Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009
I see my friend across the chamber smiling. The Minister will do the exact opposite. She will do everything in her power to make it easy for ordinary students to subsidise the activist student political elite on her side of politics.
The Minister for Youth and Sport stated in her second reading speech that this bill is not compulsory student unionism. It is a pretty big claim, and it is a false claim. She might like it to be so, and if she is genuine in her wishes then I have some empathy, but when a government is bent on imposing a tax on students to pay for amenities and services that a majority of students will probably choose not to use or, in the case of 130,000 external students, may never have the opportunity to use—they will never have a direct say on what sort of services this money should be put toward—one can only surmise that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it is a duck. This is compulsory student unionism. If you force students to pay a fee that will fund the political activities of the student union without the students’ consent, you are breathing life into a student union that is unaccountable but financially very powerful. It is like compulsory bargaining fees in the workplace. The union is happy for you not to be a member of its association, but the worker still has to pay a fee—which, incidentally, is often the same amount as a union membership fee.
There are some unintended consequences in this bill for universities. The bill is going to create a huge headache for universities, and I do not think it has been well thought out. Universities, in their desperation to obtain additional funds, may not have had a good look at this bill. Firstly, the SA-HELP loan scheme, which creates a new loan enabling a student to borrow money to pay this new fee, is going to create a massive bureaucratic burden for universities. Secondly, the new representation and advocacy guidelines place new and unfunded obligations on universities. These obligations were never foreshadowed and, disgracefully, they are tied to core education funding. For example, the draft guidelines already require the education provider to effectively fund resources and infrastructure for student unions. What could that mean? That could mean offices, salaries, elections and any other matters that can be considered relevant to the so-called advocacy services. These guidelines are so broadly worded that they could be interpreted to impose virtually any obligation on the university regarding student representation on that campus.
This bill illustrates an extraordinary obsession—perhaps a bit of nostalgia for the education minister and the Minister for Youth and Sport, remembering the good old student days and the fun they had when involved in student politics—to prop up student unions, organisations that currently attract a small minority of students as members. In addition to every struggling student, we are now going to have university administrations also subsidising the political careers and pet issues of the elite class of student activists.
Back in 2005, when the Howard government took the historic step of legislating for voluntary student unionism, there was a huge outcry that student services would collapse, and that has not been the case. It was a historic step for those who believe that freedom of association for students is a fundamental right and that students are mature and old enough to decide whether or not they should join a union and where they should allocate their money. The Liberal Party believed then and still believes that people who are, by and large, adults should be free to choose how they should spend their hard-earned money and what they should spend it on. They should not be forced to pay a levy for services that they may or may not use. The historic Howard government voluntary student unionism legislation in 2005 put a stop to the enforcement of ‘no ticket, no start’ on all university campuses, and it was a great day for many students, many of whom were not politically motivated and still are not politically motivated but were grateful that they could attend a tertiary institution for the primary purpose of achieving their education without being forced to fork out additional funds to the student union.
The bill back in 2005 put the often exorbitant fees back in the pockets of students, allowing them to decide where that money should be directed. We have seen since that time significant savings for students. Students on average have saved over $240 a year and those who have chosen not to become members of student unions have saved on average $318. So we have seen a fall in the cost of union membership, which is a good thing. It forced student unions to be responsive to student demands, make themselves attractive, advocate the reason why students should join them, and also lowered their fees. It has also meant that students’ money has not been diverted in such a blatant manner to political parties and causes in that very blatant way we have seen on many occasions over the past few decades but most recently during the 2004 election, when the National Union of Students spent around $250,000 campaigning against the Howard government.
The accusations that voluntary student unionism has led to the collapse of student services are just bluster of an unrepresentative minority of students. Many services, counselling and medical services for example, are still available at almost every university in some form. In fact, the imposition of this fee and working through the amenities fee guidelines may often lead to a duplication of services at some campuses.
We have seen some interesting activities. For example, the RMIT Student Union produces a radio program on 3CR every week called Blazing Textbooks, which, as its website states, seeks to promote ‘an anti-capitalist perspective on current issues in education from around Australia and the world’. Hardly mainstream, but an interesting perspective to take. And they are entitled to take it, but it shows where their priorities lie. At the same time the website blames voluntary student unionism for the decline in its advocacy services. Any fair-minded person could see that this student union has placed greater priority on producing this radio program and having their bit of ideological fun than actually providing the sort of advocacy services that students would want and that would be relevant to students.
We have also seen a recent example where the student union at the University of Melbourne removed about $18,000 from its clubs and societies budget to give those funds to the National Union of Students. So you tell me where the benefit is for students there, when those who are members of the clubs and societies I am sure would have vehemently disagreed with that money being taken out and given to the National Union of Students. But under these guidelines and under this bill that would be not only a legitimate but a necessary allocation of funds. You could easily argue within these broad guidelines that it was essential in the interests of advocacy and representation of students that the National Union of Students receive even more funding.
The Australian Liberal Party is passionate about freedom, about freedom of association, and it is one of the party’s fundamental tenets. Whether it is membership of a union, an employer organisation or a student representative body, an individual should not be forced to join an organisation against their will. And we should not separate students from the argument of voluntary association. By and large they are adults; they have the ability to decide for themselves. We have always believed it is not up to politicians, it is not up to the minority who are involved in student politics, to decide what is in the best interests of students. We believe that students can best decide that for themselves. But the Labor Party in coming to office at the recent federal election has said, ‘No, let’s turn back the clock, let’s return to the status quo, let’s compel students to pay for something that they don’t want and may not use. Let’s help out those student union friends of ours who are struggling to adapt to the 21st century. Let’s go back to creating a nice cushy cash flow with no accountability and no consequences.’
This bill is a new tax on students. It is a disgraceful return effectively to compulsory unionism. It represents a shameful broken promise. It is poorly drafted and will cause the government far more headaches than it has actually realised. And it treats adult students with utter contempt. It is only a very thinly veiled attempt to reinvigorate student unions, guilds—call them what you like. We in the coalition say no to new taxes, leave students alone and treat them with some basic respect. Student unions can survive and thrive if they are accountable to their membership, if they respond to the needs and wishes of their members. But this bill and these guidelines will not only return to the bad old days of effective compulsory student unionism but they go even further by imposing these draconian obligations on tertiary education providers. I urge the House to oppose this bill. It is regressive, it is a huge cost impost on students, and I hope I do not see it come to light.