catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Freedom of association lasted 3 days

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For three decades, Liberal students have fought for the idea that freedom of association includes a freedom not to associate. On Friday they achieved their goal with the passing of the VSU bill. In a bizarre twist, Brendan Nelson took less than three days to renounce this important principle. In a press release yesterday he announced that:

I will also be requiring university student unions, guilds and associations to open up membership to apprentices and TAFE students. … The sporting and recreational facilities of universities should be readily available to other classes of student.

So if this goes through (more on that in a moment) university students lose their previous right to decide who will be a member of their associations. Where will this idea stop? Should Liberal supporters be free to join the Labor Party, and vice-versa? Should I be allowed to join the women’s collective?

To the extent that this proposal has any coherence at all, it reflects the idea that student associations are just service providers that happen to be located on campus. It doesn’t matter who uses them; the connection is merely a matter of geography.

But that’s not the only way to look at them. For some universities, they are part of trying – with varying degrees of success – to create a campus community in which everyone has at least one thing in common, their membership of that university commmity. There is also a commercial angle. Even under a VSU model, some universities will market themselves as having good extra-curricular facilities. These facilities, however, have finite capacity, and so by a forced opening up these universities lose part of their power to offer guaranteed access to particular services. The University of Melbourne’s gym looks crowded enough as it is without letting other people join.

Then there is the issue of how this policy will be implemented. The Commonwealth government doesn’t actually have direct legal power over higher education. Instead, it rules by attaching conditions to its funding. But how are they going to open membership of organisations they do not fund at all? Perhaps they will use the $80 million in transitional funding to create a link, by having it go direct to student organisations. As not all student organisations will get this money, however, a more likely device will be to use the financial connections that exist between universities and their student bodies – the universities’ funding will be contingent on them forcing changes in the membership structures of organisations that are often legally separate. It will be a sort of policy subcontracting.

As the policy absurdities mount up, the question is: what would it actually take for universities to walk away from Commonwealth funding until they get a better deal?

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Written by Admin

December 13, 2005 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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