House debates

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

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

Second Reading

7:28 pm

Photo of Daryl MelhamDaryl Melham (Banks, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

If he has spoken on that then I apologise to the honourable member. I did not notice it. But I am glad that he is speaking on this bill, which is the main point because I would like to know what he says. I have in front of me a media release dated 23 March 1999 from the then member for Dobell, the Hon. Michael Lee, in relation to this. The press release says:

When he was President of the Monash Association of Students, in 1978, Mr Costello wrote an article for the student newspaper, Lot’s Wife, in which he strongly and explicitly supported universal union fees.

The press release goes on to quote Mr Costello as follows:

‘The funding, and therefore provision of the various student services, would be impossible unless there were some requirements to pay a contribution towards them the facilities of student unions are only practical on the basis of compulsory contributions ...’

The press release then says:

Mr Costello went on to equate compulsory student union fees with compulsory taxes and to warn against the danger of ‘Government legislation to stop student unions on a permanent basis.’

I am interested as to whether that earlier iteration is maintained by him this evening. What is happening here is that people are bringing the baggage from their student union days into this debate. There is an ideological divide. The Left do not control all the campuses on universities nor do the Right. It is interesting that the member for Higgins was chairman of the Monash Association of Students; the member for Warringah was president of Sydney university SRC; the member for North Sydney was also president of Sydney university SRC, 1986 to 1987; the Deputy Prime Minister was president of the Australian Union of Students in 1983; the member for Sydney held the women’s officer position at the University of Technology, Sydney; and Mr Danby, the member for Melbourne Ports, was president of Melbourne university SRC. I also note that the Minister for Sport was the general secretary of Flinders University SRC in 2000. That all comes from the article in the Australian, which I will take as accurate. I would suggest that that should give each of those members—irrespective of what side of the House they sit on—the knowledge and understanding of what services are actually provided by student unions on campuses.

My experience was that the services at Sydney university were first rate. You could use some and not the others. But in order to make them viable—in order to make the eating facilities at the Wentworth Building or the Holme Building or elsewhere viable—the student union needed to get money in. I am not necessarily defending some of the causes which those unions voted money towards. Some of them I do not agree with; some of them I do. At the end of the day, the way to deal with them is not to bleed those services and, in effect, kill them off through a death of a thousand cuts; it is actually to remove the relevant office holders through an election within the university’s democratic processes. That is why at Sydney university we had changes in the Students Representative Council from the Labor club, or people to the left of the Labor Party, to those associated with the member for Warringah or the member for North Sydney. It was done that way. If you went too far, people organised against you—rather than a government coming down in a crushing way.

What we can now see—and I have been given some briefing notes in relation to this bill—is the impact of the legislation that was passed by the former government. We are told that the previous government’s approach stripped $170 million from campuses. The dental services in places like La Trobe University and Southern Cross University were closed down completely. The University of Technology in Sydney, La Trobe University and James Cook University closed their legal services. In the case of UTS, it not only affected students but also the local community, who had also been able to access that service. The emergency loan scheme once offered at the University of Sydney was closed. At least three universities shut down their Centrelink advice services. Nine universities shut down their student legal and taxation advice services. Childcare fees at La Trobe University rose by $800 a year. Direct funding for sporting clubs was cut by 40 per cent. There are now 12,000 fewer students participating in sport at university, which is a 17 per cent reduction since 2005. In relation to sport, there are obviously other matters that the government and others have submitted on, including people involved with the Olympics movement.

The university that I have the closest involvement with is the University of Western Sydney, and the Milperra campus is in my electorate. It is a university that has campuses in a number of electorates in Western Sydney. I am also involved as Vice-President of Revesby Workers Club, which is a very large licensed club in the area, and we have 34,000 members and 36 sporting and other organisations under our umbrella. One of them is our Little Athletics club, which has 300 members. On Friday nights, they and their parents use the university oval at Milperra. We as a club have poured in tens and tens of thousands of dollars as part of our partnership to use that service. But I have seen a deterioration in the other sporting facilities on the same site. The athletics club erected some lights and recently had to repair them. No disrespect to the university—but they do not have the resources to maintain the facility. A number of organisations are no longer training on the oval or using the oval, so there is less community involvement. These are the direct consequences of taking away a cash pool that the student movement and the university can use to provide facilities across the spectrum.

As I said, I am happy to concede to members of the opposition that, at times in the past, some of these organisations have engaged in inappropriate activity. But I say to them that their solution is not the right way to deal with it. Indeed, in terms of the bill before the House, there is a limitation on what the money can be used for. A set of guidelines has been developed which outlines the range of services and amenities for which the fee can and cannot be used. If that needs to be modified over time as a result of examples that come before it, I think the government should look at that. But there is also a situation where, frankly, the university in many respects is going to be the one that administers it.

I think the minister has done a terrific job. Some might criticise it, but this is not a simple area; it is not black or white. I take offence that sometimes what is being said here is that student unions should keep their mouths shut on political matters. That is an argument that is used in terms of prisoners: ‘Don’t worry about human rights in prisons. If someone is a prisoner—bad luck. It does not matter what is done to them in the jail.’ When it comes to students: ‘Students should be seen and not heard on political matters.’

A number of people in this place got their political education at university. Post university, some have changed the politics they had at university—on both sides. I found that I was not particularly interested in a lot of these organisations at university. They did nothing for me. I did discover the Labor Party, through Gough Whitlam and the 1974 election—which is why I joined the Labor club at university—but involvement was limited. The Labor club is a separate club to the student union; it did not rely on money, but we were involved. That is also where I met the member for Warringah. I have known about his form dating back to the early seventies, and he has not changed. He is a remarkable creature to study.


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