For all the fuss in the voluntary student unionism debate during 2005, there has been very little follow-up on its consequences. The first sector-wide study of VSU’s impact (which will be available from the Australian University Sport website on 7 November) is reported this morning.
It finds the amenities and service fee/membership fee income for sporting, recreational, social and culture activities dropped from $179 million before VSU to $12 million after VSU. From the perspective of the report’s funders that is clearly bad news, but from the government’s perspective it confirms that few students wanted these services badly enough to pay for them via membership fees. The summary findings do not say how much of that funding loss was made up for from increased direct charges.
My position (pdf) on this issue is unchanged. The separate and compulsory amenities fee is an anachronism; there is no point in itemising the cost of attending university if the student cannot opt-out of purchasing services he or she does not want. Universities ought to be free to sell whatever bundle of services they choose at whatever price they determine; if it is the wrong bundle or the wrong price they will pay a market penalty.
If my reform was adopted, I predict we would not go back to the pre-VSU status quo. University activities tend to the accumulated result of many years of ad hoc decisions. The VSU shock has seen many low priority activities de-funded, and rightly so. Student union over-staffing has been reduced. Some years ago, I told an incoming student union president that significant efficiencies could be made. At the end of his term, he told me that after that first conversation he thought I was a ‘neoliberal bastard’, but a year in the student union had convinced him that I was right. There are better ways to spend student money than on union time-servers.
However, there is room in the higher education market for ‘full-service’ universities offering a wide range of extra-curricular activities. The kind of price control in the VSU legislation should not stand in the way of that happening.