Where Do Your Uni Fees Go? — the MSAF

Topic: Inside Student Orgs 14 years, 5 months ago

This will be the first in a series of posts through which I hope to offer some insight into what really happens at student organisations at Australian universities, from the inside. The COFA Students’ Association is the student organisation at the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts, where I’m the Vice President and Education Officer this year.

(Before I start, I should make clear that I only speak from my own personal experiences. My views are not necessarily those of COFA SA, and what I say is definitely not official COFA SA anything.)

I’ve found out that life at COFA SA is in many ways quite exciting and there are a lot of things we do that students typically no nothing about. But in many instances, it’s really mundane and a lot less controversial than you might think!

One of the things that many students don’t have a clue about shows up every session on your UNSW fee statement: the “Misc. Activity Fund”. This year, you’ve paid $39 each session towards it (if you’re a full-time student) — but what is it anyway and where does that money go?

So What Is the MSAF?

The Miscellaneous Student Activity Fee (MSAF) is collected to allow capital works that benefit students to take place. That is, it’s used to fund large projects that are permanent in nature — frequently for the construction of student facilities, but also for buying equipment such as computers, photocopiers, etc. As the name implies, it can only be spent on things that will benefit students. It can also only be spent on things that aren’t something the university should be providing anyway. For example, if a facility is needed for academic use (i.e. new lecture theatres), they cannot be paid for using MSAF funds.

MSAF funds are UNSW money. There’s been some confusion over whether it actually belongs to UNSW or to UNSW’s student organisations, maybe because MSAF is collected alongside student organisation membership fees. But my research suggests it’s always been established they’re UNSW funds. However, UNSW is committed to letting student organisations have input in how the funds are spent. This makes sense of course, because as student representatives, we know what extra-curricular facilities and resources students want.

The process we have to go through to use MSAF funds on a project, is that we have to decide what specific things we wish to construct or acquire, and then submit a bid to the Student Facilities Planning Committee (SFPC), which overseas allocations of grants from MSAF funds. So this is where COFA SA comes in.

A COFA SA Project

There is an SFPC meeting tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon at UNSW and COFA SA has three bids that are being tabled. Let me use one of them as an example. We want to refit the Campus Art Store (CAS), a shop we run at COFA that offers discounted art supplies to students. (The other projects include a wheelchair access ramp for Kudos Gallery, and a new postgraduate lounge for COFA.)

We want to make CAS a lot more attractive to COFA students and others alike. CAS faces Oxford St in Paddington and maximising revenue from passer-bys and the public would help us a lot, especially with the threat of funding loss under Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) next year hanging over our heads.

We also want to finally bring in proper fittings and shelving more suitable for our stock to replace the haphazard, ragtag fittings we’ve accumulated over the years. One of the things we want to add are displays that will showcase students’ works. We want to help our students get more recognition of their work from the public and to help them sell their work.

Believe it or not, we started off with no idea how to go about undertaking this project at all — well nobody at COFA SA is in the shopfitting business, after all! We quickly learnt that we first had to engage a professional designer to draw up plans for the refit before we approached shopfitters. What we did was to get the designer started, and then we applied to MSAF for a retrospective grant to cover to costs of getting the designer in — in fact this is how MSAF works most of the time, for smaller projects. We buy what we need, submit a bid with receipts then ask SFPC to reimburse us from MSAF funds.

What we’ll do with the actual construction itself though, is we’ll make a bid before we undertake any work and get UNSW to pay directly whichever shopfitter we eventually contract. There are two reasons for this: for a start, we just don’t have the money to do this project then get reimbursed. Secondly, we need to submit three separate quotes for SFPC approval before we can get approval.

Back to the designer… now, I won’t name him, but let’s just say to say the first time we saw the drawings, we felt there was definitely room for improvement! So we had to go through the trouble of working out what was wrong them, setting up a consultation with the designer to get improved drawings done. And so we come to a gripe about the MSAF process.

MSAF Deadlines, Stress

SFPC meetings aren’t held frequently — in fact, tomorrow’s meeting will be the very last meeting for the year. (I think the next one is in March!) With VSU still an uncertainty, student organisations are going to want to get as much out of the way this year as we can. SFPC has made it clear in the past that they would take into consideration the looming issue of VSU, but evidently it doesn’t bother them that we will have no access at all to MSAF funds between now and next year should our bids be referred back with concerns, requiring reconsideration next meeting.

Now being typical university bureaucracy, the deadline for submissions was last Monday, ten days prior to the meeting itself. Our designer managed to rush through and produce drawings by last Friday. Even better — I believe the quotes our designer got from us arrived on Monday morning itself. A similar situation happened with one of our other bids too, so we had an absolute mad rush to finish writing them followed by a mad rush down to UNSW to submit them, big roll of drawings and all!

Now We Wait

So we rushed to get the bid in and we didn’t really have much time to consider the quotes carefully. Hell, the committee had no time to look at it at all before we had to submit it. Thankfully, even once approved by SFPC if the committee has objections, we can always pull the plug on the project. But what could we do?

There’s a lot riding on this for COFA SA. All the quotes for the CAS refit cost more than half of COFA SA’s annual budget — over $250 000! There’s no way we could pay for it ourselves, or even start it ourselves. This being the last SFPC for the year, it’ll be our last chance to get this project underway before VSU is implemented, if it will be — and who can be sure what will happen to MSAF after that? Not to mention, if we want to have the actual shopfitting work carried out without taking the shop out of action during session, then the only time we can do it is during the summer holidays. We had to submit it to SFPC this time.

So right now, there’s nothing we can do except play the waiting game. A few of us will be present at the SFPC meeting tomorrow, where we’ll field questions about the bids and placate and concerns they have. They can approve it, reject it, or ask us to fix up the bid in some way and resubmit it.

Oh the stress! Wish us luck! :)

I hope that leaves you with some idea of how one part of your university fees get spent. Did you know that already? What do you think?

(Update: Hooray! All our bids were approved by SFPC! I forgot to mention though, SFPC’s role is only to make recommendations to Student Affairs Committee (SAC). What this means is that SAC will now have to look at our bids and approve them at the next meeting on 27 Oct 2005, although in the past SAC has invariably followed the recommendations of SFPC.)

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2 Comments Add your own

  • . fi  |  14 years, 5 months ago

    Best of luck Stephen! You guys are doing a great job imo. I now finally know what MSAF is and where it goes to. It was very interesting to hear about what the SA is doing for the students coz I had nooooo idea what you guys do. Hehe the reading made me appreciate SA a lot more.

    All the best for tomorrow! Keep us informed!

  • . johnny  |  14 years, 5 months ago

    i am still waiting for you to overthrow the president.

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