Spending Your SSAF

A piece I wrote for On Dit edition 82.3, about the Student Services and Amenities Fee at the University of Adelaide. This is likely to be very uninteresting to anyone not at the university.

It’s almost impossible to be a university student in this country and not have heard of the Student Services and Amenities Fee, popularly known as the SSAF. For a full-time University of Adelaide student, SSAF is the extra $281 you are charged every year on top of your regular course fees. 

O’Week is one of the most recent products of your SSAF money. It’s likely that the first time you walked on campus this year was for O’Week - a few days of collecting ID cards, setting up email, joining clubs, watching bands, and maybe even attending introductory lectures (yeah right). If you are a returning student, you may have noticed some changes to the week. There was nothing on the Goodman Lawns, the maths lawns next to The Braggs was open and full of clubs and sports, and the university was doing a whole lot more of its own stuff too.

This is a story about what these new events tell us about the ways that your Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) is being spent by the university, and how the university and the Adelaide University Union (AUU) think it should be spent (spoiler alert: they don’t agree).

SSAF 101

The SSAF exists because of legislation passed by the former government in 2011. It’s a compulsory fee that universities can charge students to help fund student services and amenities.

Some of the things that can be funded with the SSAF are:

  1. promoting health and welfare
  2. employment help
  3. production of student media
  4. advocating student interests to the university
  5. providing food and drink
  6. supporting clubs
  7. giving students information to help them in orientation

There are other allowable uses for the money, and these are described in the SSAF legislation.

In 2014 the fee for full time students is $281. Almost all undergraduate students, as well as some postgraduates, are required to pay the fee either upfront or by deferring it like a HELP debt. The total pool of money expected to be collected this year is $5.3 million.

Every year the SSAF is allocated by the university following consultation with student representatives from the AUU and Adelaide University Sport (AUS).

O’Week

Orientation was one of the projects allocated funding for 2014. The AUU successfully requested $15,000 to run an expanded version of its program, and the university allocated $75,000 for its own program (including funding for midyear orientation).

Ian Thomson is the Manager of Hub Central and Ask Adelaide, and was responsible for the university’s O’Week. He says one of his objectives this year was to encourage domestic students to mix with international students during orientation.

‘One of the things international students comment about is that they don’t get to mix early enough with Australian locals and they don’t know where they can get support,’ Thomson says.

Two of the new events that Thomson held this year were a Community Day on Friday 21 February featuring community organisations students could volunteer with, plus an expanded ‘Excursion Day’, which saw 14 busloads of students (about 70 per cent of which were international students) visit Victor Harbor.

There were also three free barbecues held in this period. Thomson estimates that each of these barbecues served over 3,000 people. 

Another use of the SSAF was on ‘onboarding’, (the time between a student getting an offer to the university and attending their first class). The university used to send all orientation information to students in one package, but it was thought that that was too much so they’ve spread it over three mailings this year.

‘The first step is not to actually go and party - the first step is get yourself enrolled…so although we called the SSAF money for O’Week, it’s really the onboarding process [as well],’ says Thomson.

Competition

Much of the university’s new offering centred around social and other non-academic services -traditionally the role of the AUU. Thomson doesn’t believe the organisations are competing, saying that ‘The AUU had the first go, so they invited all the people they invited and provided us with a list… We’d committed not to invite any of them.’

But the student union isn’t so sure. Sam Davis is the President of the AUU, and Dianne Janes is its General Manager. Davis says that the biggest issue for the AUU was the food provision. He says the AUU had booked food vendors that paid to attend O’Week, but this was undermined by the university providing free food to students in large quantities.

While the spending is certainly allowable under the SSAF legislation, Davis is not sure that it is the best use for the money. Of the free barbecues he says, ’It wasn’t a welfare-focused event, which I think is the spirit of the SSAF funding. Contrast that with the free breakfast put on by Student Care and the SRC, which is very much a welfare-focused event. This was more of a gimmick to attract people to the university’s O’Week offering.’

The AUU also relies on sponsorship to run O’Week. Thomson says that the university did not undermine AUU sponsorship, but Janes disagrees, saying ‘We were still confirming sponsors the week before O’Week. There were a number of sponsors who had approached us and wanted to take part in the event and they didn’t want to have to pay.’

Ultimately some of these sponsors chose to go with the university’s free option rather than paying to be part of the AUU event. 

On the whole event, Janes says ‘the AUU has been tasked by the university with staging O’Week and has done so for a long time. It’s one of our deliverables under our funding agreement, and we’ve had no feedback that any alterations, additions, extensions, or massive changes were needed to the program.’

Janes also says that the union was directed not to request significantly more money for 2014 than it had received in 2013, because there wasn’t expected to be more money available: ‘I pruned and skimmed the budget very tightly and made challenging revenue predictions to keep the budget to a similar figure despite cost increases’.

Deanna Taylor was the President of the AUU last year, and was involved in negotiating the allocation of money for 2014 on the SSAF committee. She says that she raised objections with the O’Week proposal. 

‘The committee was provided no budget breakdown prior to the meeting [and] it was very unclear why such a large amount of money was required,’ she says.

‘More importantly, I was concerned that the proposal was likely to undermine the AUU's O'Week, which it puts together with far less than $75,000. The implication in the proposal was that the AUU's O'Week offering was not adequate, and that the university was applying for funding to fill a "void" that I believed didn't exist.’

Other funded projects

All up, the pool of funding for SSAF is split fairly evenly between the university, the AUU, and AUS.

Some of the projects being funded are for building works on the three major student campuses - a student space in Backstage Cafe, plus student hubs at Waite and Roseworthy. The SSAF is even funding the installation of a sink for students at Roseworthy Campus. Those projects total over $700,000.

Taylor says that ‘the spirit of SSAF legislation is to ensure that services for students on campus are funded adequately and that students have a great campus experience. I think overall the funded proposals are all in keeping with this spirit. There were many excellent proposals from all three submissions.’

But some of the proposals did concern student representatives. Taylor singles out extra funding for Disability Support Officers ’not because I didn't agree it was critical that the Disability Service was adequately resourced, but because I didn't believe it was appropriate for the funding to be coming from SSAF… the University has a legislative requirement to provide support to students who have a disability or ongoing medical condition.’

‘The response at the meeting was essentially, "we know it's not ideal, but the money will have to come from somewhere, which could mean cuts to funding in another area of university services”.’

In fact, Taylor suspects that the SSAF is being used as a way of plugging holes in the university budget. ‘I think that increasingly the university is using the SSAF to subsidise their existing services or pay for things they ought to be providing as a matter of course… There is a trend towards this across Australian universities, and the way the SSAF is designed allows that to occur.’

Looking forward

We don’t yet know what projects the university will be seeking funding from SSAF for this year, but if past projects are anything to go by, expect some funding to go into student hubs and other building projects, and funding to flow to the counselling service and international student centre.

From the student union, expect a bigger proposal. Janes says that the AUU’s proposal for 2015 ‘will include expansion of clubs services and grants, and bigger and better campus culture events and social activities, including some online stuff. We also want to fit out the Fix [Student Lounge in George Murray Building] and Clubs spaces with much better furniture and usable equipment.’

Considering how divisive the issue of the SSAF has been across the country, it is interesting to see how the university has decided to spend this money. Should the money be going to services that we can reasonably expect the university to offer anyway, or should we be focusing on enhancing them and creating new services and amenities? I would’ve thought the latter.