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.