The findings of the National Audit Office that came out yesterday which reveal that the $400 million regional grant program has been a pork-barrelling exercise will be old news for university sports associations.

Earlier this year the Howard Government passed an amendment to abolish compulsory student union fees. It was only passed after concerns from Senator Barnaby Joyce and Family First Senator Steve Fielding were heeded by the Prime Minister. Consequently, an $80 million “Transition Fund” was put on the table to assist university sport associations to cover the costs previously relied upon through student union fees.

Senator Joyce wasn’t taken in by the offer but it was enough for Senator Fielding to allow the bill to pass. In an interview with Radio National earlier this year, Senator Joyce explained that “we’re having to rely on the universities to go cap in hand to the government each time they run out of money to support their gym, and their cricket pitch, and rugby grounds and their AFL grounds and their hockey grounds and the netball courts. And I think that in the long term, it’s a pretty ridiculous position.”

A draft report commissioned by Australian University Sport and the Australasian Campus Managers Association has raised concerns about how the $80 million —  now in its second round — is being allocated. The report found that “for the federal electorates which received funding under this programme the campuses in coalition held seats received in total more than twice the funding… compared to the campuses in opposition held seats”.

And for much of the funding in Opposition held seats, many are marginal, including the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University and Flinders University in Adelaide.

Even more damning, the report also found that, based on the number of full-time students enrolled, “75% of all students nationally received nil benefit from the VSU Transition Fund”. So the message being sent out is that if you are a student interested in pursuing a bit of sports activity while studying at university you’d better hope that you are in a Coalition seat or a at the very least a marginal Opposition one.

Some within the university sector believe the figures could be skewed due to the fact that most regional universities are in Coalition seats but they argue that metropolitan universities, particularly those outside of the city centres, are just as desperate.

But Minister for Education Julie Bishop is of the view that the money students are saving through non-compulsory activities fees is the equivalent of “$160 million that the Australian Government has put back in the pockets of students who can now choose the services they want to support”.

What this $160 million does not account for is the increase in tuition fees as well as prices charged to students for use of ex-union services and facilities — these have “far outstripped CPI and in some cases prices have more than doubled.”

A quick look down the list of campuses affected by voluntary student unionism reads like a Depression era newspaper with sports departments and cultural activities shutting down from coast to coast.

Unless of course you happen to find yourself in a Coalition seat, that is.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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