All sorts of dire consequences are being forecast if the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill becomes law.

The legislation, which has been endorsed by Parliament's education and science select committee, does no more than allow students to choose if they want to join a student association.

Yet a group of student leaders, writing this week in the Herald, claims it will "end accountable and effective representation and destroy the student support, independent advocacy and welfare standards that students have".

Their view overstates the importance of student unions in providing services to their members, as opposed to the input of the universities and polytechnics. But, most discouragingly, it pays no heed to the fundamentals underlying the bill.

No mention is made of why compulsion remains, thereby denying students a right to free association that is provided unquestioningly in other arenas. Or why, indeed, a student association has the right to pocket students' money, even though they may disagree strongly with its viewpoint and policies.

The bill is being promoted by Act MP Heather Roy, who says many associations are wasteful or partisan and against the views of the wider student body. "Making membership voluntary will ensure associations are more accountable to those they claim to support," she says.

Her aim is laudable. The bill has had the support of National, as should be the case, given its core values. But the party also backed a similar private member's bill from one of its own MPs a decade or so ago, only to later soften its content. A similar story this time would raise further questions about its willingness to place principle above pragmatism.

National has no reason not to stick to its guns. Nor have the student unions any reason to fear the legislation if they are providing students with a valuable level of services, including welfare and advocacy, representation, recreation and leisure, entertainment and social activities, and media and publications.

Students will surely appreciate a job well done and continue to support them voluntarily. That has been the path trodden by successful workplace unions since compulsory unionism was abandoned in 1991.

The experience at Auckland University suggests why student associations fear the bill. When students opted for voluntary membership there in 1999, the number of association members tumbled from about 33,000 to 3000.

It recovered to above 20,000 only when the nominal membership fee was waived. Clearly, the Auckland University students did not consider they were getting value for the money they were forced to hand over to the association.

The New Zealand Union of Students' Associations says that when membership was made voluntary in Australia three years ago, association fee income fell 95 per cent.

This forced the Australian Government to provide $120 million of "transitional support" to maintain key services. It implies the Key Government will face a similar problem. That would be so only if the local student unions provided services to the level of their Australian counterparts. No evidence has been provided to underpin that view.

Most fundamentally, the Australian experience, like that of Auckland, demonstrates what happens when students are freed from compulsion. They do not want to dip into their pockets for associations that they do not want to speak for them and whose services they do not believe provide value for money.

Nor should they have to. It should be up to student unions to adapt, not to continue to be shielded by a law that in workplaces has long been consigned to the dustbin of history.