The return of the amenities fee

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Just recently the goverrnment repealed what it (rightly) regarded as excessive micromanagement of universities, the Coalition’s rules telling universities how to organise their governance and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.

19 thoughts on “The return of the amenities fee

  1. This looks like the kind of compromise that cannot be justified on any kind of principle and will probably deliver the worst of all possible outcomes. Imagine the bureaucratic nightmare (and the absurdity) of establishing and attempting to monitor “benchmarks” in student services!
    It will upset the people who wanted voluntary student unionism, it is probably not enough to deliver much in the way of services, it adds one or two fresh layers of bureaucracy, it diverts attention from more serious issues etc etc.
    But what do you expect with Captain Queeg steering the ship?

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  2. When I heard of SA-HELP I literally rolled on the floor laughing. A loan scheme for $250? They must have cooked that one up about thirty seconds before the announcement. None of it makes sense – it’s not as though $250 would mean much to all those services. Unless they plan to ramp it up later… hmmmmm.

    Really, this announcement is another example of spin masquerading as government.

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  3. The paperwork and administation associated with SA-HELP will surely get close to $250 for each applicant.
    Makes you think of Grocery Watch, how many millions did that useless heap of stuff cost?

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  4. Funnily enough, Rafe, that was exactly the argument used by the left against the $250 Higher Education Administration Charge, levied in 1987 and 1988. Particularly as the all the student’s details will be on file I’m sure the transaction can be done at much lower cost than that. So while it is very wasteful, most of the $250 will still be left for the intended purpose.

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  5. The argument to roll the service fee into the overall student fee has merit on the face of it, but in a practical sense creates problems for the services that are ultimately funded. Andrew notes that these services should compete for funding against teaching – the reality is that teaching will always have priority and ultimately the services, however meritorious, would be under-funded. This is particulary so given that universities are generally under-funded as it is. It is not realistic that administrators of student services can compete politically against Deans in a university setting. In my experience, unless the VC has a particular interest or believes in the value of a particular service, it gets very little support. The evidence over the last 2 years where student services have struggled under a combination of user-pays and university funding says it all.

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  6. Mark – But the reality of the last two years is that funds were taken from teaching and given to services, despite overall tight finances. Resources have been artificially limited by regulation, so if that regulation was lifted more would go to services – though I suspect that even with full deregulation many universities would allocate less than services used to get, as previous funding levels could not sustain a rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

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  7. Of the funding arrangements that I know of, most were decremental with no guarantee beyond three years. Some of this was in anticipation of a change of government and hence a change in policy, but mostly from a misguided view that the services could eventually self-fund. My point was that whilst some services were funded by universities, the funding was insufficient and has resulted in some very poor quality outcomes. I would not have a problem if in an ideal world, services were funded at a lower level than pre-VSU, but it needs to be somewhere between what that was and what it is now. There was a positive outcome from VSU in that there was a greater level of efficiency (and accountability) forced onto student organisations and this was badly needed. With the restructuring that has occured, funding requirements have been reduced. Whilst the figure of $250 has been plucked out of the air, it probably is around the mark.

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  8. Andrew – Are universities able to charge students for the individual services they use. For example, if a university decided to subsidies food at a cafe, do they have to provide it free or can they still charge something for the food? If students still have to pay something for the service, what is all the fuss about. If there is demand for a service at the price needed to fund the service, then universities can provide the service without the need of an amenities charge. If there isn’t the demand, why are they taking money from students to pay for services students aren’t prepared to pay for voluntarily.

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  9. Johno – this was the argument put forward in support of VSU (to hide the real agenda which was to eliminate student politics on campus!). The food example is somewhat of a furphy these days, as most universities contract out food services and only collect rental income (to the everlasting thanks of people on campus as the quality has improved substantially). The problem with a fully user-pays system is that services like advocacy, counselling etc would not survive or would have to charge exorbitant fees as they are operating in a reduced market. Even sport and recreation which is very capital dependant, and has high operating costs could not survive in the long-term as facilities deteriorate or go out of date very quickly. In the community, apart from commercial fitness facilities, most sporting facilities are heavily subsidised by local or state govt.

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  10. “they just can’t require students to purchase those services.”

    As opposed to private schools who charge fees for facilities for services that many students don’t use.

    You (your children) don’t play a musical instrument and so you don’t want to pay for the piano, tuba, violins etc? Tough.

    You don’t row and so you don’t want to pay for the boats and boatshed? Tough again.

    You’re not studying physics and you don’t want to pay for the physics labs? You guess it. Tough yet again.

    Ah, but higher education is different.

    Let’s look at the US.

    You’re not interested in football and don’t want to pay for the unbelievably exorbitant cost of fielding a college football team? Tough.

    Etc.

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  11. I’m with Spiros, Universities should be privatised and emphasise sports and extra-curricular activities- none of this reading and learning shit. 🙂

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  12. Spiros – Exactly. In both Australian private schools and US private universities, there are a huge variety of institutions wtih different levels of services and different systems of bundling or unbundling services. There is no need for governments to set rules. People just choose the institution that suits them.

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  13. Mark – What do you mean by advocacy, counselling etc and what other services do you think that those students who do not use them should subsidies?

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  14. Sinclair, I don’t think you are serious, but if you are then you need to know that private universities in the US are just as hot on the sports as the public universities, maybe more so.

    Why is it so?

    Maybe it’s because, being private, they rely on alumni donations to keep themselves solvent, and what the alumni care about is the success of the sports teams.

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  15. “The problem with a fully user-pays system is that services like advocacy, counselling etc would not survive or would have to charge exorbitant fees as they are operating in a reduced market.”

    Mark, why won’t they survive?

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  16. My $198 Student Union membership fee goes to the Union as far as I’m aware.

    Melbourne Uni funds the Counselling Service, not the Union.

    They are finding a way to pay for that service somehow. I think every University understands the importance of Advocacy and Counselling services. No University wants its students to fail unnecessarily or to drop out due to personal issues. Universities legitimately want their students to pass and to deserve the pass. Having a massive failure rate isn’t exactly going to draw new students to a particular university.

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