Opinions on SSAF — Pro
Words by Ali Amin
Every year Young Liberals around the country run their “Axe the SSAF” campaign, a campaign designed to rip apart student unions, defund student clubs, destroy student representation and make sure even more student money is controlled by unelected and disconnected university bureaucrats. Many students may be asking what is SSAF, how is it connected to the student union, what the hell are you even talking about?
To answer this, we have to take a trip down memory lane. Around 20 years ago student unionism and campus culture across Australia was thriving. Every single student starting university was an automatic member of their student union (if the university body wanted so) and for a relatively meagre cost got a lively and active university community as well as access to an impressive suite of benefits. Students also had strong representative student bodies whose members represented them to government and served on academic/community
bodies and university committees of various kinds. While this still happens, student representatives no longer have the administrative support, resources
or clout needed to lead effective public campaigns or provide vice chancellors and governing councils with properly prepared and researched contributions on a regular basis.
It was only in 2007 when the HowardGovernment got full control of the Senate & House of Reps that a policy
to abolish universal student unionism could be legislated, not even something the Nationals supported (with rural & regional campuses disproportionately impacted with worse facilities and on- campus activity).
Student unions either collapsed or become a shadow of their former
self, with their income dropping from millions to tens of thousands in the span of a year. Ultimately it was the students who suffered. Services were closed, community initiatives defunded and many low cost outlets, like the Unibar, had to be sold to private vendors, veering university services towards for-profit businesses that took money off campus, instead of recycled straight back into money spent on the student body. Most drastically, Universities became less accountable as students bargaining power diminished.
Eventually the Howard Government came to an end which provided a new opportunity to reform the sector. The Student Services and Amenities Fee (“SSAF”) was introduced in 2012 under the Gillard government, which was a direct compromise to how it was run prior to 2007. The SSAF legislation introduced has many faults and did not fully recover the serious damage already caused to student wellbeing, satisfaction and retention, but it was pragmatic first step.
Instead of SSAF going straight to the student union, it is collected by powerful university administrators who would then negotiate to release some money to the student union, with the rest being spent on a specific set of guidelines by the university. The student perspective on what students wanted and needed most was given the opportunity to flourish again.
The $308 in SSAF you now pay is deferrable and can be put on your HECS so there doesn’t tend to be much concern as to its financial impact, especially when considering the benefits you get.
About $108 of the SSAF you pay (35% — which is relatively high compared to other student unions) goes to the Adelaide University Union with the rest being used or distributed as the University sees fit. Yet the Young Liberals campaign tends to be almost completely centred around SSAF expenses by student unions whose executive members are democratically elected, and not the fact that the overwhelming majority of SSAF around the country is controlled and expended by university bureaucrats.
The reality is this isn’t a campaign to ‘put more money in your hands’ as they claim, it is an ideological crusade to destroy student unions using SSAF as a cover. If successful, the end result will likely be further restrictions that will mean an army of university administrative staff control and direct even more of your money and a weaker student body that has completely capitulated to the whims of management.
Probably because some loser backbencher politicians want to relive their student politics glory days but largely because Liberals don’t believe in collectivism and they certainly do not want students to have the capacity
to mount effective campaigns against their party’s plans to fully deregulate universities and introduce $100,000 degrees. Student unions are an annoying nuisance that can get in the government’s way, so the simple solution is to destroy them. Who better to carry out this crusade than an army of affluent and naïve man children whose lawyer parents can represent them to the university if needed and who don’t need to use basic services because they’re already hyperconnected private school kids in paid community clubs and programs.
I’m not one to think that student unions or SSAF is perfect or that the Liberals don’t have some good points, but this campaign is flaccid, disingenuous and just isn’t representative of what the average student actually feels or thinks about it.
If you want SSAF to be relevant then it’s time to legislate a 50% SSAF minimum for student unions, it’s time for all sections of the university student body to vote as a single interested party, it’s time to decentralise power and money directly to student clubs and communities and it’s time to be on guard against unrepresentative extremists.
Ali Amin is the 2020 National Union of Students Welfare Officer, former SRC Welfare Officer and former SRC President at Adelaide University.