ON October 11, a law was passed through both houses of parliament establishing the student services amenities fee. This will add a $263 fee to study at Australian universities. The money will go to fund campus services and culture. All university students, including international students, will have to pay it from next year.
In the big scheme of things, where domestic students can owe thousands on their HECS and international students pay far more than that, this is a small fee. But it has provoked heated debate in parliament and on university campuses.
To understand why, you need to go back a few years.
Before 2006, all Australian university students had to join their student union, and pay a membership fee to do so. These fees were generally several hundred dollars a year. The unions would then run subsidised food outlets on campus, employ counsellors and advisors for students, fund student clubs and activities, and pay union office bearers and provide budgets for political organising through student representative councils.
It was this last function that aroused the most anger. Conservative politicians and students felt it was not fair to pay to fund political activities they did not necessarily agree with, and lobbied for the law to be changed on freedom of association grounds. ‘Everyone should have a choice as to whether or not to join the union’, the argument went. In 2006, the Howard Government introduced ‘voluntary student unionism’, which meant students now had to choose whether or not to join their student unions.
Opponents of the change said campus life would die if the law was passed. Unions would collapse or rapidly decrease in size, meaning they would have to cut or stop providing many of the campus services they offered.
The law was passed. Starting from Semester 2 2006, students did not have to pay a fee to join their union.
In 2007, the Rudd Labor government came into power. It had opposed voluntary student unionism when in opposition, and quickly set up a review to assess what had been its effect.
In August 2008, the review was released. It found that many regional and smaller universities had experienced a rapid decline in campus life and student support services since the introduction of voluntary student unionism.
So the government proposed a new solution. It would require students to pay a fee for campus services, separate from tuition fees, but the money would go not to student unions, but to universities. Local students would be able to defer the payment through their HECS debt, while international students had to pay upfront.
Given the history of such fees, the Liberal Party has opposed this. It says students shouldn’t pay for services and activities they may not use. It also says the fee is unfair to part-time and external students, who still have to pay the full amount even though they rarely spend time on campus.
But advocates of the bill, such as the National Union of Students, say the bill is necessary to ensure students receive the support services they need and the opportunities to participate in a full university experience. However, they say they think some or most of the money should go to democratically elected student unions to spend, not to universities.
What do you think of the student services amenities fee? Do you think your campus life could use a boost? Or would you rather save the money?