Do You Know What You Pay For?

In 2005, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the yet to be passed Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation introduced by the Howard Government, would seriously threaten the survival of student unionism as we know it.

As it turns out, it did. On March 16, compulsory union fees were replaced by the VSU legislation, so that, according to the then Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, students would no longer have to join a student union or pay a fee for non-academic services.

The Australian National University declared that VSU had “compromised the quality of campus life”, and a report submitted to the Department of Education, the UNSW United Nations society stressed that that VSU resulted in students joining less clubs and associations, food, childcare and other services had become more expensive on campus and events were no longer free.

At UNSW, students who wanted to join the student organisation, Arc, had to pay a yearly membership fee, and the services provided were decided by its 5,000 members.

But last year, the legislation for Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) was passed under the Gillard Government, which means that as of 2012 term-start, local students would pay a total of $263 per year as part of their overall fees.

And while this would appear to be a return to compulsory unionism, it is not exactly the case.

Where SSAF Goes

The SSAF is paid to the University, and as the legislation dictates, it is to be used at each establishment’s discretion. For UNSW, this means that out of an expected six million dollars, around half will be given to Arc ($3.2m) as funding.

According to the Chair of Arc, Natalie Karam, the implemented services fee has meant that ARC will no longer ask for payment for its membership, but will operate on an “opt-in” model.

“There is a misconception amongst students that Arc gets all of the SSAF money. Because the University does collect the fee directly on behalf of all students, and it is something that will impact students, Arc made decision to ease the burden that the fee will create on students”.

Free Arc membership will increase numbers from a current 5,000 members to around 20,000, Ms Karam says.

But Arc’s Annual Report for 2010 shows that the amount received by the University for the service agreement is $2.25m, to which the $3.2m are not added but merged, raising Arc’s budget by less than one million dollars.

The President of the Student Representative Council, Tim Kaliyanda, says the raised number of Arc members may put pressure on services like advocacy, which are already at full capacity with 5,000 members.

Asked whether the budget will stretch for Arc to accommodate an increased number of members, Ms Karam said “It certainly won’t be a problem because we will increase funding as we see fit. We haven’t experienced how much extra demand we’re going to get on our services yet, but based on the financial plan of last year, it will be enough for us this year.”

Ms Karam adds that “there is a clause within our agreement with the University that funding will be reviewed in light of the demand on our services as well.”

The expenditure will be based on the results of a 3-part survey to be conducted by Arc among students and stakeholders.

Tim Kaliyanda says UNSW is the only University in Australia that has allowed its union to take full control of consultation by means of a survey, in order to ascertain which services students and stakeholders wish to have improved.

But while it has been known since 2009 that SSAFs would be implemented, the results of the survey will only apply in the future, not in 2012.

Former President of the SRC, Osman Faruqi said the University never met with him for consultation on the upcoming SSAF.

Mr Kaliyanda added that consultation should have occurred on a regular basis with democratically elected Council members, not just with Arc.

“It was disappointing the University only met with us two weeks ago. They’ve had a year now to prepare consultation.”

Executive Director, University Services, Neil Morris said “I don’t think we did take that long to meet.”

“We could have met with Student Representatives two years ago and had a discussion about what might happen if the legislation came into place. But until we had the guidelines we weren’t going to talk turkey to students. I don’t think you’re going to lose anything by talking to students in January versus December or November because it’s an ongoing thing.”

But Tim Kaliyanda stressed that one meeting is not enough to raise the issues that democratically elected student representatives have to put across. He said issues like prices of food campus and childcare, which the SRC wanted to put forward, hadn’t made it into the discussion.

So the question remains, what will happen to students’ fee money in 2012?

The Pocket this Year

Neil Morris said that the portion of money that does not go to Arc already has an allocated place.

“When VSU came in a couple of years ago, the University didn’t let things fall over. We continued to fund sport and childcare, we continued to do overseas students orientation and student accommodation, and healthcare and counselling careers.”

According to Mr Morris, the University already spends over 20m on the services included in the SSAF. “2012 is a transitional year, but we’re going to collect $263 from students every year. We want to make sure we have ongoing discussions to sustainable spend the money.”

But Mr Kaliyanda says students are entitled to know the exact figures of where the money is being spent. “The University needs to be transparent about what they intend to do with the money this year. It should be incorporated in legal terms because we pay a lot of money.”

“They should be held to the same standards as every other service provider.”

In answer to the question of what services the University plans to invest in, Mr Morris said UNSW employees such as the Director of Healthcare or the Director of Counselling and Careers will be encouraged to “monitor the load” on campus and suggest where money may be needed.

He added that “The University is very keen to redevelop the precinct around the Roundhouse,” a project that is “pretty much” based on feedback.

Henar Perales