Student unions under Labor

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This year the Gillard Government introduced the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF). This fee is compulsorily charged to students attending university and ranges from $100 to $270 per year, depending on your enrolment. This fee has been posed by the ALP as a reintroduction of compulsory student union fees however this is not the case. There is no guarantee that any of this fee is paid to student unions, and there are strict conditions as to what the money can be spent on.

During the Howard years, compulsory union fees were scrapped by implementing Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU). The motivation of this was to weaken the students unions and reduce their influence. This had the desired effect as without adequate funds student unions have been severely limited. While there was mass opposition to VSU at the time of implementation, unfortunately the campaign was defeated and the policy was legislated.

The ALP claimed to oppose VSU and promised to reintroduce compulsory student union fees when they got into power. Instead, after 5 years in power, they introduced the SSAF as a substitution for compulsory student union fees. Not only is there no guarantee that any of this money gets to student unions but there a condition attached says that any funds that are handed over by the administration can not be used for political reasons, for example to campaign against high fees.

Monash University, for instance has told students that this fee “does not confer membership of any organisation of students, but is charged to provide for legislatively sanctioned items”. In the case of Monash 40% of the fee goes to the student union but it is only to be spent on a list of allocated services.

The services which the fee can be spent on are things such as sporting equipment and facilities, food for students, providing libraries and reading rooms, accommodation and career advice. These are things that the university should be providing to students already. What the ALP has introduced really continues the ‘user pays’ system on campus whereby anything extra to lectures and tutorials are paid for by the students.

Students already spend tens of thousands of dollars on university fees putting many in debt for years on end. At the same time students are working more hours than ever as they struggle to pay for things like books, stationary and the general cost of living. What students need more than ever is real fighting student unions that campaign in their interests for better facilities and a return to free education.

In order for unions to be able to fight for these things they need to be properly funded. The problem with the SSAF is not simply the cost of the fee, but the fact that it is not controlled by the student unions themselves. Students should be able to exercise full control over their own affairs. Their unions, not the university administration, should democratically decide the level of the fee and how that money is spent.

The SSAF is really just another way to ensure that student unions are kept in check by exploitative university administrations. Therefore the fight for genuine independent political representation on campus must continue.

By Socialist Party reporters