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Universities win right to collect student services fee

The new bill goes some way to reversing Voluntary Student Unionism rules introduced in 2006. Flickr/publik15

Universities and the National Union of Students have welcomed the passage of a bill giving universities the right to collect fees for campus services but the law prohibits students using the money for political activity.

Under the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill passed by the Senate yesterday, universities can charge a fee of up to $263 per student in 2012 and use the money to pay for services such as sports facilities, career or financial advice, child care and food services.

The fee, expected to provide universities with more than $250 million over four years, will be charged under a HECS-style system allowing students to defer payment of the fee until they are earning a decent income.

“Students have a clear interest in how their fees are being spent. Universities will be required to consult with students on the specific uses of the proceeds from any services and amenities fees,” said Minister for Tertiary Education, Senator Chris Evans, who added that the new fee would help regional campuses rebuild amenities.

Universities Australia, which represents all 39 universities in Australia, described the passage of the bill as “a relief.”

“It will reinvigorate student life and enable universities to once again provide the fundamental services that help students to navigate university, achieve success in their studies, and participate in sport and the university community,” the group’s CEO, Dr Glenn Withers said.

“Voluntary Student Unionism was introduced in 2006 and since then it has been the students who have suffered rather than benefited. In order to provide essential student services and amenities such as legal support, health services, counsellors and sporting venues, our universities were forced to divert funds originally slated for research or teaching. This was simply not sustainable.”

No politics, please

The law goes some way to reversing Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) rules brought in by the previous coalition government, which took away the right for student unions to collect a mandatory fee to pay for campus activities, including political campaigns by student activists.

However, the new bill specifically outlaws fee revenue being used to support a political party and universal union membership will be prohibited.

Anti-VSU activists have argued that without the right to universal student union membership and well-funded student activism, student rights would be undermined and student-driven political campaigns on broader social issues like refugees or the environment would be weakened.

The National Union of Students said universities must consult meaningfully with students on how their money is spent.

“We understand the concerns government and the community had in wanting this fee to be spent in an appropriate way. We are happy for student organisations to work with universities to determine the best way to do that,” said NUS president Jesse Marshall.

“We would hope all universities would work with their student organisations to find the best blend of student services and advocacy.”

Mr Marshall said the ban “is quite rightly on student money going toward funding any political campaign.”

Professor Ian Young, Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University said he was very pleased the bill had passed.

“A high-quality educational experience for students requires a broad range of support services. The amenities fee will allow universities to, once again, provide such services,” he said.

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