House debates

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010

Second Reading

12:18 pm

Photo of Kelvin ThomsonKelvin Thomson (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am very pleased to support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. In listening to the speech of the member for Cowper, I was reminded of the extent to which the Liberal Party and the National Party hate the word ‘union’. If only student organisations called themselves clubs, associations or societies rather than student unions they might appear less frequently in the conservatives’ villains gallery. It is a case of mistaken identity, to be perfectly honest, because there is a world of difference between a trade union and a student union, which is a body established for the welfare of students in a very different setting from a workplace setting.

The ideological nature of the coalition’s opposition to student unions can also be seen in their legislation and the way in which they use the term ‘voluntary student unions’ and ‘voluntary student unionism’. In fact, their proposals were for nothing of the kind. What they have done is to ban universities from charging fees, so that something that was supposed to be voluntary was in fact not voluntary at all; it was compulsorily banned. That shows the essential double standard at work here. While those opposite talk about the idea of student unionism being voluntary, in fact what they have done is to ban universities from levying student fees of this kind.

The member for Cowper talked about the extent of the administration costs in providing the student unions and cited figures from Monash University and the University of Melbourne. These figures are misleading. Administration costs are about the platform for providing services. It is like saying that, because the offices of members of parliament and senators accumulate administration costs, these are of no value in terms of things like health and education. But of course our offices are essential platforms for the policy work that we do, which leads to the provision of health services, education services and other useful community services and infrastructure.

In the case of the University of Melbourne, the member for Cowper suggested that there was nothing for sport and recreation. I confess that my University of Melbourne days are quite some time ago now but I can assure the member for Cowper that there was and I am sure continues to be very lively and extensive support for student sport and recreation services. I used to take advantage of the swimming pool, the athletics track and the other facilities that they provided. They were extremely useful for students and very well used. Indeed, in times gone by the University of Melbourne produced great athletes, including Olympians, AFL footballers and the like. So the member for Cowper’s understanding of how the University of Melbourne operates is deficient in this regard.

The member for Cowper said that unions should provide facilities which students want, and no-one disagrees with that. I think we all agree that the priority needs to be on the provision of services which students want. But student unions have elections for the purpose of electing leaders who are responsible for providing services that meet student needs and, if they fail to provide relevant services, they can of course be voted out. Universities themselves have a strong role in the provision of services in this area. I personally have a great deal of confidence in their capacity to deliver appropriate and relevant services. The member for Cowper also talked about things such as pink batts, the BER and the mining tax, which, to me, suggested that he had run out of things to say about this bill and that, essentially, it was a sign of weakness for the case of so-called voluntary student unionism.

This bill allows higher education providers to choose whether or not to charge a fee for student services and amenities of a non-academic nature. It commences on 1 January next year. It will be capped at a maximum of $250 per year. There will be indexation so that, in 2011, it will be $254. To ensure that the fee is not a financial barrier, universities that introduce the fee will be required to give eligible students the option of a HECS style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program. The government expects that providers will consider the views of students in determining whether to charge a fee and at what level it should be set. Universities will have the flexibility to charge a different fee for distance students or part-time students. Students have already experienced the indirect costs of the removal of student services and amenities fees, with many universities redirecting funding out of research and teaching budgets to make up for the shortfall in resources available for student services.

Post voluntary student unionism, most universities are subsidising services and amenities. They are doing this because they know the value to students not only of the positive culture of their campuses but also of the support services that assist students to successfully complete their degree. This reduces the university’s funds for other essential activities, including for teaching and research, and, despite cross-subsidisation from university budgets, there has been considerable cutting back on services which were previously provided to students.

The more financially viable services and facilities, such as sporting and recreational facilities and activities, and food services, tend to be contracted out on a commercial basis or are being run by a business structure owned by the university, as opposed to being managed by student associations. Childcare services are less likely to be subsidised following the introduction of voluntary student unionism. Students from regional areas who move away from their families to study tend to rely more on welfare and support services provided at universities. For this reason, this bill will particularly support students from rural and regional areas. The services and amenities offered by regional campuses benefit not just the students but the broader regional community, by creating jobs and providing essential community infrastructure. Regional universities have been particularly impacted on by the abolition of compulsory student services and amenities fees, with the loss of cultural and social services and amenities as identified by submissions to a discussion paper in 2008.

I will give a couple of examples. At the University of Newcastle, student services are now delivered by an amalgamated university controlled entity, which is responsible for providing food and social and recreational services, funded through an agreement with the university and subsidised by the university at a cost of $1.9 million. The university itself funds health and counselling services and subsidises childcare facilities. It has an agreement to fund the so-called NUSport and Campus Central and to provide sporting and recreational activities and welfare and student support services. VSU has resulted in fee increases for many services at the University of Newcastle and in reductions in subsidies for interuniversity sport, infrastructure and printing services. It has also resulted in the closure of the second-hand bookshop, the emergency loan scheme and a reduction in welfare services provided to students.

At the University of New England, student services are now managed by Services UNE Ltd, as a provider of commercial services, and are subsidised by the university at a cost of $300,000. Services UNE also provides some basic essential services such as off-campus accommodation, advocacy and welfare services. VSU at this university has resulted in service cuts, staffing cuts—for example, student employment within Services UNE is almost non-existent—no student publications or newspapers, no transport for external students during residential schools and no social events or entertainment.

I concur with the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth in welcoming the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment into this bill. That report acknowledged that all higher education institutions, including those in regional Australia, welcomed the proposed legislation. The committee report also documented the devastating impact on student services following the previous coalition government’s decision to abolish student services and amenities fees. The introduction of VSU forced rationalisations of services in universities, impacting negatively on the provision of amenities and services to university students.

The Australian University Sport and Australasian Campus Union Managers Association commissioned a report at the time of the introduction of VSU that indicated there would be a progressive decline in the sector’s ability to deliver an appropriate range of sporting, recreational, social and cultural activities to students. That prediction has turned out to be accurate. Prices charged to students for use of services and facilities have in general increased materially since VSU, with the level of price increases outstripping the CPI. This has resulted in material reductions in the number of students accessing these services.

The report also outlined that, since the introduction of VSU, there has been a greater emphasis on user-pays systems and commercial orientation in the way universities operate their organisations and deliver services. The increased commercial focus and related increase in prices for campus services generally, combined with the concurrent HECS fees increases, have placed greater financial pressure on average students, who are already working extensive part-time hours to assist with the increasing costs of their higher education. This increased financial pressure is having a negative impact on levels of student participation in the non-academic parts of the university experience. There has also been a reduction in employment, of about 30 per cent, across the student services sector, with more than 1,000 jobs having been lost in the student services area.

VSU has failed to deliver what its proponents argued for—self-sustaining student organisations able to survive off voluntary memberships, investments and trading operations. Take, for example, La Trobe University: its Students Representative Council has advised me that in 2006, the last full year of the compulsory general service fee, the university collected just over $7 million from it. In 2007, the university provided a total of $3.3 million—so less than half that amount—for the provision of student services on campus.

As a consequence of this change, the La Trobe University student dental service, which was also used by students at RMIT Bundoora, was closed. The free legal service was taken over by the university and its operation changed. The SRC had also offered a free tax service for students—this was closed. The SRC had operated a second-hand bookstore for many years, which sold textbooks to students at well below the price of a new text—this was closed. Funding for clubs and societies was cut by 25 per cent, student magazine funding was cut by 70 per cent and representation funding was cut by 80 per cent. I have no doubt that the cut in student advocacy was exactly what the Howard government wanted to achieve.

It is typical of the Liberal and National parties to have an ideological opposition to student unionism. They basically hate it when education is accessible to everybody. They are still hung up on exclusivity. They never really got over Gough Whitlam opening up tertiary education to all young Australians on merit, and in office they made tertiary education more expensive and less accessible for young people in my electorate of Wills and right around Australia.

As student organisations represent a source of criticism from time to time, the previous government determined that they should be crippled and crushed. That was what voluntary student unionism was all about; it was not about some benign view of giving students a choice. By contrast, though the National Union of Students and other student bodies have been highly critical of federal Labor governments from time to time over HECS and other issues, we—and this is a conspicuous difference between us and those opposite—are big enough to take the criticism and big enough to tolerate dissent. We did not try to kill off student unions.

The Group of Eight, the coalition of leading Australian universities, has indicated that the federal government’s decision to allow universities to support essential student services through the collection of a modest fee is a sensible compromise that will enhance the quality of Australia’s higher education system. The Group of Eight supports the government’s decision to ensure that students will have the option of a HECS style loan to cover service fee costs. This means the student services fee will not pose an upfront barrier to any student. The Group of Eight believes the introduction of voluntary student unionism has had a serious impact on the delivery of childcare, sporting, health, counselling and other services, and on campus life and student representation more broadly.

This bill seeks to rectify the failure of the coalition government and I commend it to the House.


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