With three weeks to get submissions in, it sounds like the government wants its views confirmed rather than informed. The fun here will be watching all the players in this dispute trying to come up with coherent justifications for their position.
Before the election, Labor’s then shadow education minister Stephen Smith said:
The key thing is making sure the services that have traditionally been sustained by the student groups are there for all students to enjoy into the future: childcare, sport and rec facilities and the like. ..[it is] the responsibility of the National Government and the universities to sustain those services. Those services are currently withering and dwindling on the vine. We will not allow that to occur.
But if the government isn’t offering universities any extra money, that can only be done by taking money away from education or research activities. And why should university students be entitled to childcare assistance not available to the general population? To the extent that student union provided childcare ever made sense, that was before it started raining cash on almost anyone who decided to reproduce. And will Labor’s higher education ‘revolution’ really begin on the sporting field?
As the government’s discussion paper notes, the National Union of Students has previously suggested that students be able to defer amenities fees through a HECS-style loan. While as I said in January this makes more sense than NUS’s previous position, it still leaves me baffled as to why students should be allowed to spend extra on sports centres and student politics, but not on their own education. Only people hoping to have their salaries paid for through amenities fees could think it all perfectly logical.
I will be interested to see how my friends in the Liberal student movement handle this one. For many years I have argued against the de facto price control aspect of VSU legislation, which prevents universities from bundling their academic and non-academic services and selling them at the price the market will pay. Though some Liberal students accepted this in principle, they argued that the university market was too dysfunctional and that universities would never reform themselves without VSU.
After 18 months of VSU, much has changed in the higher education sector. Most of the old inefficiencies have been cleared away. And with student services now generally locked into university budget processes, rather than having set-aside separate funding streams, future requests for cash will receive much more critical scrutiny than they typically did pre-VSU.
With the shock therapy done, I think now would be a good time for Liberal students to take a market approach. Universities should be able to set whatever fee they like for whatever bundle of services they choose, and let the market decide whether or not it is good value for money. It would give Liberal students some ideological consistency lacking to date.
This defence of markets would also mean opposing possible government plans to require universities to have student advocacy services, a sort of VSU in reverse, interfering with universities deciding what bundle of services to offer students. Labor’s rhetoric on university autonomy can be turned back on them if they try to do that.
As with Labor’s full-fee student phase-out policy shambles, the new government is going to find, as the previous government did, that trying to reform the higher education system in a piecemeal fashion is difficult. The system is so poorly designed that almost anything governments do ends up creating new anomalies and inconsistencies.