stimulating student unionism. The "Kent State Massacre", with the killing of four students at Kent State University by National Guardsmen in the US gave focus to the demands of the youth of the world, their union, and activities. It also helped stop the slaughter in Vietnam.

From this time students began to have a place in the Australian narrative and debate. Student unionism was very strong at UNE at this time, with Neucleus, the voice of the student body. Apart from the data contained within the hardcopy, it was a tangible symbol of activity, it was in a sense a flag that any student could wave in the air, put under one's nose, or paste on a wall. The hard copy was hard to ignore, because it was lying on the table in the Bistro, the cafeteria, the Colleges, the Student Representative Councils office, the Dentists, and in lecture theatres.

Student unionism gave voice to all political and religious persuasions. Indeed, today, both the leader of the Liberal-National Party opposition, Tony Abbott, and the Prime Minister Julia Gillard, nurtured their political skills within student unionism in the 1970, and 80s.

There was a revival of focussed student activism around 1985, particularly at the UNE. The SRC incorporated Women's, Environment, Overseas Students, and Housing officers who had need to write policy documents, analyses of administrative propositions, and to forward research papers regarding issues which had an impact upon students. Students at UNE were media savvy, and were organised. Indeed, the metropolitan university student unions became concerned at the high profile of the UNE students in the State and National context. The National media (particularly the Australian University Supplement) were receptive to the arguments emanating from the UNE SRC. The Armidale Express ran an editorial, "credit where credit is due" noting the SRC's participation in local community concerns, from its AIDS, housing, and community welfare campaigns, to its submission for The Catholic Enquiry into National and regional poverty.

The left was strong on campus during this time, however there was no lack of conservative input and debate.

It can therefore be said that Student Unions from the mid 1960s had a high profile, with strong groupings around the left, the right, and the various religious persuasions.

It cannot be argued therefore that any one ideology had a monopoly on student power. The only argument proffered was that it was not libertarian to have 'compulsory student unionism'. This is the same as attributing non-libertarian connotations to compulsory voting, yet which makes democracy viable; or that compulsory taxation is an attack on our liberty, when it is the basis, or pre-condition, for public education, health, sewerage, garbage and waste disposal, national parks, public museums, the police, indeed all public works and other manifestations of a caring society, which would otherwise be non-existent, or confined to gated communities for the wealthy.

It is not anti-libertarian for the community to care for its members via compulsory taxation. Compulsory student unionism likewise sought a collective mode to address students’ collective problems and needs.

So, what did "voluntary" student unionism achieve?

First and foremost it stopped in its tracks the real libertarian aim of the institutionalised culture of public expression, particularly that of the youth. For 75 years students had a public voice, made tangible through Neucleus. Gone. There were student representatives on most university committees. Gone. The university dentist is gone, as is automatic use of all sporting facilities, as is legal representation for students in need. No doubt thousands of representations to the university administration on student’s behalf were undertaken by Officers of the Student Representative Council. Not anymore. Overseas students had a combined voice, quite apart from their national affiliations. Not anymore. Before, university protocols demanded of the administration that it ask the student body for its input regarding policy changes. Out the window.  The Claude Street Flats (Wright Village) were constructed for students from low socio- economic backgrounds after a media campaign and pressure from the SRC - will that happen again?

Student unionism empowered students, giving them political and administrative skills commensurate with their intellectual capacities which could enhance their effectiveness in engaging the world at large. The process was enhanced through the continuity of a strong collective institutional base with an ethos, culture, processes, formal legitimacy, and know-how.

The institutional base was made illegal by the Howard Liberal regime in 2006, with the Young Liberals, after winning control of the Student Representative Council on the basis of  the Unions legitimacy, voted the institution out of existence, after its maturing over 75 years. Goodbye representation, goodbye Neucleus.

However, it seems that student activism maybe having a new lease of life at UNE with much of the VSU legislation rescinded by the Labor regime. It is important therefore that an understanding of the history, and therefore the processes and   potential of student unionism, is taken into account during the start-up process. It is doubly essential given that the culture and wherewithal of participation was destroyed by the six year gap of inactivity. This gap in continuity, this destruction of an institution, this killing of culture, was after all the genius of Howard's VSU.

Peter Robert Ellston, Economics, UNE.

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