I support compulsory student unionism. That means I support every student paying their taxes so that the Students Representative Council (SRC) can oppose education-funding cuts that hurt us all and give help to the students who need it most.
The problem, however, with the implementation of Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) at this university is that only a small fraction of it goes towards these things. Instead, the SSAF has become a regressive tax system where huge sums are transferred from students on the poverty line to those who can afford to get involved in clubs and societies.
It gets worse when the University uses that allocation to control student organisations that need independence to fight for students’ rights. I support the SSAF. What I don’t support is the way this university distributes it. Over the last two years, the University has given over $20 million to student organisations. Close to $14 million of that went to the USU and the SUSF alone.
The University is allocating millions of dollars to the USU’s Clubs and Societies program and the SUSF’s Elite Athletes program. The people with sufficient free time and money to get involved in clubs and societies are overwhelmingly not the students struggling to meet last week’s rent. Accordingly, students on Youth Allowance or international students toughing it out trying to pay their way are totally locked out of these activities. Not to mention the students at satellite campuses who are lucky to see a cent’s return on their SSAF.
Much as I love the Trotskyist-inspired chants of Sydney University’s debaters, they ring rather hollow when only a small fraction of the singers went to a comprehensive school, compared to two-thirds of the state.
Even more troubling is when this money isn’t, in fact, going to students at all. Sources inside the SUSF estimate that about 20 per cent of all athlete scholarships go to non-students. Even more is spent on cross-subsidising SUSF facilities that are totally inaccessible to the average student – unless, that is, you can fork out $350 for a pool membership, with an additional $150 a year if you want to set foot inside the gym.
Every cent of this money comes at the expense of the vital services that the SRC and Union could instead be providing to all students, like affordable housing, food subsidies for students on Youth Allowance, and childcare for every student who needs it – regardless of whether they can afford an ACCESS card.
SUSF can pretend that these aren’t ‘SSAF dollars’ all they like, but when this University used SSAF’s introduction to increase SUSF’s expenditure and leave welfare services stagnant, they increased the tax burden on the student working poor.
But that’s not the only problem with this University’s SSAF allocation. The SSAF is reallocated from scratch every year, which means at any moment your Vice Chancellor could decide to cut off funding entirely.
That would be a disaster for the SRC or Honi Soit, which are almost completely reliant on the SSAF. This results in a huge chilling effect that’s felt everywhere from the Council chamber to the Honi editorial room, limiting the ability to student organisations to fight for students’ rights. The University and Union could solve these problems.
The University could guarantee SSAF funding to the SRC and Honi. They could reserve 50 per cent of the SSAF for welfare services. Your Union could institute affirmative action for low SES students, so that their voices could be heard on Board and they could have the opportunity to take part in club executives and teams. It could demand that the SUSF – run by two good Old Boys who might generously be described as middle-aged – be actually student-controlled before it receives students’ money.
But while SSAF allows Michael Spence to reign in the SRC, while it enables the SUSF to keep opening new facilities nobody but their executive can afford to attend, I won’t hold my breath.