The government’s student amenities fee legislation has been rejected by the Senate.
While I did not support the original VSU bill, and am unpersuaded by the reasons given for rejecting the government’s legislation, I am pleased that it has been defeated.
Even by the low standards of Australian higher education policymaking, Kate Ellis’s student amenities financing plan was a shocker.
As I noted when it was introduced, it sought to impose new unfunded service obligations on universities – and this despite Labor cutting recurrent university funding in real terms in every year of its first term. While they have thrown money at capital projects, their policies on recurrent funding have been worse than the Coalition’s.
The bill would have required universities to make complex distinctions between similar services funded from their Commonwealth subsidies and from the new amenities fee.
The bill would have required universities to create an entirely new and completely unnecessary new student loan scheme, SA-HELP. Anyone who needs to borrow $250 for amenities will also need to borrow for tuition under HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP, and so these should be used for all loans. The SA-HELP alternative would have imposed bureaucratic costs on universities and created confusion for students.
In short, it is a relief that this bureaucratic monster has been strangled at birth.
While the government will probaby reintroduce the bill and hope that an Opposition terrified of an early election will pass it, the more sensible thing from them to do would be to refer it to the review they have promised on base funding levels for universities. Amenities fees are just one component of a much larger funding and pricing issue, and it would be sensible to deal with it all in a coherent fashion.
Update: In her media release attacking the Opposition Kate Ellis says:
“It [the amenities fee legislation] would have provided universities with the opportunity to fund critical services rather than redirect funding away from research and teaching budgets to make up the shortfall of funding for campus services.”
While this would have been true in practice for universities already providing services in excess of those minimally required, the legislation actually requires the diversion of funding from teaching. Unfortunately the way this debate is locked into ancient ideological battles means that the particular absurdities of this bill received very little attention.
Labor is as guilty of this as the Coalition. If they had simply proposed relaxing the price caps on Commonwealth-supported places which “would have provided universities with the opportunity to fund critical services rather than redirect funding away from research and teaching budgets” the Coalition would have been in a much more difficult position. This would have taken us closer to the greater price deregulation Brendan Nelson proposed in 2003, but which was reduced to get the bill through the Senate. Because Labor has ideological hang-ups on prices and needed to pay off its student union supporters it instead introduced a bill that was waving a red rag at the Coalitions’s VSU bulls, guaranteeing strong opposition.