Hannah Story takes a bold look into the unknown: the SSAF figures for 2013.

The Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) is one of the better Labor Government initiatives. For the low, low price of $161.50 a semester (for full-time students; half that for part-timers), the university and its affiliates provide essential student services and amenities, like free breakfast on Wednesdays, a 10% discount at Union-affiliated stores and venues, and your humble Vertigo magazine.

If you’re a real bad-ass, you may have had your results sanctioned because you forgot to pay your SSAF – easy to do considering you have to file an application separate from your HECS in order to defer the fee. Sorry guys, but we really need your money.

You may wonder why we have SSAF at all; why these essential services aren’t covered in the course fees we already pay. There is no real answer, although one argument is that paying a fee separate from those paid for tuition ensures universities allocate adequate money to student services, amenities and non-academic life, rather than spending it all on expensive building projects or boosting profits. The reason also lies in the history of SSAF-type fees, which have existed for a very long time.

Here’s a brief history: Once upon a time there was this thing called ‘compulsory student unionism’. Everyone paid a little bit of money that went towards maintaining your Students’ Association (SA), bulking up the revenue of the Union. This money went straight back into student life at UTS, providing a legal service and a careers service and all that stuff you may or may not take advantage of (but the key point to remember is that you CAN). Anyway, Howard got rid of that. He made it voluntary under a policy called ‘voluntary student unionism’ or VSU. You might remember this if you’re an UTS old hat because on O’Day people used to mill around asking you to join the UTS Union Advantage Program, so you could get a card and discounts. You could join clubs and societies for only $5, while all the plebs who refused to pay were charged $10. And then Labor brought in SSAF in 2012 as a sort-of in-between compromise. They’re raising less revenue this way but you still get (some of) the benefits. It’s worth remembering that charging SSAF is not compulsory, but the majority of universities do. UTS began gradually introducing the fee in 2012 and next year, international students will also have to pay SSAF.

So you might be thinking, “Hey, if we’re paying $263 a year, don’t we have the right to know where this money is going?”

Well, it goes to one of three places: the Union, the SA or UTS management. The university decides just how much the first two organisations get, and just how much it wants to spend itself. The Union and the SA engage in negotiations with the university in order to determine how much money they get and which projects the funds will go towards. This year it took until April for the SSAF-allocation process for 2013 to be finalised.

The UTS Union is a business. They operate sporting clubs, social clubs and cultural clubs. They run the bars on campus. They release Play and they’re in charge of some stores and cafes on campus. So if you’re buying soup from the Concourse Cafe or a UTS hoodie from the Union Shop, you’re playing ball with the Union.

The SA is a different can of worms. They’re run for students, by students (plus some additional support staff). They fund Vertigo, the Food Co-op, the Secondhand Book Store, the Legal Service and sponsor the collectives on campus: Wom*n’s, Queer, Ethnocultural, Postgrad, Enviro and Indigenous. They’re also on top of student advocacy. They tend to rally against things and picket for improvements to your education. So if you’re pissed off because your lecturer is a casual academic who doesn’t get employment benefits, you can join them and get all up in politicians’ grills and march and jump on jumping castles or whatever. You can read SA reports at the back of every edition of Vertigo (because it’s in their Constitution) and in return for giving us editors the money to print this pretty little thing, we give them a platform to speak directly to students.

But how much money does each organisation receive and what do they spend it on?

According to its website, the Union spends SSAF on loads of programs. We’re talking about:

  • 10% discount on food, beverage and retail items at all Union outlets
  • Subsidies for students engaged in sport and recreation activities including grants for elite athletes, transport and accommodation to Uni Games and other sporting competitions ,and grants to low socioeconomic status students to join the UTS Fitness Centre
  • Funding for over 100 sporting, social and cultural clubs including $500,000 in grants to clubs and societies for functions, merchandise, conferences, competitions, production and capital
  • Facilities such as The Glasshouse, The Loft and meeting rooms (with extended operating hours)
  • Subsidised and free events on campus including the Infusion Cultural Festival and Green Week
  • Orientation information, administrative support, printing, design services and locker space
  • Funding for UTS representatives at debating competitions, as well as arts and cultural support and awards like band competitions, DJ competitions, art competitions
  • Internships in Marketing and Events with the Union.

This year the Union was allocated $4.47 million in funding from the university, which includes SSAF money and other funding. They’ve budgeted $5.8 million to support activities, events and programs, with the extra money coming from the revenue of the Union’s trading operations. The money goes towards the provision and marketing of the following:

Union table    unionchart copy

The SA get all their money from SSAF.  They use it for all their services from caseworkers to bookshops, and peer tutoring to calculator loans.

In this year’s negotiations, the SA secured $1.245 million for 2013, $1.295 million for 2014 and $1.35 million for 2015. The money has been allocated as follows:

SA tableSA chart

But what about the SSAF money that doesn’t go to either the Union or the SA? What does the university spent that on? Counselling services, career services (including study skills development) and childcare are all paid for with SSAF funds.

The combined spending of UTS students’ SSAF is publically available online. This ensures the money is being spent within the strict guidelines set by the government. This is a condensed version of the table.

categories table

So what does this mean for students? Perhaps that you should be able to find any and all books necessary for your degree at the Secondhand Book Shop, and that being a member of a social or cultural club pays off (especially debating).

What seems commendable is the sheer amount spent on sporting and recreational activities, and clubs. For Union-affiliated clubs and societies, this means free facility hire and generous financial grants for club events. But whether or not SSAF-sponsored bar tabs genuinely improve student life is debatable.

Upping spending for financial and legal services, as well as advocacy and study skills can only be a good thing, with quantifiable outcomes for students, helping to improve not just campus life, but students’ personal and academic lives too.

Then there’s the huge amount spent on the 10% discount at Union-outlets. No student could disagree with discounted food and drink, although the initial costs at some of the stores rival 7/11 for their (lack of) value.

And what of artistic activity, which receives far less funding than their sports-focussed counterparts? That could also be an arguable spend.

So that’s where your money goes. Even if things get a little murky along the way, the goal of improving student life and amenities is certainly one to be supported. But in the end not even SSAF could save The Glasshouse.