Funding threat to sports prowess

March 25, 2005

Australia's sporting greats have joined vice-chancellors and student groups in attacking the Federal Government's plans to ban compulsory membership of student unions.

Under so-called voluntary student unionism legislation introduced last week into Parliament, universities could be fined millions of dollars if they continue to impose fees for providing extra-curricular services on campus.

Supporters of university sports said the ban would end the right of campus clubs to acquire funding from compulsory student fees, which opponents fear could have a serious impact on Australia's sporting prowess.

Brendan Nelson, the Education Minister, introduced the Bill into Parliament. He said students paid between A$100 (£41) and A$590 a year in union fees as a condition of enrolment.

Students were charged with little regard for their ability to pay, he said.

"Student services are an essential part of university life, but why can't these things be funded by choice? Why is a single mother who is training to be a nurse paying for the canoeing club or the mountaineers?"

But Geoff Lawson, a former Test cricketer who first played for the University of New South Wales in 1976, said it was bizarre for the Government to drive up the price of sport for young people.

International Olympic Committee member Kevan Gosper, a patron of the governing body of Australian university sport, said he feared campus sporting clubs could die out. "It's a basic issue that anything that doesn't have cash underpinning it will fail in the long term," he said.

Critics noted that hundreds of famous sportspeople were nurtured at campus sporting clubs, including Test cricketers, rowers, swimmers and rugby union greats.

Rower Nick Green, a member of the "oarsome foursome" who won Olympic gold in 1992 and 1996, first rowed for the University of Melbourne's boat club.

"The facilities at the club were critical to our success. You don't get those sort of facilities at ordinary boat clubs," he said.

Neill Robinson, a former head of sport at the University of Technology, Sydney, said the boat club had produced 30 Olympic rowers. Losing its annual budget of more than A$100,000 would put the club out of business, he said.

John Mullarvey, chief executive of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, said the Bill threatened to destroy the community spirit in universities.

Although some of the retail and entertainment services currently subsidised might be picked up by private enterprise, services such as student counselling and childcare were likely to disappear.

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