The SSAF Slush Fund
In 2013 the Australian Government made the timely announcement of a Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Since its beginning, the Royal Commission has gathered mountains of evidence and shone light on at least some of the dodgy dealings that form the basis of the union power structure. In the ACT, we have heard allegations of stand-over tactics, bribery and bullying from members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Only last week the Secretary of the NSW branch was questioned as to whether money levied from workers’ salaries went towards a charity or into a union slush fund.
While these investigations may seem removed from our relatively docile student world, they actually are incredibly relevant, and not just because the industries’ most students work in, hospitality and retail, are often subject to the same union-negotiated workplace agreements. In fact, every student that attends the ANU is charged a fee that goes towards a $4.6 million slush fund.
The Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) is a compulsory charge of $286 on all full-time undergraduate and post-graduate students (part-time students pay a portion). It doesn’t go towards education costs. It is charged to students across the country to fund activities attended and enjoyed by only a small portion of students: activities like parties; student association junkets; and political campaigns. While the legislation that regulates the SSAF dictates that SSAF money cannot be spent on political campaigns, this is neatly sidestepped by student organisations that run “issue campaigns” along partisan lines.
There is nothing wrong with any of these activities in and of themselves. I like a good party (and by good I mean one that ends at 12.30am and has a playlist solely consisting of Vampire Weekend and the Shins), I like junkets and (surprise surprise) I like a political campaign or two. But what is troubling, nay, what is downright undemocratic, is that some students demand the rest of the student body subsidise them to participate in these activities.
Much like the union fees for slush-funds we have heard about in the Royal Commission, the vast majority people that pay the SSAF either don’t know that they are doing it (it goes right on your HELP loan if you ignore it long enough), or think they are paying something from which they will benefit, or don’t want to pay it but have to anyway. Indeed some students do benefit – but it isn’t the vast majority; it’s just the left wing Labor-Green apaches that run groups like the ANU Union and other student organisations.
In recent time the SSAF has been used to fund things like ANUSA’s membership fee of the National Union of Students, a peak body so indulgent and ineffective that it has run deficits the last two year totally more that $150,000, subsiding clubs devoted to, among other things, Kanye, Anime, gaming, and beer-pong. The fees also go towards headline concerts during O-week and Bush Week.
Again, nothing is wrong these activities (who doesn’t appreciate Kanye?), just like there is nothing wrong with people running in trade union elections. The problem is that SSAF is a compulsory fee, meaning those who perhaps don’t want to see a Triple J band in O-Week are not getting worth for their money. A far better system would be a user pays system, or even a voluntary fee, so that those who know they will engage and get their money’s worth can pay, leaving those who don’t to spend their money how they like. And this isn’t some crazy idea. Last Bush-Week the Crash a Country Pub event ran a profit, demonstrating clearly that classic students events don’t have to be monetary black holes we all need to pay into. It also shows that there may indeed be a few people in the student administration in student politics with some financial nous.
Even worse than this support of rather exclusively enjoyed activities is the blatant waste of SSAF dollars. The Postgraduate student association (PARSA) holds free drinks every two weeks; Woroni has a budget of more than $200,000 and then gives papers away for free; and ANU Sport, a commercial operation with a monopoly over the campus gym requires $600,000 of SSAF funds. Far above a few subsidised events in O-Week and Bush-Week, SSAF funds are systematically frittered away by groups who have no incentive to be fiscally responsible ‒ either way, they will get a tidy top up from next years’ students.
The argument that SSAF is like tax in broader society doesn’t hold any weight. Its not a tax – if the services and “benefits” SSAF provides are deemed to be part of that social compact in the same way that road maintenance or a national defence is, then the burden should be shouldered by the whole of society, not by students alone, who one could count as among the more vulnerable subsection of our society. Similarly, those who have the ability to negotiate SSAF spending arrangements are drawn from a rather specific pool. Looking at the tickets running in the upcoming ANUSA elections, most candidates have lived on campus for a period of time, and almost universally hold left wing views. They are also the ones who have been attending the ANUSA parties for a few years and are thus known in that select club of “involved” students. And not surprisingly, its pretty much only this group of students who vote in the elections (only one in five actually voted last year).
$286 is a lot of money to a student. For a student working part time it’s a weeks pay. It is almost a week’s rent at a catered college and more than a week’s rent at a self-catered college. Reliable modelling suggests that one could purchase over 83 litres of beer with it, or over 500 packets of mi goreng.
Students should have a choice about how they spend their money. Some might choose Kanye themed parties, and some might choose to play bridge. But demanding that others subsidise your fun, whatever it is, is arrogant and undemocratic, and it should be stopped.
Christopher is a member of the Liberal Party
A Simple (almost mathematical) Case for SSAF
There has been a lot of discussion about SSAF lately. One ANUSA ticket this year is running entirely on the platform of getting rid of SSAF, in fact. Proponents of the abolish-SSAF-movement tend to rely on libertarian arguments about how students need autonomy and how it is an imposition on our freedom to charge for the SSAF. Below, I am going to outline a quick argument for why this argument is ideological nonsense, before addressing some other concerns people have about SSAF.
In terms of my argument against libertarians, here is a simple (almost mathematical) bit of analysis. Firstly, here is an analysis of the costs of SSAF:
1. SSAF is HECSable, ie. in reality costs very very very little to people in the long run (because the people who are genuinely vulnerable and unfortunately remain that way will never have to pay it theoretically). By the time you do need to pay it off, it will be paid off with like 2-4% of one year’s income max. This is a very, very minor monetary cost.
2. There is maybe a small non-monetary cost to students who feel disempowered because they see their “we-don’t-have-to-pay-this-until-we’re-middle class” money being used on the purchase of goods they disapprove of eg sausages. This might be the equivalent to the harm of, for instance, seeing someone wearing ugly clothes and feeling offended by it. It is a slightly absurd (and at best, extraordinarily minor) emotional cost.
Let’s look at the benefits of SSAF, in comparison:
1. SSAF helps a number of students to get by on a day to day basis and to fund integral aspects of their university experience. For instance, SSAF means free food, accommodation grants, and textbook grants. The amount of SSAF cash collected means you get economies of scale (basically, bulk buying is cheap), and also means there is guaranteed funding (as opposed to charity, which is unpredictable and, moreover, probably negligible in its scale in this instance). This guarantees basic rights, which are the foundation of us having autonomy in our lives.
2. SSAF adds to funding for societies and clubs, social events, advocacy, all which help build student community (a theoretically abstract but important benefit). This isn’t just for fancy BBQs. For instance, student theatre productions often rely on SSAF to guarantee production quality, and to also keep ticket costs affordable. Societies like ANU Debating and the ANU UN Society rely on SSAF to fund their members to attend national and international competitions, which are often the most valuable parts of many students’ university experiences. It’s worth making it explicit here that SSAF isn’t just about creating these events, but also making them easily accessible to all students – including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. SSAF spreads culture and community – valuable parts of the human condition.
3. SSAF funds student advocacy. Lobbying for students’ rights (including keeping fees affordable, etc.) is aided by SSAF. I’d like to hope I don’t have to articulate why affordable university fees will probably benefit most students significantly.
So let’s weigh that up in summary. The cost of SSAF is a fairly insignificant amount of money, and the emotional harm of an eyesore. The benefit of having it is basic rights guaranteed for many, a much more vibrant and fulfilling student culture (and more universal access to these cultural experiences), and student lobbying. If we’re concerned about autonomy and freedom, SSAF is clearly up on this count.
It should also be mentioned that my above analysis is based on student life at the ANU. At regional or smaller university campuses, my understanding is that SSAF is used by student unions to subsidise basic services like food outlets on campus and stores. Is it autonomy to be able to purchase goods and services? Yes. And SSAF facilitates that too!
The other (and perhaps more reasonable) concern students have is that SSAF is spent poorly. It should be noted that even if this were true, the empirical fact is also that much of SSAF goes towards the fundamental rights and experiences mentioned above; slightly inefficient spending of some negligible money seems a trifling concern, compared again to the wealth of benefits SSAF guarantees. To those still troubled about this point, it is also worth mentioning that students have the direct ability to scrutinise SSAF expenditure, by reading the ANUSA financial reports, by voting in the ANUSA elections, et cetera.
Ideology is fine, and it is valuable that we have discussion about important issues like student spending. But let’s not frame everything in one-liners and buzzwords about freedom and inefficiency: let’s make some real arguments, and actually engage with SSAF as it is, and not how it is imagined in the nightmares of libertarians.