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Sausage roll anyone? How about an axe?

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Thursday 17 March 2005

Sarah Davies, Vice-President, Student Affairs, Swinburne University of Technology


Sausage Roll Anyone? How about an axe?  


There is no doubt that Dr Brendan Nelson has left an indelible mark on Australia’s higher education sector. His latest Bill, introduced into Parliament yesterday, will leave a damaging mark and is a severe disappointment to everyone working to enhance students’ experiences at our universities.  


Unfortunately for the university sector, Nelson has confused two separate issues - that of the general-service fee which is levied on students at all universities and compulsory student unionism. 


Nelson seems to flippantly believe this issue is about subsidising sausage rolls and the purchase of axes to dismantle Chancellery offices. It is not. It is about the capacity for universities to engage in professional and well managed business relationships between professional organisations providing essential student and campus services.  


There are other models and options which I think would give the Minister the outcomes he and the Cabinet are looking for, but without jeopardising current service levels for students. However, with the Bill in its current format, we may have lost the opportunity to look at better ways of achieving this. 


In Victoria, we already have voluntary student union membership (VSU). It's stipulated in each University's Act (State Acts). These Acts also outline how the general service fee (GSF) charged to students should be spent - that is for the direct benefit of all students. No GSF can be spent on Student Union political activities. 


At Swinburne, 60% of the GSF collected is passed to the Student Union; 20% to the Sports Association, 10% to the University itself and 10% to an amenities fund which pays for physical infrastructure and student facilities. 


The Student Union and Sports Association (separate legal entities) have to submit annual business plans on how they propose they spend their GSF funds, and these plans are approved by the University according to agreed priorities. They also have to provide annual audited reports certifying that the GSF has been spent according to the agreed plan and in compliance with the Act. 


The reason the GSF is passed to these organisations is not because they are political student organisations. It is because they operate a range of critical professional and advocacy services for students. They employ professional staff who work with the University representing students and providing services and programs directly for students (for example independent student advocacy; student orientation and mentoring programs; recreational, club, society and sporting activities). 


Nor are these just on-campus services and activities. In 2005 a significant proportion of the Swinburne general service fee is being used to enhance and develop on-line support services for students, wherever they may be studying and whenever they may need them. We know student needs are changing and are constantly assessing the menu of services and programs available to ensure they are relevant and meet real needs. 


How we operate at Swinburne is only one model and there are many others. The fact the each University funds different activities out of their respective general service fees illustrates that we are responding individually to the needs of our particular student groups. Isn’t this part of the diversity mix which the Minister and Federal government are pushing so hard? 


What Minister Nelson has put forward in his Bill confuses and mixes up a range of issues which are not inter-dependant, and as a result, will damage and diminish higher education student experiences. We have also been denied an evaluation of all the options and a real debate about what is best for Australia’s future, through the future of higher education students. 


Universities are not allowed to charge students for these services outside of the GSF. The Federal Higher Education Support Act 2003 is very clear that we can only charge for goods and services which are essential to the course of study. Make no mistake, if this Bill proceeds unchanged, these services will go. The losers will be the students. 


The Higher Education sector was prepared for this discussion to be put on the table. We were looking forward to a consultation process and the opportunity to put forward our proposals and ideas. Swinburne set up a working party to look at these issues and prepare recommendations to Nelson. The Bill is now in Parliament, our time has gone, and so too it would seem has the students’ right to critical services and activities.  


Guests on this program:

Sarah Davies  

Vice President 

Student Affairs 

Swinburne University of Technology