Levies and Expectations

Posted on August 29, 2011


I have come across several strange things in NZ: an emperor penguin affectionately named “Happy Feet” appearing on a Wellington Beach before being sent home, trolleys being called trundlers and going to the dairy instead of the corner shop. But one of the most different ideas I have seen is the student services levy at tertiary education institutions in New Zealand.

This idea is not one peculiar to New Zealand but is found in some form or another across other former British colonies. In New Zealand and Australia, it is known as the student services levy, in the United States it is often known as the student government tax or services tax.

The student services levy is an additional fee paid by all students at a certain university for services not directly related to their tuition. This fee is normally not equivalent to the total cost of those services but it is equivalent to a proportion of the total amount.

This is likely to appear immediately to the eye of a students’ union officer in the UK, another hidden fee. The model operated in New Zealand does have some positive aspects.

At UC, (the University of Canterbury), the student services levy was brought in 2010 as government funding was no longer covering the cost of student services. The levy as of this year stands at NZ$615 (inc GST – equivalent to VAT). According to UC this is equal to about 75% of the cost of student services at the university. All students pay the levy, although some students qualify for a rebate (e.g. distance learning students or those with financial hardship). It covers costs of:

  • Early Childhood Centres
  • UC Careers and Employment
  • Student counselling
  • Disability Support Services
  • Hardship Funds
  • Health Centre
  • International Student Support Services
  • Learning Skills Centre
  • Maori and Pacific Development
  • Student Advocacy Services
  • Adult Student Support
  • Accommodation Services (excl. halls)
  • Mentoring Healthy Lifestyles (excl. Recreation Centre membership)

This appears at the first glance to be a somewhat harsh arrangement on the student; however some aspects of the way the system is operated are extremely positive. The University of Canterbury Students’ Association (UCSA) conducts an Annual Survey that forms recommendations to the Vice Chancellor on how the levy should be spent. This survey is known as the Student Priorities Research Report (SPRR).

The SPRR asks a set quota of students at the university for their Opinion on the services provided for by the levy. Students are asked about usage of services, personal priorities, and how they would allocate the levy across those services. Most importantly, they are asked what services are missing. As a result of the SPRR, the Student Association has recently begun to operate a subsidised dental service for students, and has allocated further funding towards Careers and Employability. This was due to these services being requested and stated as a priority by the student body.

The accountability and control students are given through the SPRR is to be commended. It offers students the chance to shape their experience at the University and make changes to the services they pay for. It also brings a level of clarity to what fees are going towards and makes the useful distinction between academic and generalist service fees.

It is not without its problems. At UC the SPRR found that many students did not fully understand the levy and how the system worked and this led to some students feeling they were getting poor value for their levy dollars. Others felt many services should be paid for by users or the government.

Whilst the system is not perfect, one wonders as to the wisdom of giving greater detail about what the new fees will cover at home.  If fees were to be broken down to give a clear understanding of how they were allocated and if students had an element of control over their services, would that not be a positive step forward for the student experience in UK universities?

A new statement of fees that split the total fee into sections and gave clear information on how each allocation was spent would be far more accountable, and if we then actually asked students how they would spend it, suddenly we may actually be able to respond to student need more effectively.

In a strange way, it may be that the student services levy indirectly helps meet student expectation.

Learning how we can do that at home is the greatest challenge we face post 2012.

The levy may hold part of the answer.