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.

15 thoughts on “NUS’s travels towards coherence

  1. And there’s nothing to regret about the changes to campus life this has brought? The university experience will be just as rich as it was, minus a lot of guild activity: the clubs, newspapers etc ?

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  2. Why don’t they just do what every other corporation does: fund their operations by taking money from customers at the time and point of sale?

    Why are they so attached to taking the money up front in anticipation of service provision at some unspecified time in the future?

    Why on earth do these groups believe that they are entitled to take money from people on the flimsy grounds that those people might – just might – use a service at some time in the future?

    They really are incorrigible. I’m returning to uni this year, and I’ll be buggered if they get a single red cent out of me.

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  3. “Why don’t they just do what every other corporation does”
    Because their primary purpose isn’t to make a profit for shareholders?

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  4. “Why on earth do these groups believe that they are entitled to take money from people on the flimsy grounds that those people might – just might – use a service at some time in the future?”
    .
    I take it you’re not a big fan of insurance then.

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  5. “I take it you’re not a big fan of insurance then.”

    It’s difficult to see how insuring your property or life against future calamity equates to insuring yourself against the hypothetical future necessity for a uni table tennis club membership………..

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  6. iamspam,

    Insurance is a great thing. What makes it even better is that insurance companies don’t feel entitled to take money from people. They only take it from people who come to them to buy insurance.

    Student unions, on the other hand, feel entitled to take money from anyone who chooses to study at the campus where they operate.

    It’s their belief in their entitlement to a power to tax, and to tax indiscriminately at that, to which I am objecting.

    (Incidentally, Henry Ergas has an outstanding essay on insurance, and the idea of government – with its power to tax – as the most efficient insurer, in the current edition of Quadrant).

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  7. “They only take it from people who come to them to buy insurance. ”
    Actually, last time I checked, I was pretty much forced to get insurance for both my health and was forced to get it for my car.
    Incidentally, my feeling is that with the end of student unions, the representation students get when things go wrong is far less. So as much as you might not care about the tennis club, things like advocacy etc. have gone. Not that that is neccesarily a bad thing — I often used to feel that they were simply prolonging people’s misery some of the time by mindlessly supporting them.

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  8. Conrad,

    You weren’t forced to take out insurance by an insurance company, but by the government. In the case of third party personal insurance for drivers, I think they make it compulsory in the interests of the driver as much as in the interests of anyone who finds themselves in the way.

    And you have a choice as to which company you buy insurance from, and (with health insurance) the level of insurance that you wish to pay for.

    I don’t know about what has happened to the quality of student advocacy, I’m sorry. I’m just glad that my v. scarce savings won’t be used to subsidise something like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s legal expenses, like I did when I was an undergrad.

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  9. “It’s their belief in their entitlement to a power to….”

    Student unions couldn’t have imposed anything on anyone without the backing of the university administrations. The vice-chancellors saw the benefit of having the unions as they were.

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  10. It’s really interesting that the very recently released Cabinet papers for 1977 show that the Cabinet was split on compulsory student unionism way back then. See Submission 1239 in this document (Warning: large pdf).

    Basically, the ‘wets’ won the argument by claiming that banning it would set a nasty precedent for government interference in autonomous institutions (ie the unis). I can’t see that argument carrying much force with modern governments – which I suppose is a vindication of the wets’ fears of a ‘slippery slope’.

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  11. “Basically, the ‘wets’ won the argument by claiming that banning it would set a nasty precedent for government interference in autonomous institutions (ie the unis).”

    Actually, it would have been following a precedent, though a highly regrettable one, rather than setting one – the banning of tuition fees that occurred three years earlier.

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  12. DD, I agree, that is v. interesting. Not least for making plain the quality of the thinking which occurs ‘at the top’.

    I don’t know that it is a winning argument. Essentially, the universities were entering into a partnership with the student unions to take money out of the pockets of students, using the power they had over university entrance to enforce the extraction.

    I would have thought that it was in the public interest to prevent this sort of behaviour.

    I doubt that the cabinet would have hesitated to act if a University, as an autonomous institution, had decided to prevent, on whatever grounds, the enrolment of Catholic/Anglican/female/one-legged/etc students. And the cabinet would have been right to act.

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  13. Jeremy – Unusually, I disagree with you. In my view, universities ought to be able to bundle whatever services they like. While I believe that they had failed to properly control students services, that was due to the uncompetitive nature of the higher education industry. While I see positive effects in the VSU legislation, in clearing out a lot of inefficiency and unwarranted charges, I do not support price control, which is effectively what the VSU legislation is.

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  14. “I do not support price control, which is effectively what the VSU legislation is.”

    Really? I didn’t know. I’ll have to re-read your earlier articles on VSU.

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  15. Price control in the sense that the amenities fee was a de facto relaxation of the maximum student contribution amount. The VSU bill tightened price control by preventing a higher fee for the bundled services.

    Unis can still set prices for unbundled student amenities.

    But whether to (and what to) bundle should be commercial decisions.

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