Thursday, 18 November 2010
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010
in reply—I want to commend members on the government benches for their contributions in this debate on a bill that amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to allow universities to charge student fees to support student amenities and services. The fact is this will stop the damage being caused by the coalition’s voluntary student unionism provisions while maintaining the government’s commitment not to return to compulsory student unionism. Subsection 19-37(1) of the act, which prohibits a provider from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation, will continue—something that members opposite have conspicuously avoided mentioning in their contributions to this debate.
The bill outlines a robust and balanced solution that will help ensure the delivery of quality student services and help secure their future. This will assist universities in providing a well-rounded university experience for students, an experience that includes not only quality study but also participation in the life of the university, with access to valuable social welfare and advocacy, support and amenities.
The bill makes amendments to require higher education providers that receive Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding to comply with new student services, amenities, representation and advocacy guidelines. This means that for the first time universities will be required to meet national access to services benchmarks. These important benchmarks will ensure that all students are provided with information on and access to important health, welfare, financial and advocacy services. The bill also introduces for the first time a requirement for universities to meet national student representation protocols to ensure students have opportunities for democratic student representation and that their views are taken into account in institutional decision-making processes. Higher education providers must also provide adequate and reasonable support resources to allow those representatives to carry out their functions.
The bill provides that higher education providers may choose to charge a compulsory student services and amenities fee. The fee will be capped at $250 per year and will be indexed annually, with indexation to commence in 2011. The fees will be collected by higher education providers, not student organisations, and the providers will be accountable for the fee revenue. The Higher Education Support Act 2003 already includes provisions for actions that can be taken for breaches of the act. These will apply to the new provisions. The government remains committed to compliance arrangements previously tabled in the Senate during the debate on the previous bill with student services and amenities provisions.
To ensure that the fee does not act as a barrier to participation in higher education, the bill also provides for eligible students to access a government loan to pay the fee under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, SA-HELP. SA-HELP will operate on a similar basis as existing elements of HELP such as HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP. Higher education providers that choose to charge a services and amenities fee will be required to provide access to SA-HELP for eligible students. Students will repay the loan on an income contingent basis through the Australian Taxation Office.
The bill ensures that fee revenue will not be used to support political parties or candidates for parliamentary or local government office, and the bill specifically outlines the allowable uses of the fee. The specific uses were developed in consultation with the higher education sector and other key stakeholders. Previously to be incorporated into guidelines, these are now specifically included in the bill. The uses include a range of important services and amenities to assist students to have an enriching higher education experience and to develop fully as well-rounded and productive members of society. These are fundamental services, particularly relevant to campuses in regional communities and to students coming from regional areas. One of the major barriers to increased higher education participation by students from low socioeconomic backgrounds is the need for financial assistance and academic and personal support once enrolled. Rebuilding student services and amenities is integral to providing a student experience that will assist in achieving the government’s participation and retention targets for Australian universities.
I would like to take this opportunity to note the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment on this bill and thank the committee for its work. I particularly thank the new committee chair, Amanda Rishworth, for overseeing the production of the report. I would now like to address the recommendations made by the committee and provide the government’s response to each. In response to recommendation 1, that the minister encourage the itemisation of charges to international students, the government has measures in place that already address this recommendation. Under the existing education services for overseas students framework, universities are already required to enter into a written agreement with each international student. The agreement must provide an itemised list of course money payable by a student. Course money includes any other amount, such as the proposed student services and amenities fee, that a student has to pay to the provider in order to undertake the course.
Recommendation 1 also parallels initiatives that the government is undertaking to encourage and support international students to study in Australia. These include the development of the Study in Australia portal under the International Students Strategy for Australia and recommendations in the Baird review that go to ensuring international students have better access to information. Further, the proposed student services, amenities, representation and advocacy guidelines require universities to consult with their student bodies as to how any student service and amenities fee will be used to benefit students. The student body representatives must include an international student.
In relation to recommendation 2, I can advise that the minister released the draft Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines yesterday. The government does not support recommendation 3, that the loan for the student services and amenities fee be incorporated into existing HELP loans such as HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP. Under the bill, universities will be able to set different fees for different groups of students. Since some groups may not even be charged a fee, wrapping the loan for the services fee into their tuition loan confuses and complicates the loan scheme.
Further, under the Higher Education Support Act 2003, universities must provide students with an itemised Commonwealth Assistance Notice that tells them how much they are paying for each unit of study. This bill will require universities to add the services and amenities fee to the Commonwealth Assistance Notice. If students’ tuition and services fee loans were combined it would not be possible to individually itemise the fees charged and the debts incurred. As a result, students would not be able to check that the correct amounts had been recorded, which would then undermine the very purpose of this important transparency measure.
In response to recommendation 4, the bill already specifically allows for a delay in meeting the compliance requirements until 1 January 2012. This delay will enable the universities to put in place the measures asked for in the representation guidelines before the requirements become a condition of the universities’ 2012 Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding.
With regard to recommendation 5, in the government’s view the loan element should not be particularly difficult to manage, considering the existing IT infrastructure that providers must have in place to administer the current HELP schemes. The new data requirements associated with SA-HELP have been kept to a minimum. Nonetheless, the government gave a commitment in the 2008-09 budget to provide $20,000 to each of the table A and B providers towards the implementation of the data requirements.
Of course, the government strongly supports recommendation 6—that the House of Representatives pass this bill. This bill honours the government’s commitment to secure student services, amenities, representation and advocacy now and into the future. It is an important step on the path to building a world-class higher education system in which the interests, participation and retention of all students are given serious priority. The new arrangements seek to balance the government’s desire to create a clear framework within which higher education providers should operate and the trust that we have that they will be accountable for their decisions within that framework. I urge members to support the bill and I commend the bill to the House.
That this bill be now read a second time.