By JR on Sunday, October 16, 2011
The Howard government’s abolition of compulsory student unionism was a victory for fairness and efficiency. Until then, Australia’s university students – even part-time and remote students – had been forced to pay hundreds of dollars a year for campus services they didn’t use and to bankroll student activists and clubs they didn’t care for.
When the imposition ended in 2006, students had an extra $200 million a year to spend, money they could use on whatever goods or services they wanted, on or off the university campus.
This week the federal Parliament passed legislation to introduce compulsory student amenity and service fees up to $250 per student. Fees will now be administered by universities rather than student unions. And the government will be able to lend needy students the money to pay the fee.
Regardless, these compulsory fees still have no economic or social justification. For a start, Australian universities thrived after 2006. Enrolments grew, and Australian universities hold their own in the 2011 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Every student studying for a degree will be forced to subsidise other students and unaccountable university officials.
And the 19 purposes for which fees can still be used make the attempt to keep funds away from student unions seem laughable. Section 19-38 permits universities to spend the fees to ‘support the administration of a club most of whose members are students’; support ‘debating’ and ‘artistic activity’ by students; and give ‘students information to help them in their orientation.’ Assuming the latter is not sexual counsel, students should be able to read a campus map without guidance.
Ideally, universities should be free to set their own fees and educational standards.
With such fees, they might freely choose to subsidise certain on-campus activities. But hard-headed university managers are unlikely to approve. Why would a university, an institution of teaching and research, devote students’ valuable fees to services and goods that can be provided on or off campus more efficiently and effectively by businesses?
A discrete ‘compulsory service and amenity’ fee smacks of token socialism.
University students should not be treated differently from other students, or workers for that matter. The latter are certainly not forced to contribute to a common fund for common services regardless of whether they use them.
Proponents might say the compulsory student fee functions just like a tax, and nobody is suggesting we ban all taxes. That’s true, no one is – but universities have no right to levy taxes.