Various sources are reporting1) that Australian Federal Youth Minister, Kate Ellis, plans to allow universities to charge students up to $250 per annum for student services. Interestingly, the money will apparently not go directly to unions – meaning that this is not a rollback of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU). Universities will be directly responsible to ensure that the money is well spent, although universities still fund the student unions directly.
This issue is a difficult one.Universities (and student unions) provide important facilities and services that are extremely useful to a portion of university students. Student support services, health, counseling, childcare, and social and recreational clubs provide much needed assistance to students in Australia. There is significant debate, however, as to where the money for these services should come from. On one hand, $250 a year is a large burden to some students, and there is an argument that the burden should be spread over all taxpayers and that the Federal Government should make more money available to universities. On the other hand, some students choose not to avail themselves of student services, and believe that they should not be liable for services provided to others.
I think of these two arguments, the first is much more powerful. There is a significant danger that extra fees place some students in considerable financial hardship. Providing increased support for students in difficult financial positions goes a long way towards alleviating systemic social divides. The other argument, that students should not be forced to pay more than anyone else for services they don't use, overlooks the fact that the services are there if they should ever need them. Yes, there is an argument that if the services are deemed important, they should be funded by the whole taxpayer base. But there is also an argument that proportionally more of the burden should be carried by those who would be entitled to use the services, even if they choose not to. I'd like to see some data which showed what proportion of those students who would choose not to support these services do end up using them – whether or not they act as some kind of enforced safety net?
I think, overall, this is probably a good move. Requiring the universities to be directly accountable for the incoming funds goes some way to alleviating the criticisms that student union fees are squandered. The services provided by universities, above and beyond teaching an learning, are important for a significant proportion of students, and provide a much needed support system for students who need them but would not be able to afford them in an open market – childcare, counseling, and health are all a huge financial burden on full time students, and there is a good argument that the costs of these services ought to be shared amongst either other students or taxpayers. Now, here's the kicker. Should the burden be shared amongst all taxpayers, or should more of the support come from other students? I'm a bit ambivalent here, but tend to think that the ability to access these services, even if one chooses not to, justifies imposing a greater proportion of the costs on other students.