Another Saturday morning, this time wet. I got a good night's sleep last night, I don't always, so my brain is a little clearer than normal.
Saturday morning tends to be a good time for me simply because there is less pressure. During the week I am always thinking of the other things that I have to do, while on Saturday mornings the vast expanse of the week end still stretches before me.
I know that this is illusory, the weekends are busy too and always end far too quickly, but the illusion is still helpful.
There was discussion during the week in the newspapers on the impact of the abolition of compulsory student union fees. For the benefit of international readers, these fees were charged for things such as membership of unions, sports unions, Student Representative Councils. The Howard Government argued that these fees should be a matter of choice and were, in any event, spent in part on things that did not really benefit students.
Neil carried the story on Lines from a Floating Life, so I did not feel the need to say anything. However, in comments on Neil's post, Thomas from Deus Lo Vult has argued strongly in favour of the changes. Thomas is a student at Sydney University. He detailed the previous break-up of fees for services that he never used, putting a dollar value on the savings to him from the Government's decision.
The Government's original decision was ideological. Their formal argument lay in freedom of choice for students like Thomas. In the words of Minister Bishop quoted in Neil's post: The challenge for student unions is to attract student support by being relevant and efficient.
Regardless of Minister Bishop's words, the outcome from the abolition of student fees - a decline in services, a skewing of the playing field against smaller and poorer universities, a further change in the texture of the university life - was always inevitable. To understand this, we need to look at the economics of student services.
Individual students always benefited from the various services at different levels and in different ways. Further, some of those benefits - the broader contribution to the texture of university life - were simply collective and unquantifiable.
In abolishing fees, the Howard Government did three things. It stopped certain services entirely. It limited the capacity of universities to step in with replacement funding. And it forced all students to focus on the narrow equation of costs versus the benefits of specific services.
The last is very important. Student cash is very tight, so the cost/benefit equation in a voluntary system comes back to some very tight judgements indeed. In Thomas's cases, he concluded that fees were not worthwhile and opted out.
As students like Thomas did so, revenue fell. This had a number of effects.
The fixed costs associated with service delivery remained the same, but now had to be supported by a smaller business base. In some cases, services stopped. In other cases such as food and beverage, prices had to be rebalanced, increased. So students paid more for the same service.
In still other cases, university bodies were able to look outside the university itself for revenue. My youngest is one of many playing sport for the University of NSW; we pay a reasonably hefty fee for this. In all cases, universities had to make judgements about the extent to which, within fairly arbitrary Government rules, they would now pay for some services, in so doing transferring funds from other university activities.
These effects have had quite differential impacts within and between universities.
To begin with, the changes affected smaller universities more than big ones. The big universities had greater economies of scale in service delivery anyway. They also had more cash in absolute terms to subsidise or pay for continued services. Most also have larger population catchments in their immediate areas, making it a little easier to find new markets for specific services.
The impact has also, and I think this is little recognised, been greater on poor students than on wealthy ones. Yes, the compulsory fees themselves had a greater impact on poor students, but the story goes well beyond this.
Wealthy students can afford to buy things, including services. I have not checked this, but I suspect that one would find the greatest drop in membership in student bodies in those universities with larger cohorts of poorer students, making it harder to maintain services.
Those poorer students who do wish to access services or particular activities are now paying more. Further, and this is another judgment, I also suspect that the various now abolished welfare services were most accessed by poorer students.
Finally, the impact has been far greater on regional universities and on the communities that surround them.
These universities are generally smaller and have less funds, their student cohorts are generally poorer, their student bodies have less access to alternative market places, the student services provided are more important to the very texture of life not just on campus but in the community.
These are the places that have been hurt most, notwithstanding bridging funding forced by the Nationals. It is not just money. I find it interesting that a number of those who opposed the change - Tony Windsor (Independent, New England), Barnaby Joyce (National Senator, Queensland) and for that matter me - are all people who experienced and valued the intensity of student life at the University of New England.
I have spent more time than I intended on the student union issue, but it is important to me. As a simple example as to why, have a look at this post. This was an activity funded out of compulsory fees, one enjoyed by thousands of students.
Turning to other matters, but briefly because I am out of time.
One of the issues of the week for me proved to be gay marriages. Now this - gay issues - is territory I normally do not venture into. I am not gay, far from it, and did not intend to go this route since I was just using this as an example to illustrate some broader points. So in all I felt a bit uncomfortable. However, I think that the discussion generated was useful, so will put up a reference post at some point.
Another issue, really a theme, lay in the role of the state and the relations between state and the individual. Looking back, I have written a lot on this because these are issues that both interest and worry me. Again, I will put up a reference post so that readers can follow up should they be interested.
It is now 9.50am. I am well out of the time window I allowed for this post, so will stop here.