Cash for no comment: Labor's new student fee

By Clare Middlemas

Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) was introduced by the Howard Coalition government in 2006, the same year as the introduction of the Work Choices legislation, aimed at crippling trade unions. VSU made membership of a student union voluntary and due to a severe decrease in funding, the result was the closure or reduction of many essential campus services around the country. This was not the aim of VSU however. It was specifically aimed at silencing the student opposition to the government’s attacks on university funding.

Last November 3, federal Labor youth minister Kate Ellis, after a protracted period of consultation with various stakeholders, unveiled the ALP’s plan for restoring campus services. From July 1 this year, universities will be allowed to set a compulsory fee, capped at a maximum of $250 with indexation each year, to help rebuild essential student amenities and student services, as prescribed by the government.

On campuses where the student organisation is a provider of any or all of the prescribed services, the intention appears to be that the university will disperse all or part of the monies to the student organisation. The fees from the student levy can only be used for the provision of the prescribed services, however, and not for political campaigns, for instance.

While most student union activists have been cautiously optimistic about the Rudd Labor government’s announcements that it will direct funding to student services, many problems with Labor’s plan have become apparent. The first is that the fee can only be used for student services, as prescribed by the federal government. Ellis is insistent that the government is not returning to universal student unionism, where student associations could decide to spend their money on whatever they liked — including political campaigns against government policies. Last November, Ellis stated “we’re also going to be clear on what the money cannot be spent on, and it cannot be spent on broader political campaigns”.

The second problem is the student fee will go directly to university administrations to disperse as they see fit. However, universities and their student unions do not always agree on what’s best for students. In this situation, a university could potentially choose to withhold the funds from the student union so as to blackmail it into accepting the university’s position.

An example of this is the current tension between the administration and Student Guild at Murdoch University in Western Australia. In mid-November, these tensions gained national media coverage, when Murdoch University chancellor Terry Budge, former CEO of Bankwest, sent a letter to the guild president outlining the issues he had with the “attacks against university management and negative campaigns” run by the guild in 2008. He was referring to guild campaigns for information and consultation on the significant restructure occurring at the university, the guild’s campaign against the job cuts, its comparisons between the income of the vice-chancellor (approaching $800,000) and Murdoch’s staff salaries, which are the lowest of all universities in WA, and the guild’s campaign to save Murdoch’s small Rockingham regional campus.

Budge made a thinly veiled threat: “The [university] Senate is very aware of the considerable support currently provided to the Guild by the University. These considerations are particularly pertinent in an environment where, per recent Federal government announcements, the University may expect to begin collecting fees from students for directing towards Murdoch students services needs, and to begin planning on the most appropriate ways for administering these funds for the best return to the broader Murdoch University student community.” He also questioned “whether … continued conduct such as that outlined above is consistent with an expectation that the University’s financial and in-kind support will also continue”.

This situation is the first documented example confirming the fears of many student union leaders that hostile university administrations will be willing and able to use the student levy against “troublesome” student organisations. The irony is not lost on student leaders, who recognise that the federal government’s student services levy is not to be used by students for “political” purposes, but this student money may be used by university management for “political” purposes — to coerce students into toeing their line on university administration.

While student services are in desperate need of funding, Labor’s services fee does not even begin to address the real damage done by the Coalition’s VSU — the silencing of the representative student voice. VSU has meant that there has been a lack of, or even an end to, funding for student representation of oppressed and marginalised groups, such as the women’s, queer and Indigenous student collectives. Student organisations traditionally provide safe spaces and resources for each of these groups to organise on campus. Under the federal government’s fee plan, student organisations will not be able to use this student money to provide support for these groups or their campaigns. Nor will student unions be able to use the money raised by the services fee to support student campaigns against HECS, to raise youth allowance, or any other campaign protesting government policies.

Student unions are democratic organisations, and should be free to spend the money that is raised from students on whatever their members deem important and necessary, which may or may not be political campaigns against the government or the university.

If student organisations do not receive the student levy, then it begs the question: In what way is this student services fee different from a HECS increase? If students are to really benefit from any government reform, then the student levy needs to go directly to student organisations (or to resurrecting those decimated under VSU), so that elected student representatives can decide what this money is spent on. If this does not happen, then the outcome may be that student unions are in a worse state than they are currently, with the more radical unions being blackmailed and hamstrung by hostile university administrations.

The student rights activists need to mount a cohesive and vocal campaign against the government’s services fee as it currently stands, raising the demand “Student control of student affairs”. This means that student unions have a right to be funded by students and to be free to manage their own funds, independent of university and government control.

[Clare Middlemas was the 2008 Murdoch University Student Guild president.]