A row has broken out between universities and student unions over the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars in compulsory amenities fees, with elected office bearers and the National Union of Students concerned about losing control of student cash.

Legislation locking in the Student Services Amenities Fee, worth millions to campuses around the country, was passed by the Gillard government in 2011 to shore up student unions and associations who lost revenue due to the Coalition’s controversial Voluntary Student Unionism legislation. Universities began collecting the fee in 2012, and a proportion is allocated to student unions to spend on services.

But now, student unions say some universities are seeking control of a greater percentage of the fee and engaging direct contractors themselves, whereas once the decisions on who to partner with were made by elected representatives.

Michael Maas, chief executive of Campus Central, the independent student association at the joint Central Coast Ourimbah campus of the University of Newcastle and Hunter TAFE, says it appears “there is a clear situation across the country, since SSAF has been introduced, that the extra money has given universities greater cause to think about what they can do with the money, rather than what the independently run student associations or service providers can”.

“In our situation we believe the University of Newcastle is using SSAF funding as a means to control and disengage student organisations, particularly those that are not controlled entities of the university.” Campus Central directly provided student services for 20 years, but this year missed out on funding after a January decision by the university hierarchy. He says the first he knew of the decision was a letter in the mail.

At the University of Newcastle, students are charged $273 a year. But Newcastle University Student Association president Rose Gosper told Crikey  her organisation was yet to receive any funding at all, despite signing off on an agreement: “There has been very poor student consultation about how the SSAF finding is allocated,” she said. “As president of a peak student body this is a really big concern.” She said she had not received funding for free barbecues held weekly on campus. And a second university-funded student publication, Yak, has recently popped up apparently in competition with the long-running, student-controlled Opus, which has been around for decades.

Dissidents say the situation has been mirrored at the University of Southern Queensland, where, at the start of the year, the student guild ceased to run commercial services on the campuses, with the university tendering out the work to various outlets.

Former general manager of the USQ Student Guild, Kevin Stapleton, says the University “have got their hands on” $3.5 million of money destined for student control. “The university has a lot to answer for and needed to be transparent in their dealings and control of the SSAF. How much is being spent on the students? Are all points of the legislation being applied?”

National president of the National Union of Students, Jade Tyrrell, told Crikey it was “really unfortunate that some universities have not acted in good faith and have not provided student organisations with the opportunity to run independent services for the benefit of students.

“Unfortunately we are seeing some universities assume that they are better service providers than students when student organisations are best-placed to respond to the needs and wants of the student body.”

The NUS produced a report on the SSAF negotiation process last year, which revealed mixed results across campuses. The University of Sydney, which oversees an SSAF budget in excess of $10 million, has been cheered for its consultative approach, with regular “student consultative committee” meetings held with vice-chancellor Michael Spence.

In a statement provided to Crikey, University of Newcastle director of regional campuses Trevor Gerdsen said management “respects” the independent status of Campus Central but that students had benefited significantly from $900,000 in SSAF money approved for this year:

“The University works with a range of professional organisations to provide services such as welfare, counselling and advocacy that are being delivered by professional staff.”

Gerdsen said Campus Central formally declined the opportunity to provide services in writing, however Maas explicitly denies this, saying Campus Central remains keen to revive the previous arrangement.

The University of Southern Queensland was unavailable for comment this morning — we will include its response when we receive it.

UPDATE: USQ has provided this response via email.