In a case that may set precedents for relations between universities and student organisations, Macquarie University is taking seven of its own students to court in a bid to dissolve its postgraduate student association.

The university is claiming that Macquarie University Postgraduate Representative Association (MUPRA) is not meeting its financial obligations, as it has had $600,000 in an account that has not been used for students. Because the association is not an incorporated body, the seven individual students have been ordered to appear at the NSW Supreme Court next week. The university is attempting to have MUPRA liquidated, claiming the $600,000 and legal costs.

MUPRA is disputing the claim, saying that the funds were put aside to make up for losses when voluntary student unionism was introduced by the Howard government in 2006. Meghan Hopper, president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA), is speaking to the media on behalf of the students and says there is little basis to the claims. “It [MUPRA] is very financially viable. It recognised when voluntary student unionism came in that it would need money so it saved money and invested and got interest. They put it aside for a rainy day, and then that day came.”

The dispute is now more than two years old, with the University Council moving a motion of no confidence in MUPRA in June 2012 after months of negotiations over the money held in reserve. The university moved to freeze MUPRA’s bank accounts in December last year, with Deidre Anderson, deputy vice-chancellor (students and registrar), informing staff and students in an email:

“We believed good progress was being made, with both sides considering these ideas in good faith. However MUPRA’s recent election (of sorts) and announcements by their new President suggest they have no genuine commitment toward working honestly and openly with the University toward a resolution.”

The letter also said that postgraduate students would not be disadvantaged by the move to shut down MUPRA, as its functions were being  served by a new student advisory board, which includes postgraduate representatives. According to Hopper, this body includes students who are appointed by the university, as well as representatives elected by students, and the university is not required to act on its advice.

“It is unclear how many of the university’s approximate 39,000 students voted for the MUPRA representatives who now face court.”

When the university first attempted to audit MUPRA, Anderson told staff and students:

“During recent years MUPRA has provided limited postgraduate services and has in fact sought, and obtained, funds from the University in order to do so. The University only become aware last year that MUPRA held significant cash reserves provided to them prior to 2007 for postgraduate student services.”

Hopper disputes this, calling it “a blatant distortion of the facts”.

Mia Kwok, a student at the university, was the postgraduate representative on the student advisory board last year and was editor-in-chief of university student magazine Grapeshot from January until July this year. She says the case has left students “disappointed and upset”.

About the advisory board, Kwok said: “I can’t really say that it’s an equal and fair situation, because we’re just an advisory board.”

Hopper says it’s a test case, as it shows the difficulties that arise for student organisations that are forced to negotiate with universities for a share of the funding that is collected through the student services and amenities fee. The fee, which was introduced by the Labor government in 2010, means that universities can collect up to $281 annually from each student, which is then allocated across groups such as student unions, sport clubs and childcare facilities by the university. The SSAF was instituted as a way of providing funds for student organisations, but by first routing the money through universities to head off claims the government was reinstating compulsory student unionism. Since the introduction of the SSAF in 2010, many student unions have reduced or stopped charging fees for membership, receiving their funds through negotiating with universities for a share of the SSAF takings.

Dr Gavin Moodie, a tertiary education policy expert at RMIT, says that the way the SSAF is allocated puts associations in a “weak position” when deciding how the funds are spent.

“While the legislation and the legislative instrument (the Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines) give students various rights, including for advocacy services and for student representation, it confers those rights on students in general, not on any particular student association. Furthermore, universities are required only to consult democratically elected student representatives on the allocation of the student services and amenities fee, not to follow the wishes of student representatives.”

The government promised to scrap the SSAF while in opposition, but it seems to have been a minor priority in the main push for deregulating the sector and lowering the amount of government funding. According to Moodie: “Both Labor and the Coalition have kept a separate student services and amenities fee or voluntary student unionism legislation to mobilise their political base, not for any need or other rational reason.”

Moodie says if uni fees are deregulated, the SSAF would have to go. “Universities will be able to increase their fees to pay for lecturers, libraries, student counsellors, sports facilities or anything else universities want to spend their fees on aside from supporting political parties, which is prohibited by voluntary student unionism provisions.”

It is unclear how many of the university’s approximate 39,000 students voted for the MUPRA representatives who now face court. Hopper says they include an international student who is concerned that this will affect his plans to seek permanent residency, and a retired biology teacher. “These guys had no idea when they put their hand up in October last year that this would happen.”

Macquarie University chose not to speak to Crikey for this story, instead pointing to statements previously released on the issue.

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