By Emma Partis
Over the last few weeks there has been a lot of talk about SSAF fees. Where does the money go? Can we reduce SSAF during lockdown? Is it possible to change how it’s spent? Emma investigates SSAF to find out where your one-hundred-dollar termly payment can go.
Let’s start from the beginning: What is SSAF?
You probably recognize SSAF (Student Services and Amenities Fee) as that pesky fee you have to pay at the beginning of every trimester, but you may not have spared much thought about what it’s for.
SSAF funds a variety of services and amenities for students – health services, development of student spaces, subsidised childcare, concerts, career services, sporting activities and other free services and events that enrich the overall student experience. It is also the primary funding source for Arc, the student organisation under which societies, the SRC and other student-led initiatives operate.
The SSAF system is actually a government initiative. Implemented in 2011, it is a replacement for the voluntary student union fees that had once provided the services, events and amenities that students enjoyed as a part of campus life.
The new SSAF initiative gives universities the right to charge compulsory fees for campus services including student support, development, and campus life programs. This was seen as necessary to revitalise campus culture, after the Howard Government’s Voluntary Student Unionism legislation gutted union funding, and thus campus culture and the overall student experience.
Because SSAF is a government initiative, it is vulnerable to being dismantled at the government’s discretion and has previously been under attack by certain Liberal politicians.
Who manages the SSAF funds?
Now you have a basic understanding of the main purpose of SSAF, you may wonder – who exactly controls the SSAF funding?
The key difference between union dues of the past and the current SSAF system is that SSAF goes directly to the university, who has no real obligation to pass the funding to their student organisation.
As of 2019, UNSW created the SSAF management committee to liaise with student groups and other stakeholders, to decide what SSAF should be spent on. According to the SSAF page, the committee seeks to, “consult with the democratically elected student representatives, major student organisations and relevant UNSW officers,” in order to establish priority spending areas in a given year.
The SSAF management committee consults closely with the student body, and our SRC representatives sit in on meetings to have a say in how SSAF funds are spent on a given year.
So, how much SSAF funding does Arc actually get, and can the Arc Board approve funding on any project they like?
If you delve into the financial reports of SSAF and Arc, this question becomes a little more difficult to answer.
According to the SSAF 2020 expenditure table, a total of $5.184 million went to Arc out of the $17 million spent that year, not including funds used to support Arc in providing leases to student groups.
However, when you look at the 2020 Arc Annual Report, you may be confused to see that there is no mention of SSAF in their cash flow statement or their revenue statement. Interestingly, you can find a cash flow of approximately $5.162 million labeled “Receipts from UNSW service agreement.”
So, why isn’t SSAF mentioned in the Arc Annual Report? What is the UNSW service agreement? We reached out to a representative at Arc, who broke it down for us.
Arc has a contract with UNSW that stipulates the university must pay Arc a certain sum of money each year under the “UNSW Service Agreement.” This agreement is renewed every few years, the first of which was negotiated in 2011 to be a “five-year funding agreement of $3.2M per annum,” according to the 2011 Arc Annual Report. The current agreement, negotiated in 2017, will last until 2025. In the above SSAF Expenditure Table, the associated payment can be seen in the line “Arc – support fund general.” We understand these funds to be allocated from SSAF to Arc to support Arc in its mission “to create the best student experience” and fulfil the priorities outlined in the Arc Strategic Plan.
While it is clear this money does come from SSAF, it is not explicitly labeled as SSAF in Arc’s income statement. This is because Arc would still be entitled to these funds even if the government decided to dismantle the SSAF system. Despite this technicality, the funding can still be considered SSAF funding for all intents and purposes – the fact that it isn’t referred to as SSAF in Arc’s report is simply an extra precaution to safeguard their funding.
This service agreement does not determine what Arc can or cannot spend these funds on – it simply ensures that UNSW has a legal obligation to pay Arc the stipulated amount for as long as the contract lasts, no matter whether or not the SSAF system remains in place.
In 2020, Arc also received approximately $800 000 from a retail buyout they negotiated with UNSW in 2011. These funds also were drawn from SSAF.
As stated in the 2011 Arc Annual Report, “UNSW approached Arc with an offer to buy out the leases in the retail outlets Arc was operating on campus.” The deal resulted in Arc receiving $3 million dollars in 2012, as well as an additional $8 million from UNSW “over the ensuing nine years.” Arc receives this funding in addition to the service agreement with UNSW.
But why does the SSAF page only state that Arc receives a grant of $250 000 from SSAF each year? Upon consulting with Arc, we found that this is simply additional funding Arc receives from SSAF, on top of the funds reserved for them under the service agreement.
This grant is given to Arc each year to fund specific projects that adhere to SSAF guidelines. Unlike the service agreement funding, Arc is not guaranteed to receive this funding and must apply for the grant on a yearly basis. It is up to the discretion of the SSAF management committee to approve Arc’s bid, based on the projects and initiatives Arc proposes to implement with the funding. This is why, on the SSAF page at the bottom of the “SSAF Management Committee and Governance” section, it is stated that the Committee “endorsed Arc’s $250k 2021 expenditure budget.”
In short, Arc receives approximately $4-5 million from SSAF each year, which is spent on agreed services, events, programs and opportunities for students. The Arc budget is approved annually by the Arc Board of Directors.