NUS’s travels towards coherence

At its annual conference last month, the National Union of Students rolled over on compulsory and up-front amenities fees. According to its new president, Angus McFarland, it was a matter of accepting reality. “We were … aware … that the Labor Party had comprehensively ruled out returning to the upfront fee-paying system,” he said.

But they are not giving up on a fee. One of the options they plan to present to the federal government is a HECS-style scheme to avoid the up-front charges of the old amenities fee, but to restore a revenue flow from students.

This is certainly less incoherent than NUS’s previous position, that the HECS which funds tuition on an income-contingent basis should be reduced, while a up-front, completely deregulated fee which funds other people’s childcare and student union hacks should be maintained. To the extent that made any sense, it was sending very mixed messages.

But removing the up-front element only solves half of NUS’s coherence problem. As the huge drops in student union membership reported in today’s papers demonstrate, their services were of peripheral importance to most students (or more cheaply acquired on a user-pays basis). So NUS’s position is that students should be allowed to spend more on services they mostly don’t need, while being against students being allowed to invest more in their principal asset, their human capital.

Still, in calling for fees of any kind, against the price control of the two major parties, NUS is in the deregulation camp. They just need to take their deregulatory ideas a lot further than they have.