UNSW scores below USyd, Melbourne in SSAF report card

UNSW has ranked third in the 2013 National Union of Students (NUS) report on the implementation of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), behind USYD and the University of Melbourne.

 In 2014, the SSAF, part of the Student Services and Amenities Bill 2011, imposes a mandatory $140.50 fee on full-time students in order to fund a wide range of student services, among them an expansion of funding to Arc. The fee was implemented in response to the decline in quality of campus life during the Howard era of voluntary student unionism, and is stridently opposed by the current Abbott government.

 The report ranks major Australian Universities according to how much various student organisations have influenced the allocation of SSAF funds. In this ranking, UNSW came in 3rd, behind USYD (1st) and the University of Melbourne (2nd).

 The criteria assessed were the percentage of student controlled services, the level of funding given to student organisations, how much support these organisations receive through staffing and honoraria, and how much involvement these organisations had in the decision making process to decide how funds were allocated.

 The survey rigorously assessed the quality of the consultation process itself. The results were singularly disappointing. Only 22% of leaders surveyed said they considered the consultation process their University undertook an example of “best practice”, a drop from 38% in 2012, while the percentage who described the quality of the negotiations as ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ dropped from 68% in 2012 to 63% in 2013. These results, two years on from the initial SSAF roll-out, call into question earlier excuses that the rushed implementation of the SSAF in 2012 was the reason for the rushed, disordered negotiating process that year.

 Providing transparency to the consultation process was the original impetus for NUS’s scrutiny, exemplified by its 2012 ‘Student Money for Students’ campaign. Though NUS was greatly supportive of the Bill—according to NUS National President Deanna Taylor, it has either ‘improved’ or ‘dramatically improved’ funding for 75% of student organisations’–it takes issue with the fact that the legislation included no explicit requirement for universities to negotiate with student organisations over the quantum of funds allocated by the SSAF.

 A structural factor that might help to explain UNSW’s relative standing in the rankings compared to USYD is its significant lack of direct student control and ownership of services, such as retail outlets. While Arc owns the Roundhouse and Whitehouse among an array of privately owned campus food outlets, the University of Sydney Union owns and operates the majority of USYD food outlets. It is due to structural factors like university ownership of student services and the total proportion of SSAF funds allocated to Arc that Arc simply cannot wield the same level of influence as other student organisations, according to the NUS report.

  According to the 2012 NUS SSAF implementation report, a gradual decline in student control of services has been occurring for decades, with the Dawkins era campus mergers identified as the turning point. This was around the time Universities began to conglomerate and the public began to see the primary utility of Universities as research and development hubs to stimulate the “knowledge economy”.

 This structural shift was accompanied by a new, sleeker look for universities—large scale privatisation of services, commercial ventures embarked upon by Universities that according to the 2012 NUS SSAF report, took “potentially lucrative commercial operations out of the hands of student organisations”. The privatisation of services has left student organisations marginalised and forced to scale back their demands considerably in negotiations with the Universities.

 The lack of student controlled students services arguably accounts for one of the least flattering statistics for UNSW in the report: the ratio of funds given to student organisations as a percentage of total SSAF revenue collected by the University. At 46%, UNSW student organisations received almost half the funding of USYD, with 82% of SSAF allocated funds going to its USU.

 The report shows that the imbalance in student ownership across Australian universities to be considerable.“Very few universities, notably Australian National University and University of Sydney, have retained the traditional model of student controlled student services.”

 The evidence of this shift is clear from trends in ‘student welfare initiatives’ over the last few years. The vast majority of allowances made by UNSW have come as part of the ‘retail rollout’ (Max Brenner, Subway, etc), strictly commercial initiatives intended as gestures of good faith from the University, despite a complete lack of subsidies to make these services more affordable for students.

 Arc has been working to amend this particular issue—it intends to conduct a SSAF survey towards the end of Semester 1 and present results from its 2012 and 2014 SSAF surveys, alongside recommendations from student leaders, to the University thereafter. But the lack of student ownership in services has taken an undeniable toll in the bargaining power relative to other major institutions.

 Matthew Bugden