By Jacqueline Allen

The Australian Government has passed new legislation that could see compulsory fees of up to $250 charged to university students annually.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 will allow universities to charge their students up to $250 per annum to fund non-academic student services such as sport, welfare and advocacy.

QUT Kelvin Grove Students join the NUS photo petition for changes to the Student Services and Amenities Bill

The new legislation aims to combat financial struggles incurred by student organisations since the 2006 introduction of voluntary student unionism.

“VSU’s most major and drastic effect on the operation of student organisations was to strip their largest source of funding. We saw a huge decrease in the capacity of student organisations to provide the services they had previously, and students lost out,” says the National Union of Students Queensland President Joanna Horton.

In 2005, the last year prior to VSU, $172.8 million was collected in student services charges. This removal of this funding by the Howard governments VSU laws has negatively impacted on all of the services provided by student unions.

A report by the National Union of Students into the impact of VSU revealed that eight universities lost their independent student organisations in 2007 alone.

The Bradley Review of Higher Education in Australia found that course completion rates were greatly affected by campus culture and community. The report also indicated that much of this was lost with the introduction of VSU.

University sport was one of the services hardest hit by VSU, despite its valuable contribution to campus life.

VSU impact study conducted by the Australasian Campus Union Managers Association (ACUMA) and Australian University Sport revealed that 40 per cent of direct sport funding had been cut with VSU and a 17 per cent decrease in the number of students joining sporting clubs.

The study further noted a 41 per cent decrease in the number of students representing their university at inter-university sport, such as the Australian University Games.

The Australian University Games is a multi-sport event held annually which attracts of 6000 university competitors. While competitor numbers remained largely unaffected by VSU, the cost to students competing at the games certainly increased.

“We used to be able to subsidise the students that represented us, but that’s almost impossible without more funding. The last subsidy athletes got was $50 which doesn’t even cover competitor registration,” Queensland University of Technology’s sports officer Patrick Brady said.

Australian University Sport also noted reductions in elite athlete programs, campus based recreational sport and sporting club memberships since the introduction of VSU.

The National Union of Students were lobbying for changes to be made to the legislation to ensure that a majority of the fees collected are controlled by student-run organisations, that student representation be included as an allowable spend item on the bill and that universities consult with their student organisations about how fees were divided and allocated.

“Student unions are renowned for spending money more efficiently than universities. We have less ‘fat’ in our organisations, it’s less bureaucratic. We use the money wisely,” says Queensland University of Technology Student Guild general secretary Isaac Cavanagh.

With the new legislation, student organisations across the country are hoping that they will be able to successfully negotiate with their respective universities a large majority of the Student Services and Amenities funding.

“We can use that money to provide support services for students on campus so they can get the most out of the money they are paying,” Mr Cavanagh said.

The Student Services and Amenities Bill was passed through the Senate last Tuesday, giving universities the option to charge these fees from 2012.