Money Changes Everything

While universities are required to consult student organisations about how the Student Services and Amenities Fee should be spent, they have no obligation to pass any of it on to student unions, councils, or other organisations. Adam Chalmers investigates where your money might end up, amid ongoing tension between the student union and the university.

On the face of it, John Howard won the battle. In 2006 his government successfully legislated to stop automatic membership of student unions, and to end the compulsory payment of those union fees. Despite opposing the change, a careful Australian Labor Party agreed not to reverse it.

Instead, having come to power in 2007, Kevin Rudd proposed a Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), which would make students pay a mandatory (but deferrable) fee to fund non-academic services. Having passed the senate in October, this year universities will charge up to $263 per annum, indexed annually.

While universities are required to consult student organisations about how the SSAF money should be spent, they have no obligation to pass any of it on to student unions, councils, or other organisations.

Does it mark a compromise solution, or a blast from the past?

The seventies and eighties were the golden age of student unionism. Most universities had their own union, which students were required to join through payment of membership fees. These unions would take care of student needs – running bars and cafes, lobbying for higher-quality education, providing legal aid or childcare services to students, and much, much more.

But Liberal governments, angry at the way student unions used membership fees to finance political campaigns against them, decided it was unfair that all students were forced to pay expensive fees and join their union. For a brief time, Victorian and Western Australian State governments ran universities under voluntary student unionism (VSU), but both states repealed the legislation shortly afterwards.

In 2005, the Howard government introduced national legislation for VSU. This stopped universities forcing students to join their student union and pay membership fees. On the one hand, this gave students greater financial freedom. However it crippled student unions and campus culture. The sudden reduction in members – and membership fees – meant the unions had to run on a tiny fraction of their previous income. Most unions couldn’t handle the financial stress. One by one they shut down, were absorbed by their universities, or drastically reduced their services.

A 2008 Department of Education report found that “VSU had resulted in a lessening of the vibrancy, diversity and, to some extent, the attractiveness of university life.” The then National Union of Students (NUS) president, Michael Nguyen, said VSU “led to a deterioration in quality and complaint review processes for students”. Many were upset by Howard’s intrusion into student life, but his Labor opponents – traditionally, the biggest supporters of student unionism – promised not to repeal the legislation if they came to power.

But not everybody was happy with the compromise solution, the SSAF.

The coalition and Australian Liberal Students Foundation (ALSF) cried foul, calling it a “return to the dark of days of compulsory unionism.” But while both compulsory unionism and SSAF involve a mandatory fee for student services, there are significant differences between the two.

Before VSU, compulsory union fees went straight to student unions. But while universities are required to consult student organisations about how the SSAF money should be spent, they have no obligation to pass any of it on to student unions, councils, or other organisations. Universities can choose to give student organisations some of money – if they want to. They could even subsidise union membership – if they want to. But no one is forced to join their student union or pay membership.

No matter whether the University spends the money itself, or gives a cut of it to student organisations, there are strict guidelines on how it can be spent. The legislation states SSAF money must be spent on non-academic services – things that make student life easier outside of the classroom, like “providing legal service to students” or “supporting an artistic activity by students”. Importantly, universities “must not allow fee revenue to be used to support political parties, or to support the election of a person to a government body”. This, in theory, will stop unions from spending student money on political activism, one of the factors leading to VSU in the first place.

But how will our estimated $11 million in SSAF funding be spent?

University of Sydney administration has mostly stayed silent on their plans for the fee. In late October, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Derrick Armstrong emailed all students with a link to a survey listing each of the 19 areas universities are allowed to finance with the SSAF, and asked students to rate how urgently they thought each should be funded.

The survey was criticised by student leaders for being unclear and difficult to understand. “It literally took the words out of the legislation and put them into SurveyMonkey,” former University of Sydney SRC President, and current National Union of Students President, Donherra Walmsley, said. “Legislation isn’t designed to be understood by the average student, and what the various spending items actually are wasn’t very well explained in the survey.”

While the survey’s results were not made public, Professor Armstrong sent out a follow up email roughly a month later which outlined the University’s funding priorities. In it, he wrote that the university’s priorities for SSAF spending were:

  • Orientation (accustoming new students to campus life)
  • Advocacy and information
  • Aiding student health, welfare and careers
  • Clubs, societies and other student-lead activities

Details of the university’s other SSAF expenditure have yet to be announced. SRC President Phoebe Drake has submitted a list of funding proposals to the university, including better orientation services for international students, a free breakfast bar, a student survival centre (which would give away free pens, calculators, notebooks, etc), and relocating the women’s room to make it wheelchair-accessible. She has also called for more student leadership positions to be paid. Positions like Queer Officer are currently unpaid and difficult to balance with other employment, which could limit them to students who are already better off. These and many other funding proposals have been handed to the University, which is scheduled to announce its funding breakdown after the census date (March 31).

Those plans are being complicated by a strained relationship between the university and the University of Sydney Union (USU), after two years of negotiation and argument over who should control food and drinks services on campus.

In late 2010, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor proposed the USU allow its bars and cafes to be run by the University. The Union board rejected this offer and the university subsequently cut all funding to the Union, which is now operating in 2012 without any University money. Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence terminated the negotiation process in January. In an email to students he wrote: “I doubt that further negotiations could produce anything of merit or value.”

The USU is still asking for a cut of SSAF money to fund its clubs and societies program. But it seems the University is trying to apply as much financial pressure to the USU as possible, in order to secure control of campus retail services. If this is so, SSA funding for the Union is unlikely. The University has also rejected a proposal to subsidise a free Union “Access” card for all students, in stark contrast to UNSW’s newly free ARC Union membership.

Most universities around Australia have announced how they intend to spend the SSAF money. UTS wants to expand their second-hand bookstore, childcare facilities and student legal centre. They are also starting the Bluebird Brekkie Bar, where the UTS Students’ Association will serve free daily breakfasts, and they will provide more funding for clubs, societies and student art projects.

The Australian National University is starting a brand new mental health support program for its students. This is a worthy project, given a 2010 ABC report found “mental illness among Australian university students is five times higher than in the general population”.

Many universities are passing their student unions a cut of SSAF money. UNSW has committed to give their student program, ARC, 50 per cent of the profits to subsidise the new $0 membership fee, and is consulting with ARC and the student population on how the remainder should be spent. The student union at the University of Western Australia will receive a whopping 70 per cent of the SSAF money.

For other unions this money is too little, too late. Macquarie University’s union fell due to financial pressure and mismanagement post-VSU. At universities with no union, University administration will manage student welfare and spending of the SSAF.

In Victoria, Monash University is giving their students no extra funding from the SSAF, and in some cases is actually decreasing Union funding. “It’s the only Group of Eight University we’ve chosen to condemn,” explained NUS President Donherra Walmsley. “They share a very hostile relationship with their Union.”

Aspects of the SSAF have been criticised by the NUS, which believes that if students are paying the fee, students should decide where the money goes. “We believe they should be run by democratically elected student negotiations so they’re servicing student needs best as possible,” Ms Walmsley said.

Most student organisations are excited at the idea of a new, SSAF-fuelled student experience. Ms Walmsley believes it’s vital that students experience more than just life inside the classroom. “Uni is about making new friends, meeting new people and experiencing vibrant campus life,” Ms Walmsley said. “It’s critical that these services are well-funded.”

The Student Services Amenities Fee money will fund more than just clubs and festivals. It also aims to provide important student services including affordable food on campus, adequate academic advocates, counselling services, childcare, free legal advice, and medical care.

The introduction of VSU meant many quality-of-life student services had their funding reduced or even cut. According to the 2008 Bradley Higher Education Review this led to higher numbers of students dropping out of their degrees.

Our own Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence echoed this sentiment, telling the Herald in 2011: “Without proper support for student services…students may have to drop out of university if they face significant up-front costs.”

While many students are excited about the possibilities the SSAF offers, others believe it will only reintroduce the problems of Compulsory Student Unionism. Theoretically, unions can’t use SSAF money for political causes, but according to John Shipp, President of the Australian Liberal Students Foundation: “you can drive a truck through the loopholes left in the protections against political expenditure”.

While government guidelines state “providers must not allow [SSAF] revenue to be used to support political parties”, former ALSF president Sasha Uher has said “there is nothing stopping this fee from going to political third party organisations such as unions or GetUp.”

Other students disagree with SSAF on a more fundamental level. Trisha Jha, an International Relations major at ANU, said: “the notion of a compulsory fee is outdated these days.”

While many students are financially secure enough to spend their spare time enjoying on-campus entertainment, others are too busy working jobs or raising children to take advantage of the services their $263 will be going towards.

“For a huge number of students uni is a part time thing, to study, and that’s all,” Ms Jha explained. It appears a significant number of students agree with her – 24% of comments on the Sydney University SSAF survey said they disagreed with the introduction of a compulsory fee in the first place.

Luckily, the SSAF can be deferred under a HECS-like scheme called SA-HELP, making the fee far more equitable than compulsory student unionism. At universities like Macquarie, it is too late for the SSAF to help student unions. But regardless of where the money goes or how much student unions get, the SSAF should bring about exciting new possibilities for students in 2012 and beyond.

Adam Chalmers is on Twitter: @adamchal