Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009
Debate resumed from 11 February, on motion by Ms Kate Ellis:
That this bill be now read a second time.
As shadow minister for, amongst other matters, youth, I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009.Whilst the bill does indeed contain other measures, its primary purpose is to impose a new tax on the one million students attending universities across the nation, whether the students are full time, part time, studying on campus or external. Whether or not they have a need for the services and activities which the $250 fee is intended to prop up, they will all be hit with what amounts to a new compulsory annual $250 tax, equating to $250 million around the nation taken from students, who can least afford it.
The opposition will be opposing this bill. At a time when students are doing it tough and the government is splashing around $42 billion, including money for a so-called education revolution, they are slugging students with a $250 tax. The bill represents a broken promise—surprisingly!—by the Labor Party.
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.
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.
I rise to support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I want to commend the Minister for Youth and Sport for her championing of this bill in terms of our processes and within this parliament. It is the right thing to do. It is repairing a lot of damage that was done by the previous government, damage that I will come to shortly. I am disappointed that the opposition are not supporting this bill, but I am not surprised.
I think it is important that I tell a story to the House. It is a very interesting story and it relates to the time that I first met the current Leader of the Opposition, the member for Wentworth, Mr Turnbull. I studied at Sydney university from 1974 to 1976 in economics—that is the main campus—and from 1977 to 1978 I was at the law school. I was not a student politician, though there were plenty of them there—and I will go through some of them; a number of them are in this House. The current Leader of the Opposition was on the union board. There was a student representative council, which the member for Warringah pursued in terms of his student political career. The Leader of the Opposition was a member of the University of Sydney Union board, which was also elected by the students. One of the other members was a good friend of mine, the former state leader of the opposition, Kerry Chikarovski. She is someone who can verify the story that I am about to tell.
The University of Sydney Union wanted to increase the fees. We paid an entrance fee and we also paid an annual fee, and it was a fixed fee. The proposal that came forward from the University of Sydney Union board, of which the current Leader of the Opposition was a leading member and leading advocate of the proposal, was that the entrance fee should be indexed to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings and the annual fee should also be indexed to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. The annual fee dealt with food and other facilities in relation to the university. I was a member of the Sydney university Labor club. I did not hold a position other than returning officer, which I regarded as the most important position of the organisation! It was our view that the entrance fee was over the top. We took the view that, in terms of services, it was appropriate to increase the annual fee to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings because it went directly to students’ ongoing facilities within the university. We opposed the increase of the entrance fee to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings because the then union board wanted to use that to build an edifice in the Wentworth Building on City Road, similar to the University of New South Wales. It has subsequently been fixed. It was an interesting process. The rules of the union said that you needed a two-thirds majority at the first meeting and a simple majority at a subsequent meeting. A two-thirds majority was obtained for both propositions at the first meeting, but when it came to the second meeting only the annual fee was allowed to be increased to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. The current Leader of the Opposition tried to argue that, even though the proposition for the entrance fee was defeated at the second meeting, they could continue to call subsequent meetings until a simple majority carried the proposition. He abandoned that pretty quickly. At times he can be a bit of a kite-flyer.
The reason for the story is that he recognised then, as he should recognise now, that there should be these sorts of fees for student facilities, that indexing them is not a bad thing because it maintains the real earnings for the organisation and their ability to spend, and that there is nothing wrong with the proposition that that fee should apply across the university population. It is only through that that you will get the revenue to be able to deliver the adequate services. So the current Leader of the Opposition took a position as a student occupying a position at university which directly contradicts the position that the opposition is now taking in relation to this instance. That is the reason I relay the story. It helps to have a little history here to see whether people are being consistent over time. The reason we opposed the entrance fee indexation was that we thought we did not need edifices, that it was sufficient at the time.
In relation to the alternative Leader of the Opposition, the member for Higgins, I notice that he is listed to speak in the debate on this bill at a later hour. I do not know what he will say. I wait with anticipation. I appreciate the fact that it is the first time he has spoken on a substantive bill since the election of the new parliament, apart from the valedictory, which was a wonderful valedictory—
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.
I have changed for the better; I have changed for the worse. There is no change one way or the other. At the end of the day, the record speaks for itself. I tell you what, Madam Deputy Speaker: what my history does show is what you see is what you get. That is why I described earlier how I met the Leader of the Opposition. I quite like him. I have always liked him because in our relationship we have had our differences of opinion and we have been on the same side in a number of issues but there has always been respect and courtesy, which is what this is about. What I say to members of the opposition is: it is not about trying to punish people because they are on the opposite side; there has to be a set of principles here where you allow people to practise within certain parameters. Where this bill overcomes a lot of the problems in relation to student unions of the earlier days that those on the opposition benches complain of is that they are not going to be able to engage in those activities. But what we need to do is reinvigorate student activism or involvement, even if it is of only a select few.
Some of the members in this place do not have very representative branch structures, yet they are members of a federal parliament. There might be 140,000 people in your electorate, but when it comes to branch structures there are not many that have more than 1,000—or more than 500. Some might argue you have no right to open your mouth here when it comes to people who select you in the first instance, because you are representative of a narrow clique of people but you are then judged. So I think that the former government made a mistake. I spoke at the time and I said that they made a mistake, and, frankly, the material that has come in since the former government made the change shows that mistakes were made. I say to the House and to the opposition: do not repeat the mistakes of the past. Let us go forward with a situation that will help reinvigorate these campuses, which are cash-strapped and cannot provide services unless a bill in this form passes through this chamber and the next chamber.
What I find interesting is people fighting old battles from when they were involved in the student union. I think you are entitled to draw on that evidence. You are entitled to draw on the material, and if the situation is such that you can say, ‘These services weren’t provided and these inappropriate services were’ then there is a way around that. It seems to me that one of your arguments is that you do not like compulsion. Well, let’s not pay taxes; let’s not have driving licences before you can drive a car; let’s not request that people do jury service; let’s not have compulsory voting. You see, compulsion is built into our society at a number of levels and it should be built in at this level, but it should be in a way that has a structure that is accountable, that can be viewed by government from time to time to ensure that it is meeting the principles that we as a parliament lay down.
I commend the bill to the House. I think it is a bill worthy of support and I again commend the minister on bringing the bill forward in its current form. I know not everyone is happy with it but I think it is a good balance.
I welcome the opportunity to talk in this debate on this important bill, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, legislation that we will oppose for the reasons the member for Indi outlined at the commencement of this debate today. Can I say that I endorse absolutely everything the member for Indi said with respect to the coalition’s position.
I also welcome the opportunity to follow the member for Banks. Many of us here in this parliament know well the member for Banks. He is very passionate. He always puts his case very strongly. He relied on a whole range of his experiences. He cited things going back to the 1970s and 1980s. Having worked with him on a number of committees, the one thing I will say for the member for Banks is that, despite his differences on a whole range of political and philosophical issues with members of parliament like myself, he will not deliberately argue a point he does not agree with or deliberately mislead in any way. Whilst he was able to put his fingertips on a plethora of issues and he has instant recall of every issue going back to his days at Sydney university, which I admire, given that he is a bit older than me—I would not say I had an instant recall of everything back at the University of Melbourne—the one thing he was very careful about and very deliberately chose not to mention was the Labor Party’s position prior to the last election. He would not be comfortable addressing that issue.
This is a critical point. Before the last election, having opposed the Howard government and the views of people like myself that we should have voluntary student unionism, that we should trust every student to decide on their own whether they wished to join a union, having fought that fight, having articulated the Labor Party’s position—which is very consistent with what the member for Banks has had to say today—and having argued that case and lost that case in the Senate and in this House, the Labor Party then had a total backflip. The position that they put was that hand on heart they would not in any way, shape or form introduce a bill like this. As the member for Indi said, on 22 May the then shadow minister for education, Mr Smith, said:
One thing I can absolutely rule out is that I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, particularly a compulsory HECS style arrangement.
He went on to say:
I certainly do not have on my list an extension of HECS, either voluntary or compulsory, to fund these services. So I absolutely rule that out.
The position of that Mr Smith is the same as the position of this Mr Smith. The Labor Party said, ‘Despite what we have always said in the past, and despite how we have voted, we make an ironclad commitment to one million Australian university students that if we are elected to government we will not in any way, shape or form reintroduce compulsory unionism or even a compulsory union fee.’ The Labor Party gave an unequivocal guarantee at that time that, if they were elected to government, the House of Representatives would never consider what we are considering today.
One of two things brought that about. Let us think this through. One option is that the Labor Party, having strongly held views for all that time, and having opposed our legislation, then decided that they were wrong after all and our position was right—and they argued to the Australian people that there was not a cigarette paper between us. But, having won the election, they decided that they were wrong about changing their mind and reverted to their old position. That is ridiculous. This minister and members of the Labor Party opposite cannot stand and support the bill they have put forward in this parliament without acknowledging that they did not believe what they said to the Australian people before the election and that what we now have before us is a calculated broken promise. I would have more respect for them if that was acknowledged.
But the member for Banks was very careful not to address that fundamental issue. And for those opposite, there is no explanation. Do they really believe in all the passion we are seeing in this debate from the member for Banks and the members who will follow him? I will be interested to hear from the member for Deakin. He ran to the election promising that he would not support such a thing, but he is going to speak in support of it and vote on it. That is very interesting for the electors of Deakin. If that can happen on an issue like this for Australian students, it can happen on anything. But as they speak with their passion in support of this legislation, they confirm the total falsity of their claims prior to the last election and they confirm the complete hollowness of every other promise they made.
We strongly support freedom of association. We strongly believe that this legislation will not work. It is actually designed not to work. It is, with its compulsory fee, a Clayton’s form of compulsory unionism. We maintain that students have a right to choose whether to join a union and a right to choose what sorts of services they want to use. We stand up for the students who just want to get an education. We stand up for the thousands of external students who will be forced to pay this fee, this new tax, and for the part-time students who just want to attend a lecture after work. We also say that, if the services that are offered are good enough, students will happily join and happily pay. We have heard arguments about the need to subsidise catering on campus, but so many of our university campuses have for many years been surrounded by catering facilities. The University of Melbourne is a classic example. Nowhere else would there be more restaurants and cafes per square foot than there are near the University of Melbourne. The proof of the so-called success of this model can be seen in the queues of people leaving the campus at lunch hour to avoid the union-subsidised cafeteria!
Everywhere else in Australia, including in the electorates of La Trobe, Casey and Chisholm, there are small businesses operating catering services and restaurants. Madam Deputy Speaker, you would not get a better example than your own electorate of Chisholm. The argument that this cannot occur on a university campus and that there somehow has to be a subsidy is absolutely insulting. This legislation is before the House because the Labor Party, prior to the last election, made a decision that it was unpopular for them to stand up for their beliefs. The reason it is unpopular for them to stand up for their beliefs on this matter is that the minister and the members opposite do not care about the welfare of one million Australian students but they are obsessed about the welfare of some student union mates. That is the reality.
Before the last election, they had a choice. They could have said what they believed in but instead they said, ‘Let’s announce that we will do nothing, and’—in the famous words of the member for Kingsford Smith—‘if we get in we will change it all.’ That is what we are seeing here today. You will not see the member for Banks address that point. We will stand up strongly in this House and in the Senate for the right of students not to have to pay a $250 tax that those opposite promised they would not have to pay. We have seen all the hand-wringing from members of the Australian Labor Party over the years about how difficult Australian students find it to make ends meet. But then they introduce a $250 tax that will raise $250 million from Australian students, and they say they can put it on their HECS debt. The Labor Party say they are the party that is worried about student debt, but their first act on Australian campuses is to increase student debt. Why? Because they are more worried about the welfare of some student union leaders than the welfare of one million Australia students.
The member for Banks did not address that fundamental point. As I conclude, let me predict that the next speaker, the member for Deakin, will not address that fundamental point. I was thinking as I was preparing my remarks, ‘He might have a problem with this legislation: he might not think it goes far enough.’ But he is a newly elected member in this parliament who got elected on the Australian Labor Party’s policy platform. He will now stand up and, if he is candid, he will say, ‘What the Labor Party is now doing it pledged it would not do before the election when the students of Australia made up their mind.’
I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This bill will right a significant wrong of the Howard government’s last term in office. As a result of the Howard government’s Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005, $170 million of support has been lost from the tertiary level of a nation’s education system. This legislation is needed—that is, our legislation—now to provide a desperately needed funding stream that was taken away by the Howard government. This legislation is needed to restore the sense of community to Australia’s universities. It is worth while remembering that opting to go to university or TAFE is different today for students than it was for previous generations. There are certainly costs involved with fees that might not have been there in previous times and there is certainly now a different view when you get to a university and you see that the services that used to be provided now are not.
Remember that most students now have to work to support themselves—often up to 25 or 30 hours a week. This puts added pressure on them to manage time between their contact hours, out-of-hours study and work time. Of course, there is also the rising cost of textbooks and other study materials. These costs have increased substantially. As I said, course fees have gone up and the resultant HECS contribution hang over the heads of students—although to be fair the increase in the income threshold before fees have to be repaid has eased that burden for many graduates. But this incremental shift over the years has led to a more expensive tertiary education system for the many Australians who opt to further their education. Compounding this, the removal of compulsory student fees has led most universities to draw funding away from other education services in order to supplement, often at a reduced level, the many student services formerly catered for by this revenue stream. Services such as child care, employment and health services, and welfare support have been reduced to almost nothing or in some cases even nothing. Even the cost of buying food on campus has increased substantially—a point the previous member touched on. I would say in response that if you are fortunate enough to go to university in Melbourne, you quite often find it is cheaper to go out on the street to purchase food than it is on campus. Many university campuses are a long way away from such services and you pretty much have to take what you get. On a student’s income, having to pay some of those prices for food is going to be a struggle.
Their will be opponents of this legislation who will proclaim that this is an additional impost on students—a maximum $250 annual fee for some of those in our community who can least afford to pay it. The Rudd government understands that, where it can, it should avoid needlessly creating an additional short-term burden on students. At the commencement of the school year students face their greatest burden financially as they deal with the associated costs of receiving their education—the parking permits, new and second-hand textbooks, class reading material, audiovisual and information technology equipment, scientific equipment, stationery and all the other associated costs that go with the big jump from leaving school and going to university.
This time normally coincides with a drop in income as many tertiary students who have worked extra hours during their holidays reduce their working hours as their tertiary contact hours increase. These are the reasons this government has sought to stop the introduction of the compulsory student services and amenities fee from being a barrier to tertiary education by creating a new higher education loan program component called SA-HELP. SA-HELP will allow eligible students to offset their costs in a similar fashion to the way in which the FEE-HELP system does now.
I also note that in many instances students paying the $250 student services and amenities fee or the $125 maximum fee for the second semester of 2009 will pay less than they did before the Howard government introduced voluntary student unionism. For example, a full-time student attending the La Trobe University Bundoora campus in 2006 would have paid a $356 general service fee. A student attending the same campus of the same university in 2010 will pay a minimum of $106 less should Latrobe University choose to implement a services fee. I highlight this to underline the fact that the government is not seeking to increase the financial burden on students; instead the government is seeking to bring services and amenities back to campuses. It is seeking to support students and rejuvenate campus culture and on-campus support and to do so in a way which impinges on students in the most minimal way possible.
It should be noted that this legislation does not force students to join a student union, much as the member for Casey may think otherwise. If we look at the explanatory memorandum for the Howard government’s 2005 bill bought by the then education minister, the member for Bradfield, we can see the following, and I quote:
The Bill will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003, to prohibit all higher education providers (public and private) from:
- requiring a person to become a member of a student association (union or guild)
The Howard government could have stopped right there, safe in the knowledge that it had introduced voluntary student unionism but without having destroyed a vital funding stream for Australian universities. Instead it went on with a second point that prohibited, and again I quote:
- requiring a student to pay fees for non-academic student services
If they had acted reasonably and not taken this step, they would not have presided over the removal and the reduction of student services in tertiary campuses right across the nation. Advocacy, advice, legal counsel, support for mature age and international students, on-campus child care, support for new mums returning to education, medical services and, importantly, student peer support and orientation for new students all went. There was no funding that came through after that.
In particular, students from rural and regional communities were disadvantaged by the removal of these services and the introduction of user pays models for the provision of services on campuses—and not always were they even there. More often than not, rural and regional students faced a greater financial burden in seeking a tertiary education, especially if they had relocated to attend university. Living away from home—from families, friends and a familiar environment—these students, more than most other students, depend on on-campus student services to support them throughout their tertiary education, especially in their first year.
Student advocacy, peer orientation and accommodation support services all play an important role in helping these rural and regional students adjust to and thrive in their new environment. Without those services, it can be a really hard slog. You may not have many friends when you first get to uni. I am sure you will get them over the years, but it is a new environment. If you come down from the country, you can be in a huge institution with not many people you have ever seen before and it can be a very challenging environment.
Living away from the family home increases the pressure placed on these students. There are additional food costs, transport costs and accommodation costs. Moving out of home brings all these costs to many people who have always lived in the city, but to change from a rural or regional environment to a city campus can be even more challenging. At the same time, user pays access to important services has harmed students who often needed the services most yet had a lesser capacity to pay for them.
As I said earlier, this legislation will help right a wrong of the Howard years—the ideological crusade against student unionism. With control of the numbers in the Senate in 2005, the Liberals were overjoyed that they could finally salve the frustrations of their years on campus back in the seventies and strike down student unionism once and for all. Of course, we knew then, as we know now, that vital student services on campus would be the innocent victim of this ideological crusade against student unionism. I and many others have often wondered if the legislative move against student unions was merely because of the moniker of that word ‘union’.
The previous speaker, the member for Casey, said in this debate that the opposition support freedom of association. That is fine—that is their principle—but what does freedom of association have to do with the provision of campus services? I still have not made that connection, and I do not think a lot of people can see where it is. Interestingly, back in 2005, some Liberals spoke out against the destruction of student services.
We will get to the National Party a bit later. Some Liberals spoke out against it. One was quite close to my home base. In fact, it was the member for Warrandyte, the Deputy Leader of the Victorian Liberals, Phil Honeywood. Mr Honeywood knew the legislative ambitions of the former education minister, the member for Bradfield, and his government would be the end of student services and vibrant school communities in our universities. In fact, in an open letter to his fellow Liberals in the pages of the Melbourne Age, Mr Honeywood wrote:
There is a very real danger, however, that our universities and TAFE institutes stand to lose a great deal more than just revenue if the legislation now before Federal Parliament is enacted.
And, getting back to the Nationals, the now leader of the Nationals in the other place knew it too. Senator Joyce knew that families from rural and regional areas were greatly disadvantaged by the removal of student services on campus. That is why he proclaimed he would tell the then education minister to ‘stick VSU up his jumper’.
In selling the legislation to the Australian people, and to university communities in particular, the Howard government used a series of user pays examples. These examples generally involved a hardworking university student who was aggrieved at paying a general service fee that would in turn support the university abseiling, rowing or even a toga club. This was unfair to the many students who depended on the provision of support services at their university campus.
The reintroduction and strengthening of the provision of services is important to university campuses, but student social activities, sporting organisations, sporting facilities, groups and clubs, and communications media are just as important. As an example, I draw the House’s attention to the Student Youth Network radio station—also known as SYN FM—which was granted a community radio licence in 2001. The station serves a diverse cross-section of young people and students across metropolitan Melbourne and could not have commenced broadcasting without the support of student unions.
The station received $500,000 in start-up funding from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology student union and $175,000 of recurrent funding plus in-kind support, which represented around 25 per cent of the cost of running the station. La Trobe, Deakin and Melbourne university student unions also provided recurrent funds to ensure their students could access airtime on the station. Following the introduction of the VSU legislation, these student unions were no longer able to contribute financially to this service nor were they able to guarantee access to this service for their students.
Students utilising SYN would often augment their studies in media, journalism, and communications by working shifts and compiling programs for broadcast on the station. SYN has made an outstanding contribution to young people across Melbourne, enabling thousands of students to develop a broad range of skills that improve their employability once they complete their studies. Being involved in an extra-curricular activity such as SYN provides students and young people with communication, research and production skills and, of course, helps develop their self esteem.
The loss of funding from the introduction of the VSU legislation would have significantly impacted on the operation of SYN, if the RMIT had not stepped in to provide some support to the station. However, this arrangement is now a year-to-year contract, which is often—and particularly now—in jeopardy due to the financial constraints faced by the university. Rather than focusing on assisting students in broadening their education in broadcast media, SYN management now need to devote time to sourcing funding—a problem also experienced by many community radio stations.
The work of SYN FM has been documented by Ellie Rennie, a Swinburne Research Fellow, who found that SYN is making a significant contribution to advancing digital literacy. Ms Rennie found that over 5,000 young people had been members of SYN in only a few years of broadcasting, with even higher numbers if short half-day trainee school groups or term-long radio announcers are also included; and that between 2003 and 2006 over 80 members of SYN found media and media-related paid work. Ms Rennie also found that volunteer meetings regularly attract in excess of 70 people, and SYN’s internal online discussion forum receives an average of 20 posts a day, with 50 individuals logging in over the course of a week. This forum covers work related activities, as well as broader issues in media and society.
In 2006 the radio station, according to McNair Research, had an audience of 124,000 weekly listeners, and their daily television program was, at times, attracting up to 30,000 viewers. The majority of SYN members are under the age of 21. SYN functions as a media workplace and training ground for young people with disciplines, schedules, and technical demands—as you would expect in a production environment. SYN is not just a radio station or a radio station supported by student unions but a creative outlet and important incubator of skills for its many volunteers. The support of student organisations such as SYN is vital to the enrichment of the social and learning fabric of our universities.
This bill assists universities in turning around the years of neglect under the Howard government. This important funding will help universities rebuild campus facilities, including student amenities like child care. These are the same childcare services this bill will help universities staff, equip, and encourage students to use. With the passage of this bill, the Rudd government will right a significant wrong that was done under the Howard government. We will restore the sense of community to Australian universities. The Rudd government will encourage the re-emergence of student services, and we will support and encourage the tertiary sector through this measure and, of course, through the many other measures already passed through this parliament. I commend this bill to the House.
What a pleasure it is to follow the member for Deakin, who so eloquently finished his presentation speech before the House by saying that the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 seeks to right a significant wrong. I suggest that we could expect that from a former full-time union official. This bill seeks to dress up compulsory student unionism in the raiment of higher education legislation amendment.
My father once told me that you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The member for Moreton should take that on board, because you cannot tart up voluntary or compulsory student unionism in the clothing of higher education legislation and not expect the Australian people to see through it for what it is—a cynical attempt at putting back dollars and cents into the Labor student union mould. Everyone, apart from Young Labor, thinks this is a rotten idea. Every student union type movement on our campuses, apart from Young Labor, thinks this is an appalling piece of policy. It is not hard to work out who benefits from such a policy piece—you simply look at who wants it. I look across the House at the member for Moreton and others, former full-time union officials, and I wonder why they agree with their counterparts, Young Labor. Considering that the Young Labor movement in the election before last gave something like a quarter of a million dollars to the Labor campaign, it is not hard to see who benefits.
The member for Moreton will forgive me if I find his outbursts and his urges ridiculous, patently useless and not worth listening to—as I would from all union officials who would back such a piece of legislation.
The purpose of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 is to allow higher education providers to impose a compulsory levy on students from 1 July 2009, capped at $250 per year. There are, of course, other measures included in the bill: allowing students to defer payments of the compulsory fee by accessing a HECS style loan; including tertiary centres into the regime that govern higher education providers’ access; and expanding the VET-FEE HELP. The services which may be funded by this compulsory levy—or should we say a student tax—will apparently be outlined in the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines, which will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument after the bill has been passed. So the government walks into this House to say: ‘Every uni student must pay up to $250. It is not compulsory unionism yet it looks like it, smells like it and feels like it. It will be used for amenities, but we are not going to tell you what those amenities are until after the bill passes.’ The government can forgive me for being a touch cynical about the bill and, indeed, its measures.
The bill will require higher education providers to comply with these new Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines. They will impose obligations on the providers to comply with requirements relating to—apparently—student representation and advocacy. My view is that it is effectively funding student elections, union officers and salaries. As with the fee guidelines above, the student representation and advocacy guidelines will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument. Guess when? After the bill has been passed. The idea of saying to students, ‘There is an amount of money that you must pay, and it is for a range of services that we are not going to tell you about until after the bill has been passed,’ is absolutely and utterly atrocious. Could you imagine if a car salesman said: ‘Here is the car. I want you to buy it but I am not going to tell you what optional extras go with it until after you pay the money.’ Or indeed, ‘Here is a bank loan,’ or: ‘Here is a job. We are not going to tell you the benefits, the services, the terms or the fees until after you sign on the dotted line.’ And the member for Moreton, in all his verbosity in the House, thinks that is appropriate. Well, sir, go to your constituents and outline it like that; say, ‘Do you think this is fair?’ I can guarantee you their response will be one, the same and sound—and it will be ‘no’. I gather, by your silence, that you acquiesce in this matter.
Labor has indeed broken its promise. That is not surprising; it is getting particularly good at that. It did not include the introduction of a higher education amenity fee in the policies it took to the last election. Indeed, let me read through some of the statements that the current Labor frontbench made prior to the election. Let us start with one of the more senior ministers, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He was then the shadow minister for education. I will quote it especially for the member for Moreton, at the back, because he seems to be hard of hearing. He 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.
Surprise, surprise, Minister for Foreign Affairs: look what has materialised here in the House. The member for Wills, on 14 October 2003, during the debate on the Higher Education Support Bill, 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; …
Won’t he be suitably embarrassed? As the member for Moreton leaves the House, not wanting to stay around and hear the rest of the indictment of the Labor frontbench, I will quote the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, the member for Melbourne, who in the same debate, on 14 October 2003, said:
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.
Clearly, the Labor frontbench have forgotten these statements and simply moved on in the same old Labor mould—that is, ‘We want to get compulsory student unionism back in.’
The Howard government got rid of compulsory student unionism with the VSU legislation in 2005. Students, on average, have saved $246 per annum, and those who have chosen not to become members of student unions have saved, on average, $318. This has enabled students to spend their money—heaven forbid!—on services and things that they want. Labor vehemently opposed our student union legislation in 2005. In 2004, the National Union of Students continued its longstanding practice of opposing the conservative side of politics and spent a quarter of a million dollars against the Howard government. The Labor Party has long been a beneficiary of dollars and cents support from student unions.
This fee is slugging students a maximum $250. University students often work long hours and exist on a shoestring budget. This is another fee that is hitting them. Students should not be forced to pay for services or amenities they do not want, many of which are already offered by universities. And what of the over 130,000 external students? I speak as one who studied part-time for many years and was continually flogged an amount of money for student union fees for services I did not use. Apparently I was to take heart that the student unions’ range of services, which included boozy pub crawls, were an effective use of the money that I paid as an external student. Many university students choose to be part of sporting clubs, associations and a range of activities off campus for which they pay a fee. Why should they subsidise services that universities should be paying for? If universities are short of dollars and cents they should be speaking to the appropriate minister, not flogging students for an amount of money.
This type of student payment was tried back in the early 1990s by the Victorian government and proved to be an abject failure. Student unions used the profits from certain activities effectively to subsidise activities for which direct funding was disallowed. The minister assures us that the legislation will prohibit money being spent for political purposes, yet there seems to be a hollow ring to that assurance. The only activities expressly prohibited by the legislation are support for political parties and support for election to Commonwealth, state or local government bodies. This still leaves a large range of political activities, including funding campaigns against legislation and policy, potentially against political parties, and the ability to support trade unions or other organisations not registered as a party. There are no departmental guidelines or monitoring to ensure compliance. Ostensibly, it will be up to individual students to put their hands in the air and say something is wrong. Even then, it is up to the minister as to whether any penalty will be imposed. Forgive my cynicism, but I cannot see a Labor minister imposing a penalty on a student union body affiliated with Young Labor for fracturing a line or two. I could be wrong and I am happy to stand corrected.
The compulsory fees will be indexed each year to CPI, which effectively increases the burden. And it is still unclear what obligations will be placed on higher education providers regarding student representation and advocacy. The draft guidelines already impose obligations on education providers effectively to fund resources and infrastructure for student unions. This is clearly a broken promise. The obligations imposed on providers to support student unions go far beyond what the previous government legislated and far beyond what Labor promised during the election. It is appalling that they have broken faith with the Australian community. Labor did not put their hands in the air before the election and say, ‘We are going to slug university students.’ Labor did not say to those university students, all standing there in their Kevin 07 T-shirts: ‘You know what? We loved the T-shirt but we are going to hammer you for $250 each. We are not going to tell you about it but we are going to legislate to bring it in because, frankly, we need to fund the Young Labor movement in universities.’ The bill is not supported. There is no way the bill can be supported. It is a cynical, hollow attempt to sneak in compulsory student unionism by the back door, yet—surprise, surprise—as the unions kick in the back door, the real defenders of free speech are here to ensure it does not occur.