Who should decide how campus services are delivered?

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.

17 thoughts on “Who should decide how campus services are delivered?

  1. “The starting point has to be that the student’s primary relationship is with the university”

    I agree with this, but I imagine in places like Australia a lot of people would be believe the starting point is a relationship a person has with the government (they pay most of the costs, after all), which gives a rather different line of reasoning. In this case, universities are working a lot like subcontractors to the government, rather than having a direct link with students. This line of reasoning would give students even less of a right to representation than now.

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  2. Conrad – I’d like to see a survey on this, but it is quite possible that universities have sacrificed their independent status in the eyes of voters. But legally they are still nominally independent.

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  3. The real question is, which universities have the balls to give the students control over student amenities, and will the government give the Universities freedom to hand over that control.

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  4. Charles – Well universities have always had that freedom and often exercised it – VSU did not take the freedom away, it just dried up the funding. In the last 2 years many universities have discovered that they can deliver services for much less than they used to cost pre-VSU by taking over management themselves. That discovery is a major obstacle to what Paul Norton prefers. My personal view is that student control is not democratic because of low turnouts, and has high risks of incompetence and corruption. But if universities want to take those risks, that shoud be up to them.

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  5. Your argument seems confused Andrew. You want greater autonomy for universities, yet you also want the government to force students to pay an additional $250 to universities. This is quite remarkable – government is usually nagging business (if not outright harrassing them to lower prices). Universities can subcontract now to student unions to provide services, yet over the past 2 years most have chosen not to do so. The market has already spoken as to the relative efficiency of student unions.

    This $250 ultimately is a subsidy to a failed business model. Sure there may be good and bad reasons why that model failed and there are good reasons for government to do less rather than more. But the bottom line remains that failed business models need to be cleared away and this proposal will be a subsidy to that model.

    But it is possible to design a middle path – have the Senate amend the proposal so that the money can only be spent on sports facilities that the university students will use and the maintainence of sporting facilities (some thing that Barnaby Joyce wants) and then require the VC of every university sign a stat dec every year declaring that the money has not been used for ‘political purposes’ – those students who doubt the stat dec are then free to investigate and lay charges as appropriate. I’d keep the definiton of ‘political purposes’ vague and let the courts come up with a working definition.

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  6. Sinc – No, I am the only person who has a consistent and coherent position. I believe universities should be able to offer services to the public at a price they set, and that the public will be the judge of whether those services and that price are attractive. This is normal commercial freedom. The only reason they don’t currently have that is section 93-10 of the Higher Education Support Act, which imposes price control, which you usually oppose, and which I consistently oppose.

    As I pointed out in my first post on the Ellis proposal, the separate $250 charge is unnecessary and should be included in the student contribution amount. But in practice it is a mild relaxation of price control.

    I am opposed to any conditions being attached by the government to money students pay to universities. This is 3rd-party interference, which I oppose, and you usually do too. Yet now you are not opposing it, but instead arguing about the content of this government interference in other people’s contracts.

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  7. I believe the expression is ‘you can put lipstick on a pig’ (I had never heard that before but quite like it). Unionists and universities can dress up in the garb of free-markets and consumerism all they want, but nonetheless they want to impose a coercive pricing structure on their customers. A significant proportion of their customers don’t want to pay and in a competitive market wouldn’t have to pay.

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  8. The dollar amount is not the issue – it is the principle. Not that I’m suggesting the $250 isn’t a lot of money. A fair proportion of students don’t want to pay a so-called amenities fee. The fact that universities can ignore their preferences indicates coercive power and also ignores consumer preferences.

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  9. Sinc – So you also support labour market regulation, as workers believe that employers use their market power to do deals that workers would not otherwise accept?

    It seems to me that this issue has converted you to the standard ‘moderate’ interventionist stance, which is to accept the idea of markets in principle, but to find an exception whenever they see outcomes they don’t like. Once this floodgate is opened, nearly everything becomes an ‘exception’.

    And people thought that you were an ideological purist!

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  10. And people thought that you were an ideological purist!

    Don’t understand that myself 🙂

    So you also support labour market regulation, as workers believe that employers use their market power to do deals that workers would not otherwise accept?
    Well, there is some labour market regulation that I do approve of, for example slavery is illegal. But on the general point, you’re trying to muddy the water. I’m not at all convinced that employers have market power over employees in wage negotiations, whereas I’m convinced that government and universities are going to engage in a supply-side conspiracy against consumers.

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  11. As a student I’d be happy if the choice regarding service fees remained in the hands of the Universities. Some Unis could have opt-in services, some could have comprehensive services. Some might even forgo offering most non-academic services. The Unis not trying to extract an extra $400 out of their students would likely become more popular than those that did.

    But if I go to McDonalds I am forced to pay for the pickle on my cheeseburger, even if I pull the pickle off and don’t eat it. Despite the fact that most people don’t even like pickle (that I know, anyway), McDonalds continues to put pickles on their cheeseburgers and factor the pickles into the price. I don’t think government should impose Voluntary McDonalds Picklism onto McDonalds or any other burger joint. You pay for the whole cheeseburger, even if you don’t like a portion of the product.

    Just like at University you pay for the whole academic experience, even if that includes services you don’t feel like using. Each University is free to offer a different academic experience, but don’t expect to avoid paying for pickles just because you don’t like them….

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  12. That’s crap – if enough consumers said ‘hold the pickle’ McDonald’s would stop offering the pickle for sale. Clearly enough consumers don’t.

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  13. Yup, because most consumers are like me and can’t be bothered waiting for a custom burger to be made. So they just take the pickle off themselves.

    Just like most students in the old days would just front up the Services and Amenities Fee, even if they didn’t plan on using any of the services. I’ve been told there were actually opt-out provisions in the old legislation. In which case anyone who actually cared wouldn’t need to be part of the Union.

    An opt-in system when you’re dealing with lazy, unmotivated and poor 18 year olds? Even if they support the union most aren’t going to pay. I don’t see the problem with Unis setting their own rules and prices.

    I hate the idea of a $250 fee, though. Under VSU Melbourne Uni’s Union membership fee has dropped to $198 this year and $99 next year. Now that’s a union I’d be willing to voluntarily join!

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  14. Indeed, there were opt-out provisions, but those student choosing to opt-out still paid a fee to the union, they just were not union members. True they paid a reduced fee, but a fee nonetheless was paid to the union. Indeed, some universities were so slack in complyling with the (Victorian) legislation that they never stopped referring to the so-called amenity fee as a ‘union fee’.

    Yup, because most consumers are like me and can’t be bothered waiting for a custom burger to be made.

    I was worried about your bad taste – consuming McDonald’s burgers. In recent time they have moved away from mass-production, now all their burgers are ‘custom’ made. I don’t imagine they taste any better.

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  15. True enough about recent change at McDonalds. I used to go to McDonalds when I wanted a snack on my way home from Uni before my train came at Melbourne Central. Ever since they started making their products fresh it’s stop being a Fast Food which was its main appeal to me.

    If I want a fresh-made burger brimming with taste I’ll go to my local Fish’n’Chip store. McDonalds’ main advantage was its speed and the convenience of its locations.

    I do still occasionally go to McDonalds. But I live 3 minutes walk from one and it’s the only store locally that is open at 3am. When I get hungry late at night and there’s little or no food in the house, McDonalds is all that is left.

    I still forget to ask them to remove the pickle, however. Even though the opt-out provision is there. Removing the pickle doesn’t even result in them charging less. At least pre-VSU Universities gave a discount.

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  16. At least pre-VSU Universities gave a discount.

    That was in Victoria where the Kennett government had banned compulsory unionism but didn’t ban union extortion. So the fee was, in part, a payment for a library card – the theory being that if you didn’t pay the union you couldn’t take books out of the library.

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