Separate student amenities fees to return

After much Coalition stalling, the government’s amenities fee legislation passed into law today. However, it is not a restoration of the previous status quo. The key differences are:

* while before 2006 unis could charge what they liked in a separate amenities fee, now it is capped – a maximum of $263 next year, with indexation for future years;

* before 2006, it was an up-front fee, but now it can be deferred through a new income-contingent loan scheme, SA-HELP;

* before 2006, there was no Commonwealth regulation of what they could spend the amenities fee on (though there had been some state legislation), but now there are some restrictions, including on political parties and local, state or federal campaigns;

* before 2006, there was no Commonwealth regulation of universities in their provision of general student and advocacy services, and now there is (same legislation, but not connected to the amenities fee – the trigger is receipt of Commonwealth grants, not the amenities fee).

So overall there is a substantial increase in bureaucratic complexity compared to the pre-2006 situation.

As longtime readers of my blog will know, my position is that both sides to this debate are wrong. A separate amenities fee is a relic of an earlier funding system, in which the Commonwealth paid grants that were specifically for academic matters (some of which they recovered via HECS from 1989), and permitted universities to charge students for non-academic matters.

But from 2005 there has been no specific regulation of how Commonwealth student-driven subsidies are spent, and there is a student contribution that goes to the universities rather than to the government. I don’t see the value in having two prices for one bundle of services – especially as it comes with the added paperwork and confusion of an additional loan scheme. If students can’t afford $263 they won’t be able to afford the student contribution amount or fees either, so it would make more sense to incorporate the charge into HECS-HELP or FEE-HELP.

As money is fungible, I don’t see how use of the amenities fee can be effectively regulated. Most universities will be easily able to show spending on allowable services of more than $263 per student a year, so they can just say that the amenities fee is covering that and any ‘political’ funding is coming from other revenue sources. On the other hand, it is unlikely that universities will want to spend any money in this way.

Most of the required services attached to Commonwealth funding are things that universities do anyway. But there are problems with requiring formal systems of funding student representative bodies and consulting with them, especially in spreading them to the non-university higher education providers gaining access to Commonwealth-supported places.

As I argued in the paper linked to above, student representative organisations made more sense in earlier times than they do today. When universities were monopolies and had no survey mechanisms for assessing student views, some kind of student organisation made sense as a voice for students – albeit very imperfectly, given low turnouts at student elections.

These conditions no longer apply. There are many universities and other higher education providers to choose from, and from next year almost every undergraduate student place will be contestable. There is far more information coming from students from university surveys than ever came from student unions. Student elections are sampling errors by comparison, and very little weight should be given to the views of people elected by a relatively small number of politically engaged students. While higher education providers should decide the matter for themselves, it would be reasonable to cut costs and and not have traditional student organisations.

On the other hand, the Liberal position that universities should be forbidden from charging for non-academic services should, in this context, also be rejected. It is not for politicians to decide how universities should bundle or unbundle their services. If a university thinks that it will do better by offering a range of services, that should be its educational and commercial decision. If students don’t want the package they can go somewhere else.

Don’t forget that separate pricing for amenities only had to happen because of the old funding system. It probably won’t come back for full-fee students, who are unlikely to have any interest in university cost structures (they don’t itemise for lectures, libraries, tutorials etc either). And it will only last for Commonwealth-supported students for as long as there is tough price control in place for the student contribution amount. The irony is that the Liberal position depends on the kind of anti-market policies that they otherwise oppose.

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  1. Here, here. It’s just a complete racket. I used to have to bust a gut studying full time, working full time, just so that I had the privelidge to hand over 300 hard earned bucks to some pimply faced, long-haired, thong-wearing hippies. Forget it !
    And now they want to ‘regulate it’. Surely universities are big enough to handle themselves. Big enough to work out where to spend the money. Why do they have to impose some hippy student body that no body wants or voted for ?…other than of course to be a breeding ground for tomorrow’s lefty political parties…disgraceful !

    In other news, I recently read Mark Steyn’s ‘After America’. Gawd that read is a classic. Very, very good with some good insights for the education sector. I left me notes at home, but I do remember one of my favourite lines goes something like ‘Studies ! Anything with ‘Studies’ in the name of the course should be banned. Any Women studies, diviersity studies should be banned, banned banned. Too many 30-year old adoloscents studying degrees for no pracical use. (Ab) Lincoln left school in grade 8 and didn’t need uni, so why do we impose this prolonged adolescence on our society !’ bloody ripper !

  2. To me it makes sense for the provision of student amenities to be directed by the students themselves – particularly for advocacy services, where the service should be somewhat independent of the university bureaucracy.

  3. The reason student unions want a separate fee is so there is a sum of money they can claim, but the downside for them is that so long as there is a separate fee there will be Liberal campaigns against it. If they want their own money, there has never been any law against voluntary memberships or fees for service.

    On advocacy, the guidelines say (‘HEP’ means ‘higher education provider’):

    “HEPs must provide enrolled students with access to advocacy officers for services in relation to matters arising under the academic and procedural rules and regulations of the HEP. Advocacy officers should act in the best interest of students and be disassociated from the HEP’s decision-makers in respect of the HEP’s academic and procedural rules and regulations and other staff who administer the HEP’s academic and procedural rules and regulations.”

    This is tied to Cth funding rather than the amenities fee.

  4. Broadly agree Andrew!

    On the issue of who should deliver these amenities, both universities and student organisations have their problems. My experience at ANU is that the general university management (those who are neither academics nor part of a college) couldn’t care less about student welfare. I wouldn’t trust them to go use the bathroom alone let alone make good use of amenities fees.

    Student organisations are typically captured by insiders who spend the money in ways that would not be possible if it were costless for outsider students to be involved in the local political process. At ANU, for reasons that are not clear to me this has not been a big issue, at least since VSU. The majority of money is spent on things that are sensibly bundled with university. Furthermore, the student association attracts lots of volunteers and people working for the minimum wage, so can provide services quite cheaply.

    If the rules about how the money was spent were strict enough to prevent insiders exploiting their position (no using the money for general political campaigning or paying for purely private goods i.e. Chocolate Appreciation Society), I would guess student orgs would be the least bad organisations to manage the amenities revenue. Universities would mismanage it even more.

    Anyone have experience from other universities to share?

  5. Rob: My experience was also at the ANU, which is probably why I tend to agree with you – I also have a broadly positive view of the ANUSA.

  6. While I did not support the original VSU bill for the reasons outlined above, I have always acknowledged that it had good consequences as well as bad.

    One of the generally good consequences was universities taking over more services. While Rob maintains that they don’t care, I don’t think this is generally the case. Quite aside from any personal concern for student well-being, they are all in competitive markets for international students and the perception is that student services matter, particularly at the expensive unis. U of M put millions of dollars into student services after VSU, and put in professional managers to help deliver them properly.

  7. Wish we had the Melbourne management Andrew! Or perhaps the student association here mostly just deals with problems and I don’t see all of the things that are working.

  8. Between the new,separate HELP loan scheme and the shopping list of do’s and don’ts for spending, this new measure will have enormous compliance costs. I wouldn’t be surprised if it cost 25% of the revenue raised to administer this fee, or even more. All up a bad policy.

  9. Will the amount be pro-rated for part-time study. One of the inequities of the scheme was the fact that some students do not (cannot receive) anything for the fee they pay but are required to stump up the money. In my daughter’s case, she was off at the hospitals after her first three years and so she could make no use of any of the services.

    Anyway it is good to see that those ex-Melbourne Grammar boys will be able to suck off the majority of students when they need a few new shells down at the University Rowing Club.

    • Judy – The legislation does not require a pro-rata rate, though on my reading it would be open for the government to require it via guidelines. However it was standard practice in the past so I expect it will be in future.

  10. why can’t you just say you aren’t interested in fun hippy type activities. students should have say in what their money is spent on. just because you want to keep your 300 to buy a new saucepan or television. geez we want to enjoy university!

  11. Looks like this issue is back from the dead. Now that the die is cast I can well imagine that we’ll see a reversal every time there’s a change of federal government. That kind of policy flapping can’t be good for anyone.

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