UQ ignores federal guidelines on spending student fees

The University of Queensland has potentially broken federal legislation to renovate a room and provide a leadership course using a fund reserved for student clubs and other non-academic services and amenities.

The Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) must be spent in one of nineteen specific categories, and decisions must be made in formal consultation with democratically-elected student representatives.

The University has spent $570,000 of SSAF across two projects that appear to be outside the categories, and has excluded student representatives from the decision-making process.

What is the SSAF?

Up until about a decade ago, non-academic life on university campuses was funded through student unions. The union got their funding through a mandatory fee paid by all students.

Now, the fact that the typical student union was run by rabid lefties, all of whom wanted to spend at least some of that money on campus-based political campaigns and protests, caused concerns for John Howard’s Government. The solution was to remove the mandatory fee as a funding source for the unions. He used the (admittedly pretty compelling) reasoning that nobody should be forced to pay to associate with an organisation that they may not necessarily agree with. There are plenty of arguments against that, but in the interest of conserving page space, we’ll leave the successful push to remove mandatory student unionism as the backdrop for the SSAF legislation.

Now, the problem that immediately arises from this is that without student unions, campus life would immediately collapse. The government couldn’t have that. But the government also couldn’t just let universities start setting their own rates, or we could expect a lot of money being levied from undergraduate students to fund university research.

So within four years of having taken away the mandatory student union fees, the government, now under Gillard, created the Student Services and Amenities Fee, (or, ‘the SSAF’, that ~$120 fee you pay every semester around this time on SI-net). Students would not give this money over to their student union, but instead to their university. And to make sure the universities play fair and don’t just spend this new fee on big strategic goals that land them in the top 50 global rankings for universities, they have to do two things: firstly, have a formal consultation with democratically elected student representatives, and secondly, only release SSAF money if it’s for an expenditure in one of 19 approved categories. The categories are things like providing food and drink on campus, supporting debating for students, and even publishing media by and for students (and yes, this is how Semper is delivered to you for free).

How it works at UQ

The University of Queensland, however, does not formally consult with the student union. Instead, they have created a “SSAF Sub-Committee” (because of course the University needed another committee), to make decisions on the SSAF. And while there are some students on the sub-committee, the University website states that “[their] role is not a formal representation role”.

This is despite the federal legislation requiring that there be democratic student representation on all SSAF-related issues.

The University insists, however, that the Student Union must not be on the Sub-Committee, because the Union is a beneficiary of the SSAF.

However, the appointment of the non-representative students to the SSAF Sub-Committee takes input from other SSAF beneficiaries, like UQ Sport.

Excluding the Union, however, has not prevented the governance issues we allege below.

The Problem

We recently obtained a document outlining the University’s discretionary SSAF expenditure in 2018. That document listed a number of curious expenditures, but two of them were particularly curious:

  • $370,000 for refurbishing room 50-S301 in the Hawken Engineering Building
  • $200,000 for the Humanities and Social Sciences faculty to ‘create leaders, community, and belonging’

These two stand out as lacking any relation to the SSAF categories. In fact, it is difficult to see what resemblance they bear to creating a non-academic campus life at all. And in fact, the means by which one might spend money to ‘create leaders, community, and belonging’, are so vague that it is difficult to understand how a Sub-Committee of partly-to-fully university-educated people could even approve it as fitting specific criteria.

So we went straight to the source. We looked up the Sub-Committee and directed questions on the above to the Sub-Committee’s Secretariat, Andrew Jell. We also asked him which democratically elected representatives were consulted about these expenditures to fit the legal requirement.

Mr Jell had responses to each of these questions, but each of them confounded us even more. And note, by the way, that we approached Mr Jell only because he is the secretariat of the sub-committee — we are not suggesting he is responsible for what we are about to allege are serious breaches of federal law, just that he was at the meetings and was willing to respond to our requests for comment.

The Refurbished Room

The refurbishing of Room 50-S301, Mr Jell said, was allowed in the SSAF category “providing libraries and reading rooms (other than those provided for academic purposes) for students”. To be fair, this is indeed a SSAF category, but take careful note of the academic purposes exception. The intention is clear that the University can’t just refurbish Central Library using student fees.

If you would care to take a look at Room 50-S301 some time, the room is clearly labelled a “Student Learning Centre”. At the time of publishing, the UQ website lists the functions of the room as follows: “powerpoints available, no equipment, table/chairs, individual or group study” (emphasis added). That is to say, the University does not envisage this room as a non-academic service. It is a learning centre, for individual or group study. I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like an academic purpose. To me, it sounds like this isn’t provided for in the SSAF legislation.

Creating Leaders in HASS

And how about that project to create leaders in HASS? If you’re anything like me, when you hear “creating leaders”, you think of feel-good seminars where you ‘find yourself’ through happy-clappy group dance routines and making affirming statements to your peers. But that would almost certainly not be a SSAF criteria. So I asked Mr Jell for a specific list of activities undertaken in this project. He did not give me one. But he did tell me that the SSAF categories that this leadership creation project fits are as follows:

  • Providing food or drink to students on a campus of the higher education provider.
  • Helping students obtain employment or advice on careers.
  • Helping students develop skills for study, by means other than undertaking courses of study in which they are enrolled.
  • Giving students information to help them in their orientation.

In our opinion, nothing in that list of approved categories sounds like something that would also be done in the process of “creating leaders”.

“Providing food or drink”, for instance, is the category used to fund the major outlets in the refectory. We’re talking places like On A Roll Bakery, and the Red Room, here. Did the HASS faculty open an outlet that we’re all sleeping on? I doubt it. And even if they did, how does that “create leaders, community, and belonging” in the HASS faculty? We leave this as an exercise to the reader.

On Democratic Representation

Regarding the lack of democratic representation on the SSAF Sub-Commitee, Mr Jell said the following: “UQ notes your opinion in relation to the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (Cth) – Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines (16 July 2013). You are correct the guidelines require consultation with democratically elected student representatives but they do not specifically mention the UQU student executive.”

By virtue of being federal legislation, there is no reason to expect that the SSAF guidelines would mention UQ Union by name. However, the legislation is clear that democratic representatives must be consulted, and says the following:

“Many HEPs currently recognise independent student organisations that have student representatives who are democratically elected by students enrolled at the HEP. Where such organisations exist, students in relevant elected positions should be included in the HEP’s normal consultative arrangements.”

So while UQU may not have been name-dropped, the government is clear that union-like organisations are the first port of call for making these decisions, and at the very least, somebody democratically elected must be consulted.

We asked Andrew Jell to clarify which democratically elected students were consulted, and reiterated our request for a specific list of activities undertaken in the HASS leadership course. He was unable to meet this request before our deadline.

In my opinion, the University has broken the two golden rules regarding the SSAF. Formally consult students, and only spend SSAF on projects in the approved categories.
Mr Jell noted that “the UQ SSAF governance and distribution model [is] due for review”, and that “UQ is open to suggestions as to how it can improve its SSAF consultation and communication with all students”.

For my two cents, UQ’s review could make a good start by revisiting the law.

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