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September 12, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Levies: breaking whose bank?

More than a year on from Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce’s announcement that he would look into the “excessive” student services levies being charged by some universities, legislation has been passed under urgency that seeks to introduce greater transparency to how these levies are set.

The student services levy is the compulsory fee for non-academic services you paid at the beginning of this year. Check your fees statement—it’s there, all $522 of it, if you’re a full time student. That levy helps fund student support services like health and counselling, the student accommodation service, student creches, career development, financial support and advice, and recreational and social services.

Back in 2009, the levy amounted to $275. Despite the protests of VUWSA and student reps on the University Council at the time, it almost doubled to $510 for 2010. Vic’s justification for the rise, reported by Salient, was that without the increase, services would be compromised, or a user-pays system introduced.

The Advisory Committee to the Student Services Levy was established last year (they settled on the acronym ACSSL after several name changes) to consult with students and make recommendations on the amount of the levy for the following year.

The overwhelming response from students during consultation in 2010 was that the levy should remain as low as possible—the $12 increase in the levy for 2011 reflects the increase in GST. The levy for 2012 is still to be set, but as Salient went to print, government regulations relating to the implementation of new legislation regulating the setting of student services levies had just been released, which may mean the 2012 levy has to be approved at a later than expected date.

But how did we get to the point where legislation is being passed in parliament to regulate how universities set their student services levies?

In a speech at Vic last year, Joyce said he would be asking universities to justify the fees students were being charged. The Ministry of Education conducted a review at the request of Joyce, and the recently-passed Education Amendment Bill No. 4 deals with some of the outcomes of this review.

While it’s nice of Joyce to show such concern for the financial welfare of students, rising student services levies are a symptom of a far wider problem, one that can’t be solved by this piece of legislation: the chronic under-funding of universities. There’s a couple of things that deserve pointing out. Levies have gone up under the watch of a National government—a National government that has, in real terms, slowly cut back its funding of the tertiary education sector. With the recession there’s been an increase in enrolments as people seek to upskill. There are more students studying, but the government hasn’t coughed up any more money to fund them—universities have been forced to limit enrolments instead, or in the case of student services levies, increase fees.

I don’t want to see levies skyrocket, but I don’t want the level or quality of essential services to suffer under the strangling forces of a piece of legislation that thinks it knows what’s best for universities and students. Throw the imminent implementation of VSM into the mix and you have a recipe for disaster.

Universities will be limited to funding certain services as specified in a piece of legislation. Students’ associations will not be able to afford to continue providing the welfare, representation and advocacy services they currently provide in a VSM environment. Universities won’t be able to step in to fill the void, because they’re not allowed to by law. Universities won’t be able to consult with students about levies, because a coherent student representative body won’t exist thanks to VSM. In the end, it’s students who will suffer.

The current government’s vision for tertiary education is short-sighted. As a result of two pieces of legislation, universities will be hard pressed to maintain current service levels in a restricted funding environment and students won’t be able to fund services for themselves. What the tertiary education sector really needs is more direct government funding. We might find then that knee-jerk laws passed under urgency will become a thing of the past.

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About the Author ()

Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

Comments (1)

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  1. Pauly says:

    I suppose this article would have sounded properly stupid if it mentioned the reason that there has been funding decreases across the board.

    The National government is trying to pay for Christchurch to be rebuilt. I’m sure we can manage a few hundred dollars a year to allow the devastated families and businesses to recover.

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