Time to Free Students from Forced Association: Freedom of association is a human right and universities are an ironic place to withhold them.

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre


Forcing people to join any organisation and to fund the promotion of views with which they disagree is wrong; freedom of association must include the right not to associate.
International human rights issues get a lot of media attention and politicians spend a lot of time and money trying to ensure rights are available for all. So why then are some human rights withheld from post-secondary students in Canada?
Freedom of association is a fundamental human right. It is guaranteed to everyone in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, this right is still denied to some students.
Students decide for themselves which university to attend, what degree to pursue, what papers to take, what extracurricular activity to participate in, and where to live while they study. But they have no choice in whether to join their university’s students’ association.
Students associations – also known as student unions, student governments or federations – are campus organisations that claim to ‘represent’ the views of their members. But students don’t choose to be represented by their association; they are forced to become members and pay a fee for the privilege. This is done automatically as part of the enrolment process and the fee is often hidden in with other university service fees. Many students don’t even realise that they are members of the association and have paid this fee.
Students’ associations claim to use these fees to fund campus services for students. But what if a student doesn’t use the services that the association provides? Perhaps a student must work part time to fund her education and doesn’t have time to utilise the services. Perhaps one is studying at a distance and isn’t often on campus, or simply prefers to use the local gym rather than the one on campus. Regrettably, the personal situation of the student is irrelevant when they’re forced to pay the fees and fund unused or irrelevant services.
In addition to providing services which students may or may not want, Students’ associations use their compulsorily acquired fees to fund campaigns and advertising for political issues which they claim represent students’ views. Representation for students certainly sounds reasonable, however most students unions speak and act as though students were politically homogenous. Not all students have the same views on every issue; they are, after all, individuals with their own personal preferences and political views.
As a recent example, consider how two speakers invited to York University this year were treated differently: Daniel Pipes, a prestigious Middle East expert, and George Galloway, a former British MP.  Both are polarising figures whose combination you would welcome at a place of intellectual ferment such as a university. 
Worried about the threat of protests by opposing students, the university required the promoters of each event to pay for security costs. The student union paid for security for Galloway and that talk went ahead, but not for Pipes. The Daniel Pipes talk was cancelled as a result.
Galloway suited the political inclinations of the union’s executive, Pipes did not. A student executive influenced the debate and elevated one side according to their political views while using money also acquired from the students who invited Pipes.
The power to tax and compel is usually limited to the government for very good reasons. Governments are accountable to the people; courts can challenge them and media can expose them. Pages and pages of legislation provide protection for citizens against disingenuous, corrupt or unscrupulous politicians through instruments like Freedom of Information Acts and Ombudsmen.
Yet, we allow students’ associations, legally not much more than private clubs, to take hundreds of millions of dollars from students every year. No doubt the local country club could provide fantastic services to the people in the area if everyone was forced to give them hundreds of dollars every year and if everyone agreed on what those services should be, but in a free society people decide for themselves with whom they freely associate.
Around the world, governments and students are realising this inconsistency and adopting laws to allow students to decide for themselves whether to join students’ association. Australia passed a Voluntary Student Union bill in 2005, Sweden adopted similar legislation in July 2010 and the New Zealand Parliament is set to follow in 2011. It’s time Canada followed suit and recognised that students’ right of association needs defending.