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Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU)


Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) is a State and Federal government policy which attempts to regulate the funding and control of student representative bodies and student services in universities.


The introduction of VSU legislation was an important development in student politics. Prior to the introduction of VSU, typically all students in Australian universities were considered to be members of student representative bodies - variously known as 'guilds' , 'unions' or 'student representative councils' - unless they specifically declined. Students paid a compulsory fee which funded a variety of services such as sport and recreation, catering, clubs and societies and childcare when they enrolled. A significant portion of this budget was controlled by the student representative bodies - who were also funded by this fee. Unhappy with the dominance of radical politics in these bodies in the 1970s, the Australian Liberal Students' Federation (ALSF) began agitating for voluntary student organisation membership. However, they were unable to convince students to vote for it in campus-based referendums. In the late 1980s, they switched tactics, lobbying state and federal liberal party governments to abolish universal membership. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission unsuccessfully brought a case against James Cook University in Queensland with the charge that universal membership was anti-competitive.

When VSU legislation was introduced in Western Australia in 1993, universal membership was abolished in that state, causing a crisis in the funding which led to a significant reduction - and privatisation - of student services. In 1994, the Victorian Liberal Government under Premier Jeff Kennett, introduced "Voluntary Student Unionism" legislation which also prohibited the use of student fees to fund a range of activities organised by student associations, including student newspapers.

The introduction of VSU legislation was a key turning point in the regulation of student activities. The Labor-led Minority Government of Steve Bracks which was elected in Victoria in 1999 did not repeal Kennett's legislation and the Federal Liberal Government of John Howard introduced its own version of VSU in 1996. However, Howard's legislation was continually blocked in the Senate. It was finally passed in 2005, with the support of Family First Senator Steve Fielding. Whereas the subsequent Labor government of Kevin Rudd, elected in 2007, failed to wind back the policy, in 2010, the minority Labor Government of Julia Gillard introduced legislation to allow universities to collect student services fees but only for prescribed purposes such as sports facilities, child-care and counselling. Despite many campaigns by student organisations such as the National Union of Students (NUS) opposing VSU, it has been a remarkably resiliant policy.




  • Anarchist Collective, LaTrobe University, "Frank Bank" T-shirt Design, Melbourne, 1996, 1 pp. images PDF Details

Government documents


  • Ross, Ben; Brown, Michael; Rogowsky, Melita; Srpcanska, Valentina (ed.), Rabelais, Selected articles, vol. 29, no. 6, LaTrobe University Students' Representative Council, July, 29 pp. PDF Details

Newspaper Articles

  • Frontline: Labour Movement and Community Monthly, 'Right to Protest Under Threat', Frontline: Labour Movement and Community Monthly, no. 40, November-December, 1996, p. 1. images PDF Details


  • The Political Censorship of Newspapers and the Intimidation and Repression of Student Editors: Background Information, Student Unionism Network Defence Committee, 1996. PDF Details

Online Resources

Jack Roberts