THE University of New England is divided on what has proven to be one of the most hotly debated topics at campuses across the nation – voluntary student unionism (VSU).
Federal Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson plans to scrap the requirement that all university students pay compulsory union fees in favour of a voluntary system that would see student organisations competing for student membership.
Dr Nelson has found an unlikely ally in the University of New England Students' Association (UNESA), which is one of only a few student organisations to have openly supported the concept.
UNESA president Samantha Aber welcomed the VSU debate as "long overdue", and said it was all about securing the rights of
"Dr Nelson is right when he says students shouldn't be forced to subsidise activities that they either don't agree with or wish to participate in," she said.
"What some people don't realise is that the VSU legislation won't outlaw student unions – rather the legislation will ensure that students are afforded the right to choose whether or not they join and contribute financially to a union.
"In addition to enshrining a basic freedom, the VSU legislation will ensure that unions are more responsive to (the) needs of students, only offering relevant and in-demand services and representation."
The UNE Sports Association, on the other hand, is staunchly opposed to a proposal it says will "impact severely on regional universities and their local
UNE Sports Association president Jason Gerke said the proposed legislation would make it impossible for student organisations to maintain their current level of service – and it was regional universities and their communities who would be the big losers.
"The Federal Government's higher education reforms in recent times have already had a dramatic impact on the funding of universities, and universities are simply not in a position to divert money away from core activities such as teaching," Mr Gerke said.
"It is highly likely that the legislation will result in the withdrawal of intervarsity sports programs as universities will be forced to sacrifice standards by fielding teams with students who can afford to represent the university, rather than those who should represent on sporting ability and merit.
"Sport UNE has placed on hold our plans to host the 2006 Northern University Games next July until the full impact of the VSU legislation is known – this event would have generated well over $1.5 million to the local economy."
He urged students and interested community members to attend a VSU forum to be held at the university's Lazenby Hall at 7pm tomorrow night.