Bills Digest 11 1996-97 Higher Education Funding Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1996

Numerical Index | Alphabetical Index

This Digest is prepared for debate. It reflects the legislation as introduced and does not canvass subsequent amendments.

This Digest was available from 26 July 1996


Passage History

Date Introduced: 27 June 1996
House: Senate
Portfolio: Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs
Commencement: Royal Assent


To repeal provisions according financial assistance to higher education student organisations where a State or Territory has taken action which prevents the imposition of fees for such organisations.


Nature of Student Unionism

The specific functions of student unions are generally defined in the by-laws of each institution, rather than by State legislation. In essence, depending on the tertiary institution in question, students must pay a fee on enrolment, most commonly known as "services and amenities fees" or "union fees". The fee is used to provide services at tertiary institutions, such as childcare, medical and legal services, and eating facilities. Other more contentious activities which may receive funding from these fees include student newspapers, theatre and other cultural activities. Usually, a proportion of this fee is passed on to the student union, which is elected by students and distributes its money according to the rulings of its committees. In some cases, payment of the fee automatically makes the enrolling student a member of the student union, which was the major concern of the Victorian and WA State governments. This is, however, not the case across the board, as there are four categories of fee collection structures across tertiary institutions in Australia, as discussed below.

Student representative councils (SRCs) or students associations are generally distinct from the Unions. They provide a democratic framework to represent students across the whole range of the universities' administrative and academic activities. Some universities also have a separate association or union for sporting activities. In Western Australian universities, the SRC and union functions are combined in one body - the Guild of Undergraduates.

It is also to be noted that the term student "union" is somewhat of a misnomer. Student "unions" are not unions in the industrial sense, especially since students are not employees in an industry; and student "unions" are not industrial organisations which negotiate wages and conditions on their members' behalf.

Student unions or guilds are more in the nature of community clubs which provide a range of services to their members, including the services mentioned above. Student unions do, however, engage in political campaigns and take stands on issues affecting students, such as education fees and student allowances, in a similar way to industrial trade unions and other interest groups.

Broadly speaking, there are four categories of student unionism in Australian higher education institutions:

1. Compulsory payment/ non-compulsory membership

The higher education institution collects a compulsory "Amenities and Services Fee" (no breakdown into Union, Sports or SRC components). This revenue is passed on to student organisations (the Union, Sports Associations) to provide services for all members of the higher education institution. Students can choose whether or not to join the Union or SRC ie. payment of the fee is not tied to membership of the union. Universities in this category include Melbourne, ANU, Queensland, Ballarat.

2. Compulsory payment with conscientious objection provisions

The higher education institution collects compulsory union/sports association/SRC membership fees (although sometimes this may be a general services fee encompassing all these elements), and passes this revenue onto the relevant student organisations. Students who have a conscientious objection to belonging to the student organisation can apply for exemptions. They are then required to pay an amount equivalent to the compulsory fees into a special fund or a charitable account. Universities with this model include New England, UNSW, Griffith, Central Queensland, Swinburne, Wollongong, QUT and Southern Queensland.

3. Compulsory payment and membership

Higher education institution collects compulsory student union/sports association SRC membership fees and passes them on to the relevant bodies. No exemptions for conscientious objection. Universities in this category appear to include Adelaide, Canberra, Macquarie, Newcastle, Sydney, UTS, Western Sydney, Deakin, RMIT, James Cook and Flinders .

4. Non-compulsory payment and membership

This is the situation in Western Australian universities since the State Government passed its legislation (see below).

Recent State Government Action

New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland

  • There is no general legislation covering the operations of student unions in these States. The various Acts establishing the universities empower their governing bodies to make by-laws or regulations in relation to student associations. These include the power to impose and determine fees in respect of student organisations.


  • The legislative situation in Tasmania is similar to that described above. However, in 1994 there were some developments following a controversy concerning a student (Daniel Muggeridge) who refused to pay the compulsory student union fees.
  • Students at the University of Tasmania from 1995 were allowed to opt out of paying the student representative council component of their annual services and amenities charge. However, students were still required to pay the whole fee into the services and amenities fund (ie. the amount paid remained unchanged).
  • This arrangement was negotiated between the State Education Minister, Mr Beswick, and the University. The latter indicated that it would resist any further changes.
  • The change did not require any State legislation, but was accomplished by amending the University statutes to allow students to choose whether to become members of the student union.
  • Previously, conscientious objectors at the Hobart campus were allowed to opt out of union membership while paying the same fee in the same way as union members. At the Launceston campus objectors could elect to pay the fee to some philanthropic service rather than to the Student Association.

Western Australia

  • The Voluntary Membership of Student Guilds and Associations Act was passed by the State Parliament in December 1994. The legislation stipulates that membership of a student association is to be voluntary and that no student is to be required to pay any subscription or fee that is not directly related to an educational course. This means that students cannot be made to pay amenities and services fees, as well as union membership fees.
  • Students who choose to join a student association or to make use of amenities and services can be required to pay fees.
  • The Act also prohibits Universities and student associations from accepting payments from the Commonwealth Government that result from the State's action in preventing or hindering the imposition and collection of student association fees. This provision was intended to counter Commonwealth legislation - the Higher Education Funding (Student Organisations) Amendment Act 1994 - which allows the Commonwealth to fund student organisations directly and to recoup the money from State grants.
  • The Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department advised the Government that the Commonwealth legislation would override the State legislation. To strengthen the Commonwealth's position some technical amendments were introduced to the Bill when it was before the Senate in December 1994.


  • The Tertiary Education (Amendment) Act 1994 was assented to in June 1994. The Act provides that the governing body of any Victorian post-secondary educational institution must not require any student to be a member of an organisation of students, or to pay a compulsory fee for membership of such an organisation.
  • The Act permits the charging of compulsory services and amenities fees but limits the expenditure of such fees to defined activities of direct benefit to the students at the institution.

Commonwealth Government Action

In January 1982 the Shadow Minister for Education, John Dawkins, had indicated that a Labor Government would act to ensure the autonomy of student unions and that it would consider using conditions attached to States Grants legislation to achieve this end.

In 1984 the Labor Government legislated to remove the controls on student union fees introduced by the Fraser Government for the Australian National University and the Canberra College of Advanced Education.

In 1992 the Government amended the Higher Education Funding Act to ensure that institutions would receive funds to pass on to student organisations if they were prevented from collecting fees by State Government action. A similar measure had failed to pass the Senate in December 1990. In 1993 the States Grants (General Purposes) Act (No. 92 of 1993) was passed. It contained provisions (section 20) enabling the Commonwealth to recoup from the States any money paid by the Commonwealth for such purposes.

This legislation was introduced in response to the proposals from the WA Government to outlaw compulsory student union fees. On 1994 the Commonwealth Government introduced the Higher Education Funding (Student Organisations) Amendment Act 1994 to override the effects of the legislative action by the Victorian and Western Australian Governments. The Act allowed the Commonwealth to fund student organisations directly for certain purposes and to recover funds from State Grants to do so.

In the 1996 Election the Liberal and National Parties' Higher Education Policy stated that the Coalition recognised State jurisdiction in this area and was opposed to the Labor Government's direct funding of student unions and the debiting of equivalent funds from grants to the States.

Commonwealth Support for Student Organisations

The previous Government provided grants to student organisations through the Student Organisation Support Program (SOSP) which was established following the passage of the Higher Education Funding (Student Organisations) Amendment Act 1994. The Act allows the Commonwealth to make payments to institutions on behalf of a student organisation for such an amount as the Minister determines to be appropriate. Under the Act, such payments are for the purpose of enabling those organisations to continue to provide 'benefits' to students and to maintain funding levels at viable levels.

The Commonwealth legislation cannot be overridden by State legislation because of the Constitutional provision (Section 51) enabling the Commonwealth to provide benefits to students.

Any payments approved by the Minister can be recovered from the relevant State's general revenue assistance under section 15 of the States Grants (General Purposes) Act 1994 and in any subsequent States Grants (General Purposes) legislation.

Under the SOSP institutions or student organisations made applications to DEET for funding. Institutions are required to verify information contained in the application and were responsible for receipt, management and acquittal of program funds. Institutions and student organisations are required to maintain records that will satisfy their State Auditor-General's requirements. Financial assistance is granted on the condition that they provide a statement by a qualified auditor certifying that the grant was used in accordance with permitted purposes.

Grants made through the SOSP were $7,841,546 for Program Year 1995 and $6,737,428 for 1996: a total of $14,578,974.

Main Provisions

Amendments to the Higher Education Funding Act 1988

Item 1 of Schedule 1 of the Bill repeals sections 25A and 25B of the Higher Education Funding Act 1988.

Note: Section 25A of the Higher Education Funding Act 1988 accords the Minister power to authorise payment of financial assistance to higher education student organisations where satisfied that a State or Territory has taken action the effect of which is to prevent or hinder the imposition of fees by a higher education institution for an organisation or collection of those fees.

Note: Section 25B of the Higher Education Funding Act 1988 accords the Minister power to authorise payment of financial assistance to higher education student organisations directly where satisfied that State or Territory action has prevented the imposition or collection of fees under section 25A, or the application by the student organisation of funds for permitted purposes. Financial assistance payable is limited to the maximum that would have been available but for the State or Territory action. Financial assistance can only be used by a student organisation for permitted purposes. Subsection 25B(6) defines 'permitted purposes' as purposes within section 51(xxiiiA) of the Constitution or purposes that further the objects of a student organisation.

Amendments to the States Grants (General Purposes) Act 1994

Item 4 of Schedule 1 of the Bill repeals section 15 of the States Grants (General Purposes) Act 1994.

Note: The States Grants (General Purposes) Act 1994 provides for the calculation of general revenue grants to the States and Territories for the 1994-97 financial years. Section 15 of the States Grants (General Purposes) Act 1994 allows the Commonwealth to deduct from a State or Territories general revenue assistance amounts paid by the Commonwealth under section 25A or 25B of the Higher Education Funding Act 1988.

Contact Officer and Copyright Details

Ian Ireland Ph. 06 277 2438
Dr K. Jackson Ph. 06 277 2416
24 July 1996
Bills Digest Service
Parliamentary Research Service

This Digest does not have any official legal status. Other sources should be consulted to determine whether the Bill has been enacted and, if so, whether the subsequent Act reflects further amendments.

PRS staff are available to discuss the paper's contents with Senators and Members and their staff but not with members of the public.

ISSN 1323-9032
© Commonwealth of Australia 1996

Except to the extent of the uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the prior written consent of the Parliamentary Library, other than by Members of the Australian Parliament in the course of their official duties.

Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1996.

This page was prepared by the Parliamentary Library, Commonwealth of Australia
Last updated: 27 July 1996

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