Over at Lavartus Prodeo, Paul (no relation) Norton offers an argument against the government’s position that student amenities fee money go to the universities. Instead, he wants to
restore the role of democratic student management of services and funds, but strictly subject to certain institutional safeguards and accountability mechanisms which have been largely missing from the governance structures of student organisations hitherto.
His argument for this is essentially anecdotal, that at a couple of Queensland universities of which he has direct experience a student run entity performed better than a university management controlled entity.
He may well be right about these examples, but his post is an instance of a general problem with this debate: almost every participant is trying to turn their personal idea of how student affairs ought to be organised into a model all universities must follow.
NUS wants to get their hands back in the till; Liberal students are adamant that NUS hands should be kept out of the till. Some want democratic student control of student services; others think that university management should be in charge of delivering those services.
The starting point has to be that the student’s primary relationship is with the university. Student associations have always depended on the bundling of their services and associated charges with enrolment at the university. VSU has confirmed what very low turnout in student elections had long suggested: that student associations have the active interest and support of only a small minority of students at most campuses.
And in a more diverse higher education system that (against the odds, my usual caveat) might emerge from the Bradley review, the level of non-academic services would be a differentiating factor. Universities need to have ultimate control over all parts of the package that they offer students.
But within this general framework, there should not be any interference in how universities choose to arrange their affairs. We would expect that they would sub-contract many of their services (indeed in Paul’s examples I was surprised to read that the choice was between guild and university management food; creating competition between different independent food providers has vastly improved food at many universities). If they decide to sub-contract to student organisations, that is a legitimate choice, and indeed on made by many universities. If problems develop the sub-contract can be given to someone else (which is pretty much what happened at Melbourne University).
How these things are done would often vary by campus culture and tradition; at the big inner city universities there is a long history of student involvement on campus. At outer-suburban commuter campuses a ‘democratic’ system probably wouldn’t work because too few students would be interested.
All this advocacy for one arrangement or another is fine except for who it is directed towards: the government. It should be a campus debate, not a national political debate. Each university should find models appropriate to their circumstances, without a standard Canberra-mandated model.