The VSU debate is back on. Youth Minister Kate Ellis has announced that from mid-2009 universities will again – subject to Senate approval – be able to charge students for non-academic amenities. There are, however several significant differences from the pre-VSU situation:
* the amenities fee will be price capped, at $250
* there will be a new income-contingent loan scheme, SA-HELP, to help students pay for it
* what universities provide students will be regulated for the first time, with ‘national benchmarks relating to the provision of student support services’ and ‘new representation and advocacy protocols’
* actual membership of student assocations will continue to be voluntary
The Coalition is already brawling over it, with the Liberal students running a Save VSU Facebook group, Barnaby Joyce threatening to again cross the floor on the issue, and Shadow Minister Chris Pyne opposing money going to political activities, but leaving open the possibility of supporting a proposal that funded amenities only.
The government’s position is no more coherent. Indeed, it is concerning that this announcement has been made in isolation from the recommendations of the Bradley review of higher education policy, which are due to be released next month. This student amenities proposal has all the traditional hallmarks of Australian higher education policymaking: it’s ad hoc, inconsistent with other policies, and overly complex. All the things that – admittedly against the odds – some of us were hoping would be put behind us after Bradley.
Just recently the goverrnment repealed what it (rightly) regarded as excessive micromanagement of universities, the Coalition’s rules telling universities how to organise their governance and workplace relations. As Julia Gillard told the House of Representatives in May:
Universities under this government will be freed from the micromanagement and red tape which characterised the approach of the previous government and freed from their ideological interventions in workplace relations.
Delete ‘workplace relations’, add ‘student services’. Is there any evidence that Canberra knows better than universities what student services are necessary on campus? How much time will be wasted arguing over what services should be on or off the list of benchmarks and protocols? How many extra bureaucrats will have to be employed to fill out and check forms relating to student services? The Nelson-Bishop red tape machine has survived Labor’s ‘education revolution.’
And do we need a new income-contingent loan scheme, SA-HELP, when we already have four others: HECS-HELP, FEE-HELP, VET-HELP and OS-HELP? Several submissions to the Bradley review called for them all to be converted to one scheme that is simple to understand, treats students consistently, and does not distort their choices between courses. Will every university student have to fill in two application forms, one for SA-HELP and one for HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP, depending on their fee status? Doubling the bureaucracy involved, and for as yet no explanation as to why another scheme is necessary.
Julia Gillard said in March that
a bewildering array of student financing arrangements has been put in place; each change adding another layer on top of past mistakes.
Exactly, so why add another layer?
The alternative is simple. Add $250 to the maximum student contribution amount, which students will automatically be able to borrow under the existing HECS-HELP scheme. In the unlikely event that a university treats its students badly, an additional clause can be inserted in its funding agreement with the Commonwealth. The legislation already exists to allow this to be done, and it avoids general regulation of student services that appears to be entirely unnecessary.
The Coalition should be able to sign up to this as well. It will ensure that one of the major benefits of VSU, requiring student services to compete for funding with teaching and research, will remain. It would permit universities that do not need $250 for their student services (some had fees under that pre-VSU) to spend the money on teaching instead – which as they are getting a 3% real cut in teaching funding next year could well be useful. Adding to the student contribution amount doesn’t guarentee that no money goes to student uinons, but nor does the existing VSU scheme. The Nationals, and Barnaby Joyce in particular, should have no reason to oppose an increase to the student contribution amount.
Of course, I think the student contribution amount should be uncapped. But given an immediate need to improve student services without wide-ranging reform, my solution is simpler, easier and cheaper than what the government has proposed.