Clash over funding for student services and amenities

Friday, 27 November, 2015

Student unions and legislators have clashed over proposed changes to the funding of student services, clubs and societies, with a proposed motion defeated.

The Senate considered a private member’s motion from Independent Senator John Madigan which would abolish the Student Services and Amenities Fee. The motion was supported by Senators Deo Wang (PUP), Bob Day (Family First) and David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrats).

It was defeated by a 35-6 margin, with the four crossbenchers being joined by Liberals Cory Bernadi and Eric Abetz. Labor, the Greens and the Nationals voted against, with the Liberals abstaining.

While the vast majority of Liberals are opposed to the SSAF, it is unclear what actions they will take on it, especially following the Nationals’ support for it.

The SSAF is a compulsory fee of approximately $286 per student per year, which each university uses to fund various campus welfare and assistance measures such as student services and counselling, campus facilities and co-curricular activities. The fee can be paid upfront or added to a student’s HELP debt.

If abolished, it would repeal a compulsory student payment of $286 per year, which proponents of abolition argue would save students money and allow them greater choice with their limited income. However, opponents of the bill argue that in order for universities to adequately support their students and enrich their academic experience, the funding from the SSAF is vital.

The SSAF at Unimelb

At the University of Melbourne, the SSAF funds are distributed to the Student Union, Melbourne University SportThe Graduate Student AssociationAdvocacyChildcare and University Services, all of which provide various welfare, support and recreational services.

The University of Melbourne Student Union, for instance, provides students with a free legal and advocacy service, student clubs and societies, free weekly breakfasts, Wom*ns and Queer Spaces, the Disabilities Department, student theatre, the George Paton Art Gallery, Tuesday BBQ, Bands and Beverages and, you guessed it, Farrago.

The below diagram shows the distribution of SSAF funds by the University of Melbourne, with particular focus on UMSU funding distribution:


(Image courtesy of UMSU)

UMSU representatives have reacted adversely to the proposed bill, which would result in a substantial decrease in its available funds.

2016 UMSU Education Officer Tom Crowley has said, “Without the SSAF, clubs, societies and campus activities fall by the wayside, and students are cut out of the decisions that shape their education. This move against it is small-minded ideology and any claim that it is motivated by concern for students is disingenuous nonsense.”

Madigan’s move has been strongly supported by conservative political voices. Right-wing blog Menzies House has said, “For the most part, the SSAF is used to underwrite the profligacy and petty indulgences of student unions. At best they do a poor job of duplicating services usually already offered by the University administration and distribute funding to clubs through an unwieldy bureaucracy stacked out by third-rate hacks.”

But student politicians refute these claims of profligacy, and continue to espouse the virtues of student service funding. “The SSAF is a pre-requisite for vibrant student life,” says Tom Crowley. “It’s as simple as that.”

The history of SSAF

Prior to 2006, student unionism was compulsory and all students had to pay a union membership fee. The Howard government abolished that by introducing Voluntary Student Unionism, which vastly depleted the funds available to student unions to spend on student services. The University of Melbourne diverted some funds from its teaching and research budget to reduce the windfall, however student service funds remained significantly reduced.

The Gillard Government introduced the SSAF in 2011. Whilst compulsory student unionism was not reinstated, the SSAF ensures universities have an extra revenue source to fund student unions and other service providers.

The introduction of the SSAF saw an immediate uptake in student service provision. For instance, in 2011, UMSU budgeted $166,000 to fund its Clubs and Societies, which rose to over $367,000 in 2012. Since the introduction of the SSAF, UMSU has affiliated over 75 new clubs, bringing the total number of affiliated clubs to over 200.

The idea of centrally funded unionism still causes controversy among the political class however, many of whom began their political careers in student politics debating issues such as student service provision.

For instance, Senator McGrath of the Coalition said in March this year, “The SSAF is a Labor-Greens Trojan Horse on the way to compulsory student unionism… While SSAF exists, students neither have freedom nor liberty.”

Attempts to repeal the SSAF have traditionally been based on notions of freedom of association, with the Coalition arguing that the SSAF amounts to a compulsory contribution to groups that students may not support, whereas Labor and the Greens firmly back the SSAF as a means of providing student support.