As political commentators and the Twitter mob rage over the Morrison government’s rearrangement of higher education contributions, discussion is being drawn away from a perhaps more obvious injustice: the highly unpopular Student Services and Amenities Fees.
It has been 15 years now since the Howard Government abolished compulsory student unionism on the premise that countless students were paying for services that they either did not receive or was contrary to their interests. In the time of COVID-19, and now approaching the ninth year since the Gillard government’s reintroduction of a supposedly new, apolitical amenities fee, the SSAF forces student to do just that: forking out cash, typically upfront, for a service that they have not been using.
Almost every domestic student is expected to pay around $300 for services and amenities that they have not used this year. $300 for the 60 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds who have lost their jobs, had their hours cut or had their salary reduced this year is no small sum. $300 for any university student is no small sum.
How could we expect students to pay this absurd amount when over this time, there have not been any barbecues, sports events, club meetings or many, if not most, of what falls under the supposedly apolitical list of services that the SSAF funds?
Leaving aside the debate on whether or not the distribution of SSAF money and its impacts on students and institutions are entirely squeaky clean and justified, there is a larger problem: universities have essentially robbed students of both their money and of their voice. The latter of these two elements is perhaps better understood by understanding where the bulk of the SSAF money flows: into student unions who are almost entirely dependent on such funding. Their involvement as a stakeholder has largely led to silence from many higher education institutions. What’s worse is that in universities such as my own, Monash University, only domestic students are expected to bear the grunt of the SSAF despite the fact that all students theoretically use similar services and amenities.
For any sensible person, this is an injustice which must not go unrectified. The next question that we must ask is what should we do about it now? Simply, we only need to look at what certain institutions have already done to address this problem; and contrary to popular belief, there are a few noble institutions that have tried to address the direct economic grief of the Student Services and Amenities Fee. Deakin University has switched to a substantially lower online student fee and La Trobe University has waived the fee altogether. In the instance of La Trobe, for those who have already paid the fee, the university has set up online infrastructure to facilitate the quick and easy refund of the SSAF. Indeed, a few smaller, regionally-based universities have followed suit.
If this has shown us anything, it is that practical and immediate change is possible. Therefore, we must seriously and comprehensively explore this issue with an immediate aim to encourage compensation of Australian university students; whether it be through institutions being mandated to provide a rebate or through some other means.
Paying for nothing is not just what the economists would call a bad investment, but nonsensical. The SSAF was always dubious policy. Now it is simply unjust.
Peumike Dissanayake is a medical student at Monash University and a campus coordinator at the Institute of Public Affairs. He has a particular interest in public policy, health, philosophy and economics.