Sometimes the cost of ideological purist positions distresses me.
We used to have compulsory fees at the University of New England for Union membership. There were also compulsory fees for the Students' Representative Council and the Sport's Union. External students had to pay fees, but at a much reduced rate given that they came to Armidale only for external schools.
The Union itself was not just a student body, but open to all. It was a key hub of campus life. The Union provided services, various types of entertainment, meeting rooms and small subsidies to university student societies. The net result was a vibrant place.
Today it is a much diminished body to the point that it has become almost an embarrassment to the University. In saying this, I am not being critical of those in charge, simply commenting on the outcome.
There are a range of practical problems involved on delivering services such as food on a campus like UNE's.
The on-campus student body is not huge. Further, many of the students live in residence and have the option of eating elsewhere. During holidays, the campus goes very quiet, unless an external school is on. Then you get a demand peak.
Costs of delivering services have increased because of various regulatory imposed requirements. Then, too, customer requirements have changed. People expect more.
All this creates a difficult management problem. The Union used to have a stable cash flow from fees that allowed it to provide a core minimum level of service. During holiday periods, a loss was incurred. During very busy periods, service could be expanded from the base. It is now much more difficult.
I am not close enough now to be sure of all my facts, but the outcome appears to be something like this.
The more up-market dining area at nearby Bool for those who can pay is doing well because the campus is big enough to support it. The food and indeed general services at the main Union itself have declined. As they have, the incentive for people to go there has declined, reinforcing the problem.
I said that this had become almost an embarrassment to the University.
Students and especially external students are now complaining about poor service and lack of facilities. They are doing so privately and in letters to the local papers. These complaints are especially pronounced from students who have known the Union in the past, but are broader than that. The net effect is damage to the University.
I can see no easy solution in the absence of the re-introduction of compulsory student fees, The University's ability to find services from normal student tuition fees is severely limited.
In terms of economics, we have an externalities and a free rider problem.
With compulsory membership, the payments made by one benefit all. An individual may not get a benefit directly linked to cash paid, but students as a whole benefit. In a voluntary environment, there is no incentive to pay since the student expects to get the core benefits anyway. However, once a sufficient number of students adopt this position, the benefits vanish.
I started this post by saying that sometimes the cost of ideological purist positions distresses me.
I really don't care about all the consumer choice and market arguments advanced to support the original Howard Government stance. I only care that a University that I love has been weakened as a consequence to the cost of its students.