It isn’t surprising there is a strand of antipathy towards the Student Services & Amenities Fee (SSAF). Everyone hates paying fees. But the Union Board candidates most opposed to it – Will Dawes, Grace O’Brien, Kanika Batra, and Tom Russell – are all either Young Liberals or endorsed by the Liberal Club, and although they are piggybacking off a resentment towards fees, they are also directed by the conservative opposition to student union fees.
However, the conservative opposition to SSAF is at odds with the values of market liberalisation the candidates hold. It is understandable they would be opposed to the compulsory student union membership and fees that existed before the Howard Government, but SSAF is perfectly in line with economic deregulation.
The first thing to understand is that the government legislation did not impose new fees on to students; what the government did was allow universities to charge student services fees. The $263 fee we pay at the beginning of the year is charged by the University.
While the government set $263 as the maximum cost of the fee, universities can choose to set the fee at any price below it, including $0.
The money can also go anywhere, not just to student unions.
Why this is an example of economic deregulation, as opposed to a ‘student tax’, is because the government has essentially given universities the right to set prices for particular services by removing previous financial restrictions.
If we consider the university to be a business – and our neoliberal economic system recognises the university as a business, with profit-making motivations and private interests – then SSAF is just another cost of participation.
And because the university can be considered a business, we have voluntary association with the business. We have the perfect choice to enrol in a university, to leave a university, to join another university, or to not go to university. Just as a club can set a dress code or a restaurant can set a corking fee, universities can charge their own SSAF price.
If the dress code is too strict or the fee too high, patrons can switch establishments, therefore placing pressure on prices to lower and conditions of entry to become more mainstream.
If the SSAF is too high, students – and prospective students – can choose a university with a lower SSAF.
If there is no lower SSAF, then there is no market pressure, there is collusion (which is illegal), or the SSAF price is reasonable.
Therefore, economic liberals – including members of the Young Liberals – should celebrate the introduction of the SSAF. It introduces competition into the marketplace of universities.
In fact, economic liberals should be fighting to remove the price ceiling off the SSAF and allow universities to set the SSAF as high as they want, not arguing for its abolition and a reintroduction of regulation on to the university’s terms and conditions.
However, some economic liberals still argue that because universities are semi-public, compulsory fees – set by the university – should be illegal.
This makes little sense under a neoliberal model, especially considering economic liberals support the deregulation of hospitals and schools even when taxpayer public funding still exists, such as private schools; deregulating aspects of the industry lead to full deregulation, which in the case of universities, would be the deregulation of tuition fees and more deregulation of textbook and equipment costs.
I’m by no means a fan of market liberalisation, but it’s still important to call out the incoherent position that SSAF is a breach of choice. It is the liberalisation of choice – choice for the business that is our university and choice for students reduced to consumers.