The incoherent policies of the National Union of Students

The National Union of Students rallied today for its usual assortment of not entirely coherent causes:

Remove Full Fee entry places,
Reduce exorbitant HECS increases,
Relieve student poverty and
Repeal VSU

That’s right, students should not be allowed to pay for their tuition (remove full-fee places) or should pay less (reduce HECS), but they should be required to pay for services they do not want, such as political rallies attracting a few hundred people (repeal VSU).

I’m not sure that NUS fully understands the implications of their no full-fee places policy. When they used an AFR story earlier in the week about increasing numbers of full-fee students to call for the phasing out full-fee places, they probably did not realise that many of those places were at private higher education providers, dozens of which since 2005 have acquired access to the FEE-HELP income-contingent loan scheme. So does NUS now agree that private higher education should be funded the same way as public higher education? Their comrades at the Australian Education Union might have something to say about the precedent that would set.

NUS may find that rather more students are showing an interest in full-fee place than show an interest in NUS (the media has been slack on this one – NUS claims to represent students, but how many students have voluntarily joined a student union?). Data from the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre shows that for the 2007 academic year 11% of 2006 Year 12 students put at least one full-fee course on their list of preferences. About 4% of those who actually enrolled were in such a place, but the applications data suggests that more were considering paying full fees if necessary.

Of those applying on the basis of completed higher education studies, 20% put in an application for a full-fee place, and 5.3% of enrolments were in full-fee places. 15% of those applying on the basis of incomplete higher education put down a full-fee course, but in the end only 3.3% took one.

Though I don’t think full-fee education is necessarily any kind of problem, if NUS advocated vouchers I could at least respect their stance while disagreeing with it. But as it is, their argument is that some people’s course and career hopes should be crushed because they fall on the wrong side of a quota system that has almost nothing to do with anything except history and politics.

That, I think, is a perverse position to hold. But it is what we would expect of an organisation that shows little sign of even understanding its own policies.

30 thoughts on “The incoherent policies of the National Union of Students

  1. If you’d been lying in bed listening to Radio National on Sunday morning 5th August you’d have heard a good program on VSU – our own UWA vice-chancellor spoke well, I thought. (transcript on RN website: program = Background Briefing)

    Andrew – did you notice on the site you were looking at that Finland has free universities, but compulsory membership of student unions. Perfect combination – pity their weather is so bad.

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  2. Russell, how do you allocate resources when demand is potentially unlimited? Free and subsidised education result in education inflation, lower quality courses, lower quality education results, arbitrary selection. Our university system, by almost exclusively focussing on TES results, gives easier access to high demand courses like law and medicine to those that already have the advantage of good education access and get good results. To a certain extent, because their university education is subsidised, they flow into these esteemed courses without thought, simply because the cost to them is small. Having these students to pay the full cost of their degree may focuss their decision making proces. Someone who knows he will have opportunities whether he gets an Arts or a Law degree, will migrate towards Law for the prestige, denying someone who really wants to be a lawyer a place. Making them pay for it might open the course up to those who really want to be lawyer, but come from a lower socio-economic background and didn’t benefit from a private education. They still have to pay for their education, but because of their self drive are more likely to suceed than the casual, but smart student, who gets in on the back of privilege of coming from a higher socioeconomic background.

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  3. Brendan: You could allocate resources by making standards fairly high to get in and then students could get a scholarship (i.e. like Commonwealth Scholarships).

    This probably isn’t as good as the HECS system we have now, but it could be fairly easily done.

    Surely any system with a metric enables some kind of limits to be placed on it, whether the metric be money or something else.

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  4. “Free and subsidised education result in education inflation, lower quality courses, lower quality education results, arbitrary selection.” So what countries have non-subsidised education systems? What successful private models should we be copying? The German system is free and has always had a good reputation – what unsubsidised system is better than the German one?
    From the Background Briefing program on VSU:
    “One of the bizarre impacts of the VSU nationally is that it has further entrenched the hierarchy between universities. What you can see at my university, at Sydney University, one of the richest universities in Australia, you see that not a great deal has changed. We’ve seen a considerable financial support and commitment from the university that is able to do that. Poorer universities, smaller or regional universities can’t afford to pick up where the fees have gone, and so we’re seeing services crumble. And so now what’s happening is, it just is contributing to the competitive advantage that the group of eight sandstone elite universities have.”
    Here’s what Barbarby Joyce said:
    “The student organisation was at times to the Left, but they were basically ignored. What we did appreciate, we always had the 2%ers, or maybe the 1%ers, where half a percent were of the raving leftie loonies, and the other half looked like the frolicking extension of the local picnic race club, which apparently was the Young Liberal movement. But what there was, was about 98%, 99% of people who were just going through the process of tertiary education. Now I’m not pushing a barrow for those who occupied the corner of the bistro approximate to the pool table, dressed in black to show that they’re completely different to everybody else but look at the same time exactly like peas in a pod; nor am I pushing the barrow of the Young Liberal party. What I am supporting is the greater participation and greater involvement of that other 98% who were involved in a whole wide range of activities that helped them become socially engaged at university, making it a broader experience, and I honestly believe making them better citizens of our nation in the long term…..I feel very strongly about it, and bitter, I suppose, because I see the University of New England as a university that supported what inherently was one of the most marginalised, that is, regional people, as one of the longer-established universities in Australia, and it was put there to bring a parity to the standard of living to those who’d been left behind in one of the most essential elements of what a parity, a standard of living, is about, and that is your capacity to be fully educated. Now once you create a second-rate university by reason of its second-rate facilities, you inherently encourage people to move to other universities and by so doing, put the whole institution under stress and give an excuse to someone at some stage to close it.”
    There’s a lot more interesting stuff to read in the transcript.

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  5. Russell, the German system is falling to pieces. If I remember correctly, the Free University of Berlin simply didn’t intake any students for one year as a protest (!). The Germans I know complain about how sad it is that some of what were once wonderful universities where multiple Nobel prize winners worked, are now falling to pieces (in the literal and non-literal sense). The fact that some of their universities still look good in the Tables is much the same reason as Australia — it takes a long time to destroy such a system — and even slower in places where there are strong cultural constraints to stay (like Germany vs. Australia). The real results will be seen in 20 years, when the effect of poor funding and few young people going into the system propogates through. It isn’t a good example. I think the Swedish universities are a better example if you want one, but they don’t have a policy of intaking (and passing) every moron there is (unlike, say, Australia).

    Incidentally all this stuff about regional universities is rubbish. Its discriminatory against people that live in the city whom would be better suited to going to university. Are you telling me, for example, that someone growing up in some crappy place in Western Sydney of equal aptitude deserves to go to university less than someone in Armadale? Its yet another stupid subsidy to country regions paid for by someone else. If people are worried about costs and really insist on subsidizing people of less apituted in country regions, then it would be far simpler just to increase housing in the cities. Its worthwhile noting that if these universities in crappy places were decent, they would survive without extra subsidies — there are many cities in the US which basically exist only for the university in them, and people pay full fees to go to them, let alone subsidized ones.

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  6. Dead right, Andrew.

    Unfortunately, newspaper reporters’ tendency to take claims at face value and avoid asking hard questions means that this sort of half-baked self-interested protesting will continue.

    It shouldn’t be hard for a journalist to take a leader of the group aside and ask questions such as those which you posed – how many people do you represent, what proportion of the student body do they comprise, what will be the consequences of your policies, etc.

    It may in one way be a good sign – the broader community may be so unconcerned about these issues that they don’t even bother asking the questions, or they can see through the rhetoric. But I suspect not, unfortunately.

    Yes, the policies that the NUS advocate are inconsistent with one another. They are however consistent in two ways: they support the (uncosted) re-distribution of money towards themselves, and they are against every change that has been made to higher education in the last twenty years.

    I suspect those two reasons – the demand for a bigger slice of the pie, and the demand to turn back the clock – explain why they have chosen to fight on these issues.

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  7. An interesting aspect of the NUS’ slogans, for all those amateur sociologists, is the extent to which they represent ‘memes’. I think the large increases in HECS charges occurred ten years ago now, when the present crop of student leaders would have been aged 8-11 years old and likely too young at the time to get angry about it.

    Unless there have been HECS increases since then (sorry, I don’t know), then I suspect that some of the slogans that the protestors were using were devised ten years ago, passed on as a sacred trust to each new generation of student activists, and supplemented as newer issues (eg VSU) became relevant.

    This gradual accretion of issues, without any reflection on what policies lie behind the slogans or the relationships between those policies, might explain how the slogans came to appear side by side.

    Because the ‘cut HECS’ and other slogans fit in with the demands for ‘more money/turn back the clock’, they’ve never been questioned or replaced. And they’re not likely to be, either – I suspect we could be seeing these slogans for a long time to come!

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  8. Andrew, without knowing much more about the agenda of the NUS than what you’ve outlined, I would presume that when they mean “no full-fee places”, they are only referring to public institutions. Perhaps they don’t mind private institutions being full-fee while arguing that more money should be used to create more funded places at public institutions? That is a natural inference and one you seem to draw towards the end of your post, which is not to disagree that it is a double-standard that warrants justification.

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  9. Rajat – That may be the case, but because they did not understand the numbers they were using as their news hook they were impliedly either saying that private providers should be abolished or should get subsidies.

    Jeremy – Yes, NUS slogans haven’t changed over time. Why bother thinking when you get your funding regardless?

    Conrad/Russell -German unis are in such a mess that they even sent a delegation to Australia a few years ago for tips on how we run higher education.

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  10. To follow up on my previous comment (number 11 on thisd thread), I suspect that most student associations have improved student lives a great deal more by working cooperatively with academic and administrative staff at universities than they have by going on strike. The only thing a strike by students might do is send a signal that there is concern about a particular issue. This can be better achieved in other ways that do not result in students missing out on the lectures or tutorials.

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  11. David Rubie, unless that “Australian Union of Students” site is a joke, it looks not dissimilar to a website I saw many years ago run by someone whom a good friend said was actually mentally disturbed – it’s actually quite sad. I found a submission from the A.U.S. to some public parliamentary/govt inquiry and it was quite bizarre (like the website).

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  12. Please note that my comments were not made in response to the website to which David linked. They were just general comments on the sillyness of some student protests. I did not follow the link in David’s comment until I saw Sacha’s recent comments.

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  13. The point of linking to the A.U.S. website was to demonstrate that young people say stupid things. Give ’em a break, they grow up eventually. The NUS was full of rat bags when I was an university the first time, everybody ignored them back then too. The young liberals are full of rat bags that get ignored. It’s nice that such energetic folk have a harmless outlet – they aren’t throwing rocks or molotovs as in other countries. It’s amusing that Andrew Norton bothers to comment on it – the policies as far as I can remember haven’t changed since Dawkins was the education minister. The anti-HECS rallies at the ANU back then were farcically small like the anti-VSU rallies were recently, more of an excuse to drink cider and get rowdy, (not that I participated in either, I was working when studying).

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  14. David – They are barely worth covering – the print media ignored the rally as far as I saw, but ABC TV news covered it.

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  15. The ABC news covered it? Maybe you could apply for the job hosting Media Watch to rid the nation of the leftista mafia running that known hotbed of radical views. Will the outrage of the errant, card carrying ABC reporter never end? The humanity!

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  16. David why did you use the AUS website to make a point about the conservative right?

    I don’t think anyone minds kids acting like kids. What is objectionable is their funding their mucking about with money collected forcibly from their peers. Hopefully VSU will have put an end to that.

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  17. David – More a case of a protest being visual news, and the ABC not having any higher education reporters – those with a background in the field tend not to take NUS seriously.

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  18. Jeremy wrote:

    David why did you use the AUS website to make a point about the conservative right?

    Have a read of it Jeremy – it features a number of old saws you often see as a common thread amongst conservatives: political correctness, nuke power, restrictions on immigration, the primacy of religious thought, paranoia about communism. It does read like a parody site when you look at the details, although Sacha pointed out it might be the work of somebody forgetful about their meds. I’m not sure about the bizarre anti-catholic rants – my suggestion (like the NUS website) is that it is for entertainment purposes only.

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  19. David, the anti-Catholic stuff might be prompted by a Mason connection. Note the symbol in the top right of the main page.

    Cheers
    BBB

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  20. I don’t think the author is representative of conservatives. He’s got a few of their ideas, yes, and he may share their opinions, but otherwise he is way out to the left of the bell curve.

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  21. Andrew,

    the comparison between full fee university places and student union fees is not exactly apples and apples.

    Student union fees were low but upfront – in the order of $150 a semester. University tuition fees are high but deferred.

    It’s a not surprising students are deciding not to pay union fees, because they aren’t paying their HECS or PELS or FEE-HELP fees upfront either.

    The reason is fairly simple. Students are, by-and-large, fairly poor. So they choose not to pay now, when they are cash poor, and defer their payment until later, when they hopefully have a job. There aren’t huge numbers of students paying for their degrees upfront – for the same reason.

    The problem here is really a historical one of separating core tuition services from other associated “campus life” services. In truth, the two types of service are really the same thing – it’s called “going to university.” Most universities have tacitly admitted this by supporting student unions with cash injections or taking over many of their services.

    It’s clear that many students don’t value SOME of the services student unions provide/used to provide. It’s equally clear that, if given the choice, they wouldn’t pay university fees either. But to suggest that this means they shouldn’t have to pay union fees is a bit like saying they should have a choice in what their HECS is spent on (ooh like, for instance, the Vice-Chancellor’s salary, or setting up a loss-making branch of the Uni in Singapore).

    Of course, VSU is indefensible from any libertarian point of view. But so is Medicare, publicly subsidised childcare or any other aspect of the welfare state you might care to name (Mersey Hospital, for instance; or how about the pharmacists, of whom Ken Henry rightly observes are the single most cosseted interest group in the economy)

    Let’s face the reality: the VSU legislation introduced by this government has nothing to do with the right of students to choose. Instead, it’s very obviously a partisan bill designed to attack a key power-base and training ground for the ALP and smaller left-wing parties.

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  22. Ben,

    Why can’t students choose the sort of ‘campus life’ services that they wish to use, and then pay for only those services? Why should they have to pay a bundle for a whole portfolio of services, some of which they have no intention of using?

    It is possible to ‘go to university’, take part in university life, form or join clubs etc, without having to give money to a union.

    Students choose the courses that they want to study from among what is offered, and then pay for them. They should be allowed to do the same in regard to the services that they use at university.

    It is possible for VSU to be about BOTH student choice and removing a left-wing power base. I think you’re overstating the importance of the latter.

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  23. Ben – I agree that there is a single package of services, the finance for which has been separated by the funding history of higher education. I argued this at length a couple of years ago. However, I think that these things should be decided in the market, rather than it simply being assumed that either there should be student unions or that there should be a flat, regulated tuition fee structure.

    NUS is inconsistent in calling for a compulsory but deregulated and up-front fee for student services, which are the less important part of going to university for most students, while trying to control the part of university that is in fact more important and for which fees can be deferred.

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  24. Ben,

    I don’t know what students you are talking about, but when I worked at Macquarie, the student car park had better vehicles than the staff one. It was quite impressive.

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  25. Andrew

    thanks for the link to your CIS paper, which I enjoyed.

    There’s no doubt that NUS is inconsistent as you rightly point out. And I’m in favour of the ability of students to access courses at a full-fee price point if they want to.

    However, what I was trying to point out in my post – and which I think still holds true – is that there is an inconsistency in your position too, namely the assumption that various types of University tuition can be easily and transparently unbundled, that this will make for a fairer market in university tuition.

    Firstly, in terms of unbundling – how far should it go? Most students pay for a publicly-subsidised undergraduate degree that is essentially teaching only. To extend the VSU anology, we could argue that this income should be held by the university in escrow for the delivery of teaching and learning, and not be available for investment in research or infrastructure. It’s clear, after all, that universities are using full-fee paying students as a vital cash injection to buttress their balance sheets in the face of declining Commonwealth funding in real terms. Foreign students in particular are clearly being ripped off in the sense of paying to subsidise the non-teaching activities of universities they attend, and indeed of their Australia-born colleagues.

    However this raises the thorny problem of who should pay for university research, most of which is not commercially driven in nature, and much of which has hard-to-quantify benefits for third parties beyond the student or the institution. It seems to me that such a system would further separate the researchers from teachers, and mean that most undergraduates would rarely see a practising research academic at the lectern.

    Secondly, will a better market mean better outcomes for students? While I agree with you that unis are responding to a very imperfect market in higher education, I’m not sure that introducing a more transparent market for higher education will necessarily address the assymetries students face. To take my cue from Stiglitz, I argue that the informational assymetry between a teenage student (and his/her parents) compared to a large, prestigious educational institution puts the student in a highly disadvantageous position when purchasing a university degree.

    Lastly, can it even happen? Unscrambling this egg is not going to be easy. When universities start offering refunds on courses where teachers score below the mean on their student-evaluation forms, then I’ll be prepared to accept that there is a fair market for universities in Australia.

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  26. Ben,

    Re question two, there is a strong incentive for the better universities to differentiate themselves from the duds.

    Under the classic ‘information asymmetries’ problem, the sellers of ‘good’ products couldn’t do this, and so left the market to sellers of ‘lemons’.

    But universities can try to differentiate themselves: they can point to the quality of their professors, the careers and successes of alumni, the types of courses that they offer, etc. Kids who care about their degrees will seek this information out.

    The ENTER score cutoffs also give a lot of information about what other people think are the best courses.

    So I don’t think information asymmetries are a significant problem.

    Regarding your ‘can it ever happen’ question: unis are unlikely to start offering refunds UNTIL there is free competition among them: only then will the incentives align to produce this sort of outcome.

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  27. Ben – Information asymmetry is worth a post in itself, but how do you think the current system alleviates it? It is often mentioned against markets, but it really just seems like this is re-stating a general problem with this kind of commodity, and not actually giving us any reason to prefer the current system of central control over markets.

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