Monday, 3 November 2008

Students' $250 fee for uni services

UNIVERSITY students face new compulsory fees of up to $250 a year to fund campus activities such as debating clubs, counselling services and student newspapers.

But universities will have to offer HECS-style loans to help students pay the fees, and the money will go to university administrators, not directly to elected student unions.

Youth Minister Kate Ellis announced the moves late last night, saying the Howard government had stripped at least $170million out of the universities by imposing voluntary student unionism on services.

Ms Ellis said the move had slashed services and that the new services and amenities charge would help repair the damage.

The Howard government's move to scrap compulsory unionism was one of the most ideologically charged decisions of its final term in office, with critics claiming it was an attempt to destroy student unions, which had long acted as training grounds for aspiring politicians.

Under Ms Ellis's plan, universities will be able to opt to charge a fee capped at $250 which must apply equally to all students at the institution.

The money will be handled by the universities, and membership of student unions will continue to be voluntary.

Ms Ellis said she would consult with universities about what amenities and services the fee could be used to provide.

But she produced a list including food and beverage subsidies, meeting rooms, counselling, childcare, legal and employment services, health services, libraries and reading rooms, and student newspapers.

"Driven by ideological obsession, the previous Liberal government went too far, and students have been paying the price ever since the implementation of VSU in 2006," Ms Ellis said in a statement yesterday.

She insisted the change did not represent a return to compulsory student unionism, but the National Union of Students said the money raised from fees should be passed to the unions to spend on student services.

NUS president Angus McFarland said he was delighted with the change but was concerned about the place student unions would have in the reform plan.

"Student organisations are well-placed to provide these services," Mr McFarland said.

"You can't have taxation without representation."

Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis said voluntary student unionism had cost the university about $5million a year.

"The university experience is broader than just that received in the classroom," Professor Davis said yesterday.

"Today's universities provide services around housing, part-time and permanent employment, counselling, health, financial aid, childcare and academic support. But they also provide sporting facilities and access to a wide range of clubs and societies to allow students to gain a range of additional skills and competencies."

Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations president Nigel Palmer welcomed the news, saying it was recognition that services were part of university life.

"If students are paying, they need to have a direct say in how their money is being spent," Mr Palmer said.

Sector umbrella group Universities Australia said the funding boost was timely, given that university investment income was tumbling.

But UA said it was disappointed the funding was coming entirely from students instead of the Government providing some base funding.

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