The return of compulsory, unbundled, student amenities charges?

A report in this morning’s SMH says that the Rudd government will next month announce the return of student amenities charges. It’s a bad sign for the broader Bradley review of higher education policy, because it suggests that the government is making the same mistake as its predecessor: creating messy and bureaucratic ad hoc schemes to deal with ostensibly isolated issues, rather than tackling the price control and quota issues that are at the main causes of dysfunction in the higher education sector.

According to today’s report, the new model will be:

“opt-out” system in which students will be able to choose which services their fees are spent on and whether they belong to the student union.

So it sounds like students will have to pay some money, but get some choice in what that money is spent on.

This is an unsatisfactory solution for all parties. It prevents universities offering just the degree and nothing but the degree, a sensible option for those without the time or inclination to participate in campus life. It prevents universities from charging everyone for the same bundle of services, so that as part of their marketing they can promise free access to X, Y or Z facility or service.

The solution, as I have argued for years, is to just let a market operate. Some universities will offer a high level of services, some low, and students can choose between them. Most are likely to offer optional extras. None needs bureaucrats in Canberra second-guessing how they should run their universities.

Update: Government Ministers cast doubt on the compulsory element of this story.