House debates

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009

Second Reading

7:04 pm

Photo of Sophie MirabellaSophie Mirabella (Indi, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare, Women and Youth) Share this | Hansard source

Yes, member for Casey, it is a broken promise encapsulated in this bill. Did the Labor Party promise at the 2007 election that it would introduce this tax? Did it tell students at universities that it would force them to pay $250? No, it did not. In fact, it did the opposite. At a doorstop in May 2007 the then shadow minister for education, now the Minister for Foreign Affairs, said:

No, well, firstly I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, I’m not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

That was in May, just five months before the last election was called. So not only did Labor not promise to introduce such a compulsory tax, the then shadow minister actually gave a commitment to a voluntary amenities fee. What do the colleagues of the Minister for Foreign Affairs think of forcing increased fees on our university students? During debate on the higher education support bill on 14 October 2003, the member for Wills said:

But there is good news, because Labor will not support any measures to increase fees for Australian students or their families. In my book education is not about how much money your parents have.

The Minister for Finance and Deregulation and member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner, said in that very same debate, on the same day:

The reality is that Australian students and Australian families have pretty much reached the limit of their capacity to contribute to their own education or their children’s education.

So, before the 2007 federal election, the current Minister for Foreign Affairs promised not to introduce a compulsory amenities fee and the member for Wills stated that Labor would not support any increase in fees for Australian students. On top of that, we had the current minister for finance state his belief that students could not afford to pay any more. Now, after the election, the Labor Party is introducing a compulsory $250 amenities fee. This proves that any promises the Labor Party makes before an election are absolutely meaningless. It will say and do whatever it thinks will get it elected.

As stated by the Minister for Youth:

… the bill will also provide universities with the option to implement a services fee from 1 July 2009, capped at a maximum of $250 per year to invest in quality support and advocacy services.

The minister went on to say:

Universities that choose to levy a fee will be expected to consult with students on the nature of the services and amenities and enhanced advocacy that the fee would support.

In other words, before deciding what types of services and amenities the university can spend its compulsorily levied fee on, it is going to have to consult with students. Who will these students be, exactly? I think they will be a very small group of student politicians. They will be the so-called representatives of the student union, representatives who are elected by, at the very best, 10 per cent of the student population—and more like five per cent if you are at Sydney or Melbourne universities. You can be sure that these student politicians will be representatives, definitely, of their own vested interests and the advancement of their own political careers. They certainly will not be representative of the majority of students on campus because the majority of students on campus do not bother to participate in student union elections. There may be some criticism from the other side of the House on that but it is within the rights of tertiary students to attend a university and engage, or not engage, in whatever activities they may choose—including voting and being involved in student unions.

In addition, the minister, in an attempt to allay any obvious concerns about what such compulsorily levied fees could be spent on, said:

… the bill prohibits universities from allowing the expenditure of any funds raised from a compulsory student services and amenities fee to support political parties, or support the election of a person to the Commonwealth, state or territory legislatures or to a local government body.

This clause is really meaningless. It will allow the compulsory fee to be spent on a whole range of political activities. It does not expressly prohibit funding of campaigns for or against political causes or particular legislation, or of any campaigns that the student unions may run. Nor does the bill expressly prohibit the use of compulsorily acquired funds to be channelled to the student media to promote whatever cause they desire. In fact, this is expressly allowed under the guidelines. Worse still, the new student services and amenities fee guidelines, which are supposed to outline exactly what services may be funded by the new fee, will be tabled as a disallowable instrument—but not until after the bill has been passed. So we are not quite sure exactly what form the guidelines will finally take when they are tabled.

The bill does not prevent student money being taken out of allowable activities and diverted into other, disallowable activities. We saw this cross-subsidisation occur in Victoria when the then government introduced legislation—similar in some ways to the current legislation—which purported to limit the activities that could be funded. They purported to do that by listing the activities, but student unions could take money from an activity which was allowed to be funded by the compulsory so-called amenities fee and could spend it on an activity that was not expressly allowed. In other words, a student union could receive money to run a cafeteria, take money out of the till and spend it on political propaganda. Or the student union could receive money to provide administrative support and use that money to fund the wages of someone who was employed to do that but who in fact spent their time campaigning for the re-election of the union president, for example. The student union could receive funds ostensibly to provide important services—but we all know how much those funds can get eaten up by administration costs. It is quite frightening when you look at some of the figures before the commencement of voluntary student unionism. Monash University collected over $8.5 million in compulsory fees in one year and a whopping 56 per cent of that went towards administration costs. One wonders about the range of activities that would be covered by a very imaginative and creative student union body classifying all sorts of activities as administration costs.

So we have a government who told the Australian people before the 2007 election that they would not introduce a compulsory amenities fee and they are now asking us to take them on trust and pass the bill and then at some later date they will introduce into the House guidelines which outline how the new compulsory regime will work. As they never intended to stick to their promise of not introducing a compulsory amenities fee, so they never intended to prevent political activities, causes and salaries from being funded under this proposal.

Of course, the minister will point to the fee guidelines as some sort of guarantee against the use of compulsorily acquired fees for political purposes, but quite frankly they are not worth the paper they are written on. Firstly, the list of items that can be funded is quite extensive and broad, but in any case, as we know, the content of the fee guidelines is largely irrelevant because, in addition to what has been said, there will be no system of monitoring or policing whether or not the universities comply with these guidelines. That is right: there will be no system of reporting back to the education minister so that judgments can be made on whether this quarter of a billion dollars of student taxes is being well spent. The bottom line is this: there will be no accountability. It will essentially be up to individual students to become the whistleblowers and to raise any concerns they might have about how their amenities fee is spent, and even then they would have to get access to accounts to prove their suspicions, and even then, if a breach is found to have occurred, it is at the minister’s discretion whether any penalty is imposed.

Can it get any worse? Yes, it can. The legislation provides the Minister for Education with the discretion to approve additional amenities and services that may be funded by the compulsory fee. We have the Minister for Education—a former union lawyer, a staunch union supporter and, importantly in this context, a compulsory student union advocate—and she will be the person given the legislated authority to make changes to the guidelines and decide what other services can be funded by this fee. Does anyone in this House honestly believe that the minister—someone who was a student union politician and who was the beneficiary of compulsorily acquired union fees—will actually act to restrain the political and other activities of young left-wing student politicians of today? Of course she will not. No-one honestly believes that.


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