Thursday, 19 March 2009
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009
Debate resumed from 18 March, on motion by Ms Kate Ellis:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. Indeed, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to speak in support of this bill. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 in four particular areas: (1) it allows higher education providers to charge students an annual capped student services and amenities fee from 1 July 2009, (2) it introduces a new Higher Education Loan Program, HELP, category for student amenities fees, called SA-HELP, (3) it broadens the application of the HELP category for vocational education and training students, called VET FEE-HELP, and (4) it provides that officers of tertiary admission centres have the same status and duty of care as those of higher education providers in relation to processing student information. It also amends the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 to account for the new SA-HELP provisions.
The purpose of the bill is to deliver a balanced, measured and—as I outlined above—practical solution to rebuilding student services and amenities of a non-academic nature. It restores independent democratic representation in tertiary institutions and advocacy in the higher education sector. There has been some comment about the advocacy of students through student unions in tertiary education institutions as though somehow that is a bad thing. That is what I have heard from the opposition. But it is a good thing; we expect our students to be active and engaged—engaged in a battle of ideas. That is what we want them to do. We want them to go to universities to expand their minds and learn not to be thwarted by an ideological straitjacket, which is what the legislation that was introduced by the previous government did. I remember when the Howard-Costello government introduced the system that outlawed or prohibited student union fees. It did a number of things, but really it was ideologically driven. It was driven in the same way that Work Choices was, and they just went a bit too far. This resulted in a loss of money to higher education institutions and a loss of student services and amenities. It also resulted in a loss of about 1,000 jobs—and I will turn to that later in my contribution.
I also remember the vice-chancellors objecting, as did some of the now-diminishing National Party members. If I remember correctly, Senator Joyce might even have crossed the floor on this matter when it went through the Senate a few years ago. The National Party were thrown a bit of a lifeline—a transition funding package called the VSU transition fund. That was for some recreational and sporting facilities but in no way addressed the downfall, the loss of revenue and the thousand jobs that disappeared out of the higher education sector and out of the universities. The Australasian Campus Union Managers Association and the Australian Union of Students both said that this was a lame response and it could in no way meet the difference—the missing dollars for both the recurrent funding and the capital required to provide basic student services and amenities. Forget the politics and forget the advocacy; what we saw was the Liberal Party, with its ideological obsession about getting rid of student unions, actually ripping the guts out of the universities providing services to students.
I am on the council of a university—Southern Cross University. It is my local university. I have seen the impact of this. It is not just something that I read about; I saw the impact. I was part of the debate, and I am glad to be part of the debate now so that we can restore those services to the university. The Australasian Campus Union Managers Association reported that, as a result of the axing of the scheme a few years back, there was a net loss of nearly $170 million to amenities and services. It was their report that detailed the loss of about 1,000 jobs. Speaking of jobs, we have heard a lot about jobs lately, particularly from the opposition. This is the party that professes to care about jobs but introduced a scheme that took 1,000 jobs out of the universities. It is no different to what they did with Work Choices. They just went that bit too far with their ideological obsession in these areas. I remember that it took about three goes for this to get through. It was proposed in 1999 and in 2003 and finally went through in 2005. So it was something that they were determined to do.
I will make a few points about the student services and amenities measure. The review of the impacts of the voluntary student unionism measures undertaken by the government in 2008 revealed that essential student services were hit hard. They stripped close to $170 million from amenities and services, as I have detailed before, and not only were much-needed services reduced—and on some campuses they ceased to exist—but also students were hit with increased prices for child care, parking, books, computer lab access and sport and food services as a result of VSU. It is bad enough that money disappeared and jobs disappeared, but it also increased costs to the students.
Students also experienced indirect costs, with many universities having to redirect funds out of research and teaching budgets to fund services and amenities that otherwise would have been cut. I have heard it said on the other side of the chamber that there are some students at universities, external students and part-time students, who might not get direct access to services. But the services are there for the common good—for everybody to access—and that is what this is about. It is about providing services and it is about access.
The government, in introducing this legislation, is taking a balanced and practical approach to ensure student amenities and services, and access to independent and democratic representation and advocacy, are secured now and into the future. Also, through these amendments, the government will, for the first time, introduce national access to services benchmarks relating to the provision of information on and access to services, such as welfare and counselling services, in line with the current requirements for overseas students—and for the first time these amendments will introduce national student representation and advocacy protocols to ensure that students have an independent voice on campus.
To support quality services over and above these benchmarks and protocols universities will be provided with the option to set a compulsory fee, capped at a maximum of $250 per year indexed annually. A set of guidelines will be developed outlining the range of services and amenities for which the fee can and cannot be used. This will include things like child care, health care and sports and fitness clubs. Consultations to finalise these guidelines are scheduled for March, and I know that my local university, Southern Cross University, has been very involved in this area. It will be a decision for each university as to whether it wishes to implement a fee and the level of that fee up to $250.
My concluding comment is that this is sensible legislation. It is legislation that federal Labor gave a commitment to. It restores student services and amenities back into universities. It will bring money back into the university sector and it will enable the creation of jobs, after the 1,000 jobs that were ripped out of the universities with the introduction of the Howard-Costello VSU plan. With those comments, I commend the bill to the House.
I too rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I note from a speech made by the Deputy Prime Minister on 9 March that in Australia only 32 per cent of young adults have been to university. In contrast, in Sweden almost 50 per cent of young people attended university or a similar tertiary institution, and in Ireland the participation rate is around 55 per cent.
Of greater concern is that in recent years Australia’s university participation rate has remained static. In other words, during the years in which Australia prospered from the resources boom, higher education participation rates stagnated. Not surprisingly, comparisons with other OECD countries show that Australia’s higher education ranking has fallen from seventh in 1996 to ninth today. It is a trend that is consistent with many other patterns when one looks at education performance indicators in Australia under the previous coalition government.
This bill is another measure of the package of education initiatives that form part of the Rudd government’s education revolution. It seems common sense to me that providing university students with supportive ancillary services will enhance their learning outcomes and increase university participation. It is also the case that many and possibly most university students are not awash with money. I believe that most of them do it pretty tough. They skimp and save to make ends meet, with many university students juggling part-time work and studies. In fact, I understand that 1.1 million Australians are currently combining work with full-time studies. That is a combination of university students and younger people in secondary schooling. I recently heard of one university student who was juggling studies with being a carer. When I heard that student put her case, it immediately became evident to me that she was not alone in trying to do that.
University life and university study can be very stressful for a student. Juggling studies with work, family commitments and social life all add to that stress and compound it. University student services can therefore take a huge load off students. The support that those services can provide can make a difference between a student completing a degree or not. They can even make a difference as to whether a student attempts a university degree. Coalition members simply do not get it and never have been serious about raising education standards in Australia. Their view has always been that you can pay your own way through life. If you cannot, it is too bad. And that equally applies when it comes to education.
Using that mentality, the disadvantaged are further disadvantaged and the cycle of disadvantage is perpetuated. Children from disadvantaged communities do not lack the intelligence or ability to successfully complete higher education degrees. What they often lack is the financial support that is needed to overcome many of the barriers they often have to overcome. Professor Denise Bradley said:
Despite low access rates, the success rate (or tendency to pass their year’s subjects) of low socio-economic status students is 97 per cent of the pass rates of their medium and high socio-economic status peers …
If we want to increase education standards we must remove the very barriers that prevent so many young people from completing university and other higher education degrees. Providing university students with supportive services is an effective step in removing those barriers. Health services, counselling services, legal services, employment services, welfare support services, even housing, decent cafeterias, childcare support, sporting facilities and other services—this is the range of services that the various universities around Australia individually provide.
These services have been substantially denied to students because of the obsession the coalition members had with unions when they were in government. We saw it earlier this week in the debate in this place on the electoral law amendments, where their obsession with unions was very evident. We saw it with their extreme Work Choices laws. We saw it with their extreme ABCC legislation. We saw it with the Peter Reith affair—the rottweilers on the docks debacle—and we saw it with their student union legislation in 2005.
Whilst voluntary student unionism sounded admirable in 2005 in that it supposedly provided choice, the reality is that the decline in membership was inevitable and that in turn student support services would decline as well. That is precisely what happened, with $170 million being stripped from university student service funding around Australia. And what were the consequences? Let us look at some of them.
La Trobe and Southern Cross University dental services were closed down completely. The University of Technology, Sydney, La Trobe and James Cook universities closed their legal services. In the case of the University of Technology, Sydney, this affected not only students but also the local community, who were also able to access that very service. The emergency loan scheme once offered at the University of Sydney is now closed. At least three universities have shut down their Centrelink advice services and nine universities have shut down their student legal and or taxation advice services. Six universities have shut down their elite athlete support programs and eight universities have discontinued funding of sports scholarships. Some universities, to their credit, redirected funds from other areas in an attempt to continue the provision of essential student services. They cared about their students. Regrettably, all that does, however, is compromise the service for which those funds were originally allocated without fully restoring the full range of student services lost.
There is widespread support for this legislation from throughout the Australian university sector. Let me quote what some of the universities have had to say. On 3 November 2008 the Group of Eight, a coalition of leading Australian universities, said:
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.
Universities Australia, the industry peak body representing the university sector, said on the same date:
Universities have struggled for years to prop up essential student services through cross-subsidisation from other parts of already stretched university budgets, to redress the damage that resulted from the Coalition Government’s disastrous Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.
The Australian Olympic Committee said in its submission to the 2008 review:
… the introduction of the VSU legislation has had a direct negative impact on the number of students (particularly women) participating in sport and, for the longer term, the maintenance and upgrading of sporting infrastructure and facilities and the retention of world class coaches.
The impact of the removal of university student services on country students warrants special attention. Country students often relocate to capital cities or regional centres so that they can pursue their study. The relocation immediately adds to the cost of their career development. It is often those additional costs which prevent young people from country areas from pursuing university studies and their preferred career paths. However, for those that do get to a university, there is little doubt that they have additional barriers to overcome. They need to integrate into a new community, without having the support that a family home and a familiar local community provide. So their extended family, particularly in the early months, becomes the university community. For both emotional and financial reasons, they come to rely on the very services that had previously been provided by universities but which in many cases have now been withdrawn. This bill will enable universities to restore those services and in turn, hopefully, remove some of the barriers to university entry for many country students.
The removal of the barriers and the provision of university services will also be invaluable to overseas students, who, as with country students, have to relocate away from their own community. They have to relocate away from their own homeland. For international students, the relocation is compounded by language and cultural differences, so the university community and the services provided become even more important to them. Attracting overseas students to Australian universities is important for our country and important for individual universities. For our country, overseas students become an important link with overseas countries. Greater respect and understanding are fostered between Australia and other countries. Cultural barriers are further broken down and valuable trade links are sometimes established. For the universities, the overseas students provide an income stream which in turn enables the university to provide a much better range of services for all students. Overseas students have choices. They can choose to attend universities in countries other than Australia. Australian universities know that and they compete for the enrolment of overseas students. In fact, it is probably one of the biggest trade areas that this country has to benefit from in the years ahead. The choice that overseas students make about which university and which country they travel to will be influenced by all of the services that a university provides, including the student support services that this bill aims to reinstate.
I heard a moment ago the member for Page talking about her association with a university in her area. I have had a lengthy association with the University of South Australia, in Mawson Lakes. I know for a fact that the university places high importance on the enrolment of overseas students, so much so that the university has worked extremely hard with the surrounding local community to ensure that overseas students are made to feel welcome and are made to feel at home, through the provision of a whole range of services. The university does what it can. Its ability to provide those services has been limited because the funds have not been available. So it has turned to the local community to assist in making those overseas students feel at home. I have been involved in some of the programs to do that. This highlights two things: firstly, the importance of overseas students to universities in Australia and, secondly, the importance of having the appropriate range of services if you are going to attract those university students to Australia.
It matters to students and it matters to their families far away to know that the universities provide a range of support services that any young person living away from home may need. I am sure it is not very difficult for any parent to understand that, if your children had to relocate from a country area to the city, you would have some reservations and some concerns about their wellbeing and their safety. Imagine what it is like when your child relocates from one country to another. Those concerns are compounded because you are so far away from them. Therefore, any action that can be taken to put people’s minds at rest that both the universities and the local communities are providing the services that these students may require is very, very important.
In listening to opposition speakers on this bill, it is clear that they are blinded by any reference to the term ‘union’. I commented on this earlier. Interest sectors in society can come together with a common objective and call themselves an association, a federation, a congress, a society, perhaps even a chamber, but call it a union and the coalition members go into a frenzy. It was the coalition members’ paranoia about the term ‘union’ that led to the demise of student services at universities across Australia. Now coalition members say that imposing compulsory fees on students will cause an additional financial burden on cash-strapped students. They are right about one thing: students are cash-strapped. But, under this legislation, students do have the option of taking out HECS style loans to pay for any fees imposed and then repaying those amounts when they have completed their education and are earning an income. Furthermore, students will have a student voice in the decision-making process relating to the fees charged and the services provided. In other words, they will have a direct say in how those fees that are raised by the universities are expended. There will also be a clear set of guidelines in respect of what the fees can be used for. This will ensure that the fees raised are used for legitimate and approved services, services that are needed and appreciated by students and which will enable more of them to successfully complete their studies.
Finally, I just want to re-emphasise the point that was previously made by the member for Page. I would have thought that all members in this House would encourage young people, as they go through their university life, to become involved in the broader issues of society. Whatever career paths they choose, whatever philosophical views they choose, are entirely up to them. There is no suggestion that any legislation of this type directs students to take a particular philosophical view or another. It is open to them to do with their lives what they choose, and I would have thought that encouraging them to understand, participate and actively become involved in community life would be something that we should encourage them to do because, ultimately, when they finally complete their studies, that is exactly what they will have to do.
This is good legislation. It restores services that university students require. It will make their life at university easier. I hope and expect that it will encourage and support more university students to get through university. I commend the bill to the House.
I rise today to talk on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I am probably a bit different from most members in this place. I admit that I did not attend university or a tertiary education institution. I was a humble tradesman and I feel honoured to be in this place with so many educated people. Obviously, attending a university or a tertiary eduction institute also gives you an automatic degree in passion when it comes to this issue.
I have heard members from both sides of this House claim the high moral ground on this issue. It is fantastic to see the intelligentsia coming forward and proclaiming that they know best. I cannot talk about my own experiences on this matter but I have spent some time talking to people who have experienced campus life and who are currently enrolled. I have also listened to some of the highly charged arguments made by members in this place. There have been accusations of members presenting mischievous arguments on this matter. In my speech I will obviously have a slant towards the opposition’s position, but I would also add that we cannot isolate universities from the expectations and accountability that all of society has to live by.
My electorate is a student hub. In total there are 10,457 students who reside in Swan. Many students attend Curtin University of Technology, in Bentley, which is Western Australia’s largest university. There are also many students who live in my electorate who attend one of the nearby universities, such as the University of Western Australia or Murdoch University. UWA student Andrew Williams, who recently won a prestigious national science award, is one such example. In fact the participation rate of 17- to 22-year-olds in tertiary education in my electorate ranks 33rd highest out of the 150 electorates. The people of my electorate therefore have an important stake in this legislation.
There are many reasons why I oppose this legislation today. First, it represents a tax hike that will put more pressure on students to work and it will persuade some not to attend university at all—especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Second, I have been advised that the legislation is ideologically charged and, as such, is a return to compulsory student unionism by stealth. Third, this legislation is undemocratic. It fails to include key guidelines. We are being asked to vote now and find out about it later. It also fails to provide departmental scrutiny, instead giving significant powers to the Deputy Prime Minister. Importantly, it was not one of the policies that the ALP took to the last election.
If passed, this bill will lead to students in my electorate being charged a compulsory levy on student services, up to a total of $250 per year. Students should not be burdened with extra taxes. Like every other member of our community, students already pay the same income taxes, GST and other taxes that we all pay. They live by the same laws and they pay the same taxes. Students are already paying for living expenses, books and travel to and from classes and work, all without a steady income and without the ability to work a full-time job. A $250 tax is another unnecessary pressure, stress and difficulty for students to deal with. Students should not have to pay for services or amenities which they do not want. It should be the right of the student to choose. Many will choose to pay for off-campus services, which may be better value. Why should they have to subsidise uncompetitive activities on campus? It seems particularly unfair that the 130,000 external students across Australia who do not access campus resources will have to pay this fee. It also appears that students may have to pay for child care for staff members. The member for Braddon said that university childcare costs have risen. It is amazing that most of the childcare facilities at the University of New South Wales are being used by staff members. Why should students have to support services for university staff? The member for Braddon also spoke about services on campus being utilised by members of the public. Again, why should students have to support services for members of the public?
I note that the Minister for Education has recently been talking about the need to increase the number of people from less-affluent backgrounds who attend university. I can tell the minister that a $250 tax is unlikely to help her achieve this goal. Students on average have saved $247 per annum as a result of the Howard VSU legislation, and those who have chosen not to become members of student unions have saved on average $318 per annum. These savings mean that students can spend more time studying and less time in a job paying unnecessary fees or taxes. Only recently, members of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training were briefed on the detrimental effect of students having to combine work and study. Whilst I acknowledge that many students successfully manage work and study, they should not be pushed to breaking point. A student on the national minimum wage of $14.31 per hour will have to work an extra 17½ hours to pay off this new tax bill.
The compulsory $250 amenities fee is effectively a poll tax on university students. That is the key issue here. Students will be slugged this amount, or a portion of it, regardless of their income or their ability to use the services that the fees will contribute to. Like any regressive tax, it will hit poor students hardest. The member for Braddon accused the member for Canning of being mischievous when he assumed that the majority of universities would choose to implement this tax. This is not mischievous but simply realistic. Can the member for Braddon name one university that has said it will not introduce this tax?
I note the minister’s plan for how students should pay this tax is consistent with this government’s approach to most issues: add it to personal debt. How disappointing yet unsurprising that, in a financial crisis caused by excessive debt, the Minister for Youth is encouraging students to take out more debt.
The Minister for Youth said in her second reading speech:
Let me be clear—the bill is not a return to compulsory student unionism.
Why would you have to declare that if it were not so? Why are government members so delicate about this assertion? Maybe it is true. However, the only political activities expressly prohibited by the legislation are support for political parties and support for election to a Commonwealth, state, territory or local government body. Funds may be used for student representation. Funding campaigns against legislation and policies—and potentially against any political parties or in support of trade unions or any other organisation not registered as a political party—are not ruled out. It is more than likely that the money collected will find its way into the hands of unrepresentative student unions. Spending of student money to make political points should be prohibited.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to consider this in the context of how student unions are elected. A staggeringly low number of students vote in student elections. I understand that all positions for the 2008 election for the Curtin guild were uncontested, with one exception: NUS delegates, numbering 400 out of a total student population of 34,000—with 25,000 students at the Bentley campus—voted. In 2006 the guild elections at Curtin University were held on a Wednesday during a free period time. A lot of students were not in attendance at university that day or found they were unable to drag themselves away from the local tavern. How can this type of election be representative? I believe these trends are not uncommon in universities across Perth. This example indicates to me that student unions and guilds are some of the most unrepresentative elected bodies in the country.
In Australia we pride ourselves on deep democracy, sustained by federalism and our current system of compulsory voting. In most other spheres of society it would be considered unreasonable to raise money of this magnitude—up to $250 million—with no accountability for how it is spent. If this issue is so important to the government, why didn’t they just allocate $250 million out of the $42 billion debt package to the universities to use on amenities? I know why. It is because government money has to be accountable. If the government cared about the accountability of student money, they would consider extending compulsory voting to university guild elections. It would not be difficult to implement. Voting in elections could just be made a university requirement, like a compulsory student tax. This would ensure that student unions were fully representative and it would give a mandate to any body that is a beneficiary of this tax to use the money only as per the wishes of the representative body. Of course, within a context of compulsory voting it would then be fair to organise a referendum on the issue of student taxes.
This brings me to my final point. Even if this bill were not an ideologically driven tax on a vulnerable group, we on this side of the House would still have a responsibility to vote against it because we have not seen the key elements of the bill. Money collected by the tax will be distributed according to the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines. However, those guidelines are unwritten, so we have not seen them yet. We are simply told they will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument after the bill has been passed. This is undemocratic. Similarly, the universities are expected to administer this funding in accordance with the Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines, the final copy of which will be tabled in parliament only after the bill has passed. In addition to this there will be no departmental oversight to protect against poor expenditure; it will only be overseen by the Deputy Prime Minister. With her busy schedule, I doubt that will be effective.
In speech after speech—from the Minister for Youth’s opener to the member for Braddon’s effort—Labor have claimed that this is somehow delivering on a Labor Party election commitment. It may be delivering on a private commitment that the ALP made to the NUS. However, it certainly was not an election commitment that was made publicly to the Australian people. There was no mention of a higher education amenity fee in the policy which the Labor Party took to the last election. In fact, they made the opposite pledge. The member for Boothby has already quoted the then shadow minister for education, the member for Perth, who said in a May 2007 statement that he was not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.
In conclusion, this bill represents a tax for students. It places an undue burden on those who can least afford it, purely to provide services they will not benefit from. The debate on this bill has been very emotionally charged. It appears from some of the exchanges between members—for example, that between the member for Hume and the member for Leichhardt in the Main Committee yesterday—that this is an issue that goes to the very core of ideals and philosophies of the conservative and the left-wing political parties in our society. Personally, having not lived through the battles in the furnace of political birth that many members in this place have gone through, I have found it a great experience and a personal education to see such passion and such emotionally charged argument during this debate. I will be voting against the bill.
As always, it is good to see you in the chair, Deputy Speaker Secker. It will come as no surprise to honourable members that I also intend to vote against this bill. Every so often in parliament we find a piece of legislation which goes back to the Dark Ages, the bad old days. Every so often, despite the fact that the government likes to claim that it is packed with economic conservatives, who are presumably people not of an extremist left-wing persuasion, we find legislation like the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 creeping onto the parliamentary agenda.
I consider there to be two major problems with this particular bill as far as students are concerned. Firstly, there is a $250 imposition placed on students, which is to be indexed. They are forced to pay this as the price of getting an education and education providers are compelled to charge it. It imposes a further economic burden on young people who are struggling to get through tertiary institutions. Secondly, it removes what I believe is a basic element of Australian society—that is, free choice. Whatever the government says about this legislation not turning back the clock and bringing back compulsory student unionism, what we find is a compulsory fee being imposed on young Australians which they can ill afford and which they do not have the right to reject if they do not want to pay.
With respect to universities today, particularly many of those in Queensland, we find that they have a certain percentage of students enrolled actually attending on campus. But in many cases, given the internet and external studies, these universities have large numbers of students who never enter the university campus and as such would not be able to use the facilities provided by this $250 impost. That surely is completely unfair. It is antidemocratic to force people to contribute towards facilities that in many cases they will never see. Universities might be based in a particular state but often have interstate outposts, interstate satellite campuses or offices or lecture theatres, and students who could be some thousands of kilometres away from the primary campus where all of this money will be spent will clearly simply be subsidising facilities that someone else is able to use.
Also, with respect to student unions and university sports clubs, if they provide the services that students want then obviously students would be prepared to vote with their feet and actually pay the fee. I have not got a problem if someone chooses to join a student union or a student association. I certainly do not have a problem if someone chooses to join a university sporting club and chooses to use the facilities provided by the university. But I have a very strong objection to students being conscripted into making this payment and into paying for facilities that they choose not to use. Many students do not want to live their entire lives around the university and consequently when they do play sport tend to join community based sporting organisations. When they do, like everyone else they pay a fee. This $250 charge will compel them to subsidise the facilities on campus and then they will have to pay again if they choose to join a community association.
It is interesting that the bill will require higher education providers to comply with the new Student Services, Amenities Representation and Advocacy Guidelines. These guidelines will bring about obligations on the university to meet the requirements relating to so-called student representation and advocacy, and effectively that means that student elections, student offices and salaries will be supported by this $250 payment. As with the fees guidelines, the student representation and advocacy guidelines will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument after the bill has been passed. So we do not have those regulations currently before the chamber, yet we are asked to vote for this piece of draconian legislation, which is absolutely appalling, without actually seeing what the guidelines are going to be.
I am very pleased to have been a member of a party in the conservative government which brought in the historic voluntary student unionism legislation. As a former patron of the Queensland Young Liberal Movement, I know that there was very strong opposition, both within the Young Liberal Movement and within the Australian Liberal Students Federation, to compulsory student unionism. I find it somewhat bizarre that, on the one hand, very few people say that people should compulsorily be forced to join a union and yet, on the other hand, people who would agree that compulsory trade unionism is inappropriate see compulsory student unionism, under the guise of this $250 fee, as morally and socially acceptable. What the former government did was not to stop student associations from doing what they want to do but simply to force them to compete in the marketplace to attract members if students actually thought that those organisations were worth joining and that the services provided by those organisations were in fact worth accessing.
It was interesting to see that the Australian Labor Party in opposition opposed the Liberal-National voluntary student unionism legislation in 2005. It is a piece of history, Mr Deputy Speaker, but of course you will recall that the National Union of Students continued its longstanding practice in opposing conservative politics and spent a quarter of a million dollars of students’ money against the Howard government. We are told that the minister has assured us that the legislation would prohibit money being spent for political purposes. How on earth could this be the truth? The only political activities expressly prohibited by the legislation are support for political parties and support for election to a local council or to the state parliament or to the Australian parliament. It does leave open a whole range of political activities, including funding campaigns against legislation and policies, potentially against political parties, or for direct support of trade unions or any other organisation not registered as a political party. There are lots of organisations out there that are heavily political in character, heavily political in action, heavily political in direction, which are not technically political parties. So what we are finding is that this $250 fee, to be indexed, will in fact be a backdoor method of assisting left-wing political causes and indirectly the Australian Labor Party.
There are no departmental guidelines with respect to monitoring. One would think that, if the Deputy Prime Minister is guaranteeing to us that this money is not going to be used for political processes, there would indeed be someone in the department to make sure that organisations do not misuse the money. But there is not. As the honourable member who spoke before me mentioned, the Deputy Prime Minister is quite a busy person, and I really cannot see her having the time to be able to do this. It could well be up to individual students who might want to whistle-blow on the student organisations to warn people that money is being used inappropriately.
There are two elements to this bill. The first element is the element of compulsion. It is wrong, in 2009, that students should be forced to pay $250—to be indexed—to support services that they may choose not to use. That is antidemocratic, it is inappropriate, it is despicable, and I think that the government ought to seriously reconsider this particular matter. The second aspect is—and Labor members in the debates in this place in previous times have said that students are finding it difficult to survive and do not need any further imposition of charges—that students, who might be thousands of kilometres away from the campus in question, could be conscripted, and will be conscripted, into making this payment if they want to be a student. I think this is absolutely appalling. It is completely disgusting, and it is one of those matters that the Australian people will take note of at the next election.
In 2009, it is wrong to impose extra charges on students at university. And it is wrong to force them to make this payment when they might not be using the services provided. They might be vehemently opposed to the left-wing policies or the particular causes that the beneficiary student organisations might be promoting. This is undoubtedly one of the very worst pieces of legislation that I have ever seen introduced to the Australian parliament. and I will be very pleased to take the opportunity of voting against this legislation when it is undoubtedly put to a vote in the House.
I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. The Australian government is committed to ensuring that higher education students have access to the amenities and services they need, as well as access to independent democratic student representation. These amendments provide for measures that support a balanced, practical and sustainable solution to rebuilding student support services, as announced by the Hon. Kate Ellis MP, the Minister for Youth, on 3 November 2008.
These include, firstly, an imposition on higher education providers that receive funding for student places under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme of requirements that ensure the provision of information on and access to basic student support services of a non-academic nature. Secondly, there is an imposition on these higher education providers of requirements ensuring the provision of student representation and advocacy. Thirdly, it includes allowing higher education providers, from 1 July 2009, to choose to implement a compulsory student services and amenities fee—which will be capped at $250 per student per annum and indexed annually—to help provide student services and amenities within set guidelines. Fourthly, it includes providing eligible students with the option of a loan for the fee through the establishment of a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, HELP, to be known as Services and Amenities HELP, or SA-HELP.
In 2008-09, total funding for this initiative is $1.34 million, funded through savings against the Learning and Teaching Performance Fund. Table A and Table B providers, as listed under the Higher Education Support Act 2003, will be provided with $20,000 each to support upgrades to IT and administrative systems. Funding of $523,000 for departmental expenses will support modifications to the Higher Education Information Management System of $300,000. It will also provide funds for staffing, $122,194, and publication costs of $100,000. Future offsets will be considered in the context of the 2009-10 budget, and the government’s consideration of the review of Australian higher education. Fifthly, this is not a return to compulsory student unionism. Sixthly, the government is not changing section 19-37(1) of the Higher Education Support Act, which prohibits a university from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation.
The opposition argues that government is slugging students with more debt in tough economic times. But, in fact, the introduction of the VSU by the previous government stripped close to $170 million out of university funding. This means that students are already paying the cost of VSU, with many university services and amenities being substantially reduced or cut completely. Students have also been hit with increased prices for child care, parking, books, computer labs, sport and food. Students have also experienced the indirect cost of VSU, with many universities redirecting funding out of research and teaching budgets to fund services and amenities that would otherwise have been cut. The student amenities fee will help rebuild important student services and amenities. To ensure that the fee is not a financial barrier to students in higher education, eligible students have the option of taking out a HECS style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program—SA-HELP.
I now turn to the VET FEE-HELP measures. The bill also amends HESA to introduce provisions to allow loan fees and VET credit transfer requirements related to the VET FEE-HELP. This scheme is to be referred to the guidelines that support the program. Specifically, there is a provision to specify a reduced VET FEE-HELP debt below the current 120 per cent of the loan in the VET FEE-HELP guidelines and a provision to allow different arrangements to apply to a different student cohort in relation to credit transfer requirements.
Why is it necessary to introduce these provisions for the VET FEE-HELP scheme? To increase productivity, Australia needs to increase the skill levels of its population. For the last four or five years, the number of students studying diplomas and advanced diplomas in the public VET system has decreased, from 197,300 in 2002 to 165,000 in 2007. This is unacceptable. VET FEE-HELP assists students who may not study at this level due to upfront fees to access training and defer the fees until they are able to pay. This amendment provides the flexibility to reduce the loan fee for particular students and streamline credit transfer requirements for a range of students through the guidelines. On 26 August 2008, the government announced that VET FEE-HELP would be extended to state-subsidised diploma and advanced diploma students in Victoria, with the loan fee being withdrawn for these students. Reducing the loan fee and relaxing credit transfer restrictions form part of this measure. The availability of VET FEE-HELP is expected to significantly contribute to the Council of Australian Governments target to double the number of diploma and advanced diploma completions by 2020.
The bill will also amend the HESA to provide that TACs—Tertiary Admission Centres—have the same status and duty of care as officers of a higher education provider in relation to the processing of students’ personal information. Higher education providers, HEPs, must access students’ personal identifying information to process applications for student places and for Commonwealth scholarships. This amendment will ensure that the relevant information may be shared between the department, HEPs and TACs as appropriate in accordance with HESA and subject to HESA’s privacy requirements. This will help ensure that students’ privacy rights are protected by HESA’s privacy protection provisions.
I commend this bill to the House.
I rise today, as the youngest member of the Liberal party room here in this parliament, to stand shoulder to shoulder with my Liberal colleagues in defiance of what is a retrograde piece of legislation for young people in this country. The title of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 ought to read ‘Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Taxation) Bill’, because what this government is seeking to do is to impose a tax on every student seeking to better themselves at universities around Australia.
Much was made prior to the election of the Rudd government’s appeal to young people and how those from younger demographics would be voting in record numbers for Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister and this new government. Since the election, what we have seen from this government is a blatant attack on young people in this country. This bill today represents an impediment to young people in Australia getting ahead by furthering their education. What we have seen since the election are the ideas that young people in Australia are somehow now binge drinkers, and that they cannot be trusted to use the internet responsibly and we need to put a government filter on all of the internet. And now, of course, we want to put a further barrier, a further impediment, in the way of young people seeking a better education by taxing them on the right to go to university.
This is in direct breach of what the Rudd government promised prior to the election. Stephen Smith stated in 2007 that it was not appropriate for Labor, and Labor would not be able, to go back to the pre-voluntary student unionism world. What happened in this country in the life of the last government was that, for the first time, the last bastion of compulsory unionism for young people in Australia, where the government compelled a person to join an organisation against their will, was erased; it was removed. Once that was removed, what did we see in campuses around Australia? We saw the continuation of high educational standards and of services to students, and record low rates of young people on campus choosing to join a union themselves.
What that reflects is that the choice of young Australians is not to join a union that they do not want to be a member of. They do not believe they are getting a service that is worth the value of the fee for joining that union. We have heard bizarre claims from members opposite today: that somehow this is about providing child care, when most university students do not access child care; or that this is about providing cheaper food, when the reality is that, on most campuses around this country, most food outlets would be desperate to get onto campus to provide their food and their services. For example, if you could not turn a profit providing food at the University of Sydney, with 30,000 students every day, then perhaps you ought not to be in business. So the claim that this is about services is a bizarre and false claim.
Let us be very clear. What this legislation before the House is about is a return to the oligarchy that Labor seeks to impose upon Australia—the oligarchy of left-wing thought, the oligarchy of left-wing union control of campuses. What demonstrates this more than anything else is the turnout in student union elections all across Australia. There is no campus where this exceeds more than 10 per cent of students. Ten per cent—that is the highest rate of engagement of students on campus. At my own university, Sydney university, it is as low as five per cent of students who seek to vote in a student election. Why? Because they want nothing to do with student politicians or student politics. There is no value to them in voting for or getting a service out of a student union. They can choose their own food. They are quite capable of deciding whether they want to go to a restaurant and have Thai food for lunch or whether they might like to have a pie or a sandwich. It is entirely within their control.
For this government to tell us that the legislation before us today is somehow about student services is a totally false proposition, because the federal government and other levels of government already provide good quality childcare facilities all around Australia. If this had something to do simply with rural or regional campuses then perhaps this legislation should have just addressed a regional or rural campus situation where there is a need. We know that there is no need for this bill, for this tax on students to charge every student in Australia $250 for the right to further their education.
It is the case that voluntary student unionism, since it was brought in by the Howard government, has been working. Since the introduction of voluntary student unionism, members of student unions have saved an average of $246 per annum. Those who have not chosen to be members of unions have saved even more—$318. Any member in this House who says this is just some sort of nominal fee or a small amount should go and talk to a first-year student. I remember distinctly that every year when I had to stump up the $300 for union membership was a very difficult time. You had to work hard to get that money, and it was a significant imposition at that age and at that time. It remains so today.
The government’s claim to be responsible economic managers, handing out money for students—those who paid tax in the last financial year—to spend, is also a furphy, because they will be handing out the $900 with one hand but ripping $250 out with the other. It is a flawed system, and it is a flawed proposition that this is somehow going to benefit the majority of students.
We do know that voluntary membership of unions and associations breeds better accountability and efficiency. One of the great concerns I have with this legislation is: will it be monitored? Will it be enforced? The guidelines that the minister will set up will be expansive, of course. They will be added to over time. Who will monitor, and how will they monitor, each of these student associations and their activities and whether they are meeting those guidelines? None of that is addressed within this legislation.
We know that this is a secret code to student unions. This is a secret code to university student activists, that small, narrow band of Australian young people. The code says: ‘You are back in business. We will tax every student so that this money can be returned to the small oligarchy of young people who seek to engage in politics, who will tell us what to think, what to do and how to act’—and of course will damage us with their opinions every single day.
We have seen that voluntary membership of unions has led to such low rates of membership—like the University of Canberra, with a simple five per cent take-up of union membership. There is a clear rejection by every young person on every campus in this country of unions and the benefits that they provide. In 2004, before VSU, we had amenities fees. We had many campuses, in particular in Victoria, which had an amenities fee. We are supposed to believe that this is about providing services. The amenities fee in 2004 at Monash University, for example, was $428. Of this, $238 was for administrative costs; $30 was for building services; $13 was for clubs and societies; $22 was for sport; $5.40 was for childcare subsidies; 59c was for unspecified student services; and the list goes on. That list tells us that this is not about the child care; this is not about sport. The bulk of this money, the bulk of this tax on students across Australia, is to be used to fund political activity on campus. That is one of the things that will be clear within the minister’s guidelines that will be announced after this legislation: you will be able to fund and promote political activity on campus.
I also want to address a point that many people have taken up around Australia about sporting teams and the fact that people who are seeking to get a better education ought to pay somehow for people to further their sports education. This has been one of the greatest inequities on Australian campuses for many, many years—that people get charged a sports union fee, as when I went to university, regardless of whether they are interested in sport or not, regardless of whether they go to a gym or not. Regardless of whether they ever played a sport, they were charged a compulsory sporting fee.
We have heard much in this debate that this has something to do with sporting teams. I do not believe that poor students who are struggling to get to university, to work hard and to further their education ought to be taxed to send money to the likes of elite rugby at the University of Sydney. Coming from this side of the House, I would have thought that Labor members opposite would have something to say about that system, where taxes are imposed on everybody regardless of their demographics, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to be sent to elite sport and elite activity. Taking that money away from people to give to sporting groups produced great inequity.
When you look at the other parts of this bill, you see that this is going to be a regressive tax on students—up to $250 annually, as we know, indexed to inflation. The government have thought of everything in relation to this, because they would not want to miss getting more money out of young people without that indexation. In relation to young people everywhere, they seek to ensure that this group of people who are just starting out in their lives, seeking to further their education, pay as much as they can make them pay. I have no doubt that, if they could get away with it, compulsory unionism would be back.
This tax that is being imposed on students around Australia is being imposed on anyone, regardless of an individual’s capacity to pay. In other legislation that we have seen in this place that the government are introducing, they make much of means testing. They are proposing to means test the Medicare safety net. But will this student tax be means tested? Of course it will not be means tested. They do not care whether you are a poor student or whether you are a wealthy student; they just want your money. They need your money because without it they cannot sustain their political activity. They could not all sit here in parliament having used students’ money for decades—without their choice—to become political activists. Many of them could not sit here today without their student union backgrounds. They could not sit here if they had not compulsorily taxed young people over many decades. They are proposing today to reintroduce a tax on any student, regardless of their socioeconomic background, with no means testing, with no regard for the wealth or status of that young person.
That flies in the face of the whole narrative of this Rudd government. We have heard much about the ‘Robin Hood’ Rudd government, the government that is taking from the rich and giving to the poor. That is the narrative they are attempting to build about themselves. They have no qualms about stripping $250 off any young person. Whether you are from Penrith, from Parramatta or from any other socioeconomic demographic in this country, they will treat you equally if you are a young person. If you are being taxed in other ways, in income tax or in consideration for the Medicare safety net, they will take your means into account, but if you are a young person they believe in equal treatment. According to this government, we should tax you all equally and take the money from you regardless of your circumstances. We know what this is about.
I have also heard many members put an argument in this place that says, ‘Of course this is just like imposing another level of government upon students—federal, state and local government is not enough government for Australia. What we need is another level of government, just for young people and students, because we simply do not have enough government in this country.’ I have to say that, after 31 years growing up in this country, a cry I hear often is that we have too little government in this country, that we need more government to provide more services just for young people, that a local, a state and a federal level is not enough to cater for the needs of Australians and that we need a fourth tier of government just for young people—and we will tax you for the benefit whether you want it or not!
If the government are real and serious about this legislation, why don’t they approach young people on campus? Why don’t they have a referendum, if they are seeking to impose a fourth level of government across campuses? Why don’t they go to every campus and say to the students, ‘Do you want to be taxed this $250?’ You know why they will not ask them, Madam Deputy Speaker. We know why students will never get the choice as to whether they have to pay this fee or not. They would overwhelmingly reject this fee; they would overwhelmingly say to the minister and to the government, ‘We do not need a fourth tier of government for students. We do not need your services. You can take your services and you can use them for yourselves.’ That is what they would say to this government, and this government knows it. There will be no attempt to seek the input of ordinary students on rural and regional campuses or on city campuses because every member of this House understands clearly what this is an attempt to do. This is purely about bringing back the political oligarchy of the Left that existed on campuses for so many decades under an enforced and compulsory system.
Nobody decries the right of people to actively engage in politics on campus as long as it is of their free will and is their choice to do so, but there is much political activity that will not be captured by the minister’s so-called guidelines in relation to this bill. The right to freedom of association will be lost once again once these guidelines are expanded and political activity starts to take place on campuses across Australia. If you look at the range of activities that are engaged in across campuses in Australia you will see some very interesting examples. In 2007, for example, the Monash Student Association contributed $1,500 towards the legal defence of convicted and jailed G20 rioter Akin Sari. This was the same organisation that produced stickers in 2003 that read: ‘Bomb the White House’. It was a student association choice to fund that defence. You might say that is fine. That would be fine if that association were voluntary. That would be fine if everybody were not being taxed to provide the money for that defence.
We know that there are many other examples. You could go on endlessly in this place with examples of the abuse of students and the abuse of students’ money while there was a system of compulsory unionism. In 2004, for example, the National Union of Students, using money appropriated, not for educational benefits, from every student in the country, spent a quarter of a million dollars campaigning against the Howard government. Again, there would be nothing wrong with using money that they had obtained voluntarily from students to campaign against the Howard government. But they used money that students were forced to hand over, regardless of their choice or means, to campaign against a government, and that is what this government wants to see a return to—a system where money can be appropriated from students regardless of means and turned into money and political benefit for this government. It is the consistent narrative of this government that politics comes first and good government and outcomes for students come second.
Ministerial discretion is a major concern in relation to this bill. I do not think it is a good system of government to allow the minister, who is so obviously partisan in this issue and who has no ability to separate her background from this legislation, to enable the guidelines, to add to the guidelines or to remove the guidelines. We ought in this place to be passing what is allowable and what is not allowable. The parliament ought to have the right to decide these things, not the minister. We know why the minister has been given the discretion: this is the backdoor conduit for the student unions. We know exactly what will happen: over time the student services list will increase and the list of allowable expenditures will be added to by the government. We know that money will be going to student services in ways that we cannot even imagine over here, and we know that in a decade we will have seen a lot of political activity funded by people who do not want to fund it. That is what we object to primarily in this bill.
The Howard government’s move to remove compulsory student unionism was a great advance for freedom in this country. The freedom to choose whether you want to join a union or not is a fundamental freedom that the Howard government stood up for. The government have decided they do not want to have a battle about freedom, because they will lose that battle. They have decided to impose a tax on every student in this country, regardless of their means, and are attempting to avoid a battle about whether a person should be a member of an association or not. (Time expired)
in reply—In summing up, I would like to thank all members who have spoken in this at times lengthy debate on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. There have certainly been some lively contributions. I will try very hard not to get too sidetracked in responding to the at times kooky suggestions put forward by the previous speaker, but I might just correct him on a couple of the things he put forward that were clearly incorrect. Firstly, he asks, ‘Why doesn’t the government go out to universities and ask students what they think?’ Well, we think that that is a really good idea, which is why we did exactly that before bringing this legislation to the parliament. In fact, we went out and did a roadshow that went to every single state and to a number of regional campuses to talk firsthand with students, with educators, with university administrators and with all of the local stakeholders about their views on the solution that went forward. Of course, the member opposite would know this because the Young Liberals were amongst those whose views on this matter we listened to. It is interesting that one of the things that kept coming back during those consultations right around the country was people saying, ‘Wow, do you know that for over a decade we have been stripped of our funding, we have been slugged with further debt and not once have we seen the government actually come out and talk to us and ask us about what we think.’ So it was quite newsworthy to many students at universities around the country that the government did indeed take the time to do that.
The one other thing that I will correct the member opposite on which is also clearly very, very wrong is this view that the minister has discretion on the guidelines. The member put forward the question: ‘Why shouldn’t the parliament have to approve these?’ Well, here is a big news flash: it does—with a disallowable instrument. If the government seeks to change it, it has to go through both houses of the parliament. So let us not let facts get in the way of a good story here! Anyway, I did say that I would not be too sidetracked by that one contribution.
Clearly there has been a lot of interest in the government’s balanced, sensible and sustainable plan to rebuild student services at our universities. Unfortunately, though, what this debate has also revealed is that the Liberal Party remains stuck in the old ideological battles of the past. The truth is that there is no reason why those opposite should not be supporting this bill, despite our ideological differences, because this bill is not a continuation of the debates of days gone by. Rather, this is about moving forward in a new way to ensure that the universities of our future are world-class institutions that produce well-rounded graduates and are able to attract and retain overseas students from all over the world. We on this side know that this is absolutely critical to sustaining Australia’s workforce and that our future productivity and economic growth rely upon it.
Of course, supporting this legislation would mean that the opposition would have to concede that there has been much damage done by the Howard government’s extreme laws—that they did indeed go too far and that all of the consequences that those who opposed the laws predicted would happen have indeed occurred. And they will not do that. So instead what we have seen is the Liberal Party demonstrating that they would rather pretend that this is the same debate that we have had in the past, and instead they have chosen to rely upon misinformation, falsehoods such as those that we heard from the previous speaker, and hopelessly outdated rhetoric. The opposition have shown in this debate that they would rather talk about the teacher strikes in Puerto Rico and the communist party of Malaya than how we can sensibly reform our universities to train the workforce of the future.
We saw a rare parliamentary contribution from the member for Higgins, where he waxed lyrical about resolutions that were passed in 1975, a court case in 1978 and the difficulties that he had in 1979 making up his mind whether or not to join a student organisation. What the member for Higgins’s contribution showed was that the Liberal Party would rather reminisce about now defunct organisations from the 1970s than acknowledge the serious misjudgment they made in 2005. Their standing in this parliament and their making an argument based on a resolution passed by a group of students in a now defunct organisation before many members of this House, before many students on our university campuses and, indeed, before I was even born, shows how outdated they really are.
The Senate report on this bill says:
Since compulsory levies were abolished in 2005, the cost of legislating to make an ideological point has bourn heavily on the vast majority of students who remain largely indifferent to campus political activity, but who need to eat and otherwise miss the services formerly provided by student unions.
The opposition have spent a lot of time in this debate complaining about students paying for services they do not use, but they fail to understand that the impact of their approach went far beyond the services alone. The Liberal Party’s approach not only cut $170 million from services, with students paying the price ever since for the loss of health, legal and welfare assistance services, but also has had a serious impact on teaching. The Liberal Party still fail to understand that their changes directly undermine the quality of the teaching that students could receive. It is not just me saying this; it is the Chair of Universities Australia, Professor Richard Larkins, who is certainly no long-haired radical that the opposition like to turn to in this debate. He said earlier this month that the Liberal Party’s approach had ‘directly impaired our ability to deliver quality education and research’. He went on to say:
We had to use money for research and teaching and use it to support the student experience on campus.
So, memo to the Liberal Party: all students suffer when universities are forced to redirect funding away from teaching and research.
It has also been interesting to listen to opposition members talking about their concerns for students from regional areas. Yet the same members remain oblivious to the impact the previous government’s approach has had on regional Australia. We heard the member for Forrest telling us how hard it was for students from her area to find affordable housing if they moved to Perth to go to university. I wonder if she understands that one of the services that we want to help universities provide under this legislation is housing assistance for students. The member for Cowper told us how worried he was about the additional burden on students at Southern Cross University. Again, I wonder if he understands that the previous government’s approach forced the dental service at that very same university to close and that the 2,100 students who used this service in 2005 have now had to find somewhere else to go.
The harsh fact for the opposition is that students attending regional universities and students from regional areas attending city universities were badly hit by the service cuts caused by the previous government’s approach. That is because regional students are generally heavier users of services and amenities on campus, as they sometimes lack the local support networks of city based students. The government’s proposal will help to re-establish services and jobs in and around regional universities. It will also help to ensure that basic services are available for students where they may otherwise be unprofitable because of the remoteness of the campus and limited number of customers. Also, unfortunately for members opposite, there was a lot of misinformation put out during the debate, so it may take some time to get through correcting the record. But, rest assured, I am prepared to stand here and make sure that the truth of all of these issues is put on the record prior to the vote on this debate—that I promise to this chamber.
I will also make mention of sport, which was also seriously impacted by the previous government’s approach. The government received evidence from across the sporting spectrum, from the Australian Olympic Committee to individual sporting clubs, and all concluded that sport had been an innocent victim of the 2005 changes. The submission from Australian University Sport and the Australasian Campus Union Managers Association said that, as a direct result of the previous government’s changes, direct funding for sporting clubs had been cut by 40 per cent, funding for intervarsity sport was cut by half and participation by women in the Australian University Games was reduced by almost 10 per cent. Six universities shut down their elite athlete support programs and eight universities discontinued funding of sports scholarships. The AOC expressed concern about the impact of Australia’s international sporting performance when it said:
Given the importance that the university sports system has on elite level sport, these trends will have a direct and real impact on Australia’s ability to maintain its hard won international standing in sport.
But we know that the Liberal Party have no interest in sport in universities, because they made this clear in 2005 when they said:
Sport and recreation is an adjunct to a university education. It is far from being ‘core business’ …
I note that the member opposite said ‘Absolutely’ at that point, and I hope that the shadow minister for sport will come clean about that being his view as well as the rest of the Liberal Party’s view. Here again we are hearing that the Liberal Party do not believe that sport has any place on university campuses.
Unlike the Liberal Party, the government do care about sport, just like we care about the quality of education that students receive at university. This bill also delivers on the government’s commitment not to return to compulsory student unionism, as much as those opposite would like to suggest that that is the case. Section 19-37(1) of the act, which expressly prohibits higher education providers from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation, is unchanged by this bill. That is right, the very clause that the government put in, we are not changing in this legislation.
Opposition members interjecting—
This is obviously not clear enough, though, for the Liberal Party, with the members for Indi, Casey and their colleagues intent on fighting the same old, tired and ideological wars of yesteryear.
I will just repeat what I said for the benefit of members opposite and their colleagues: I am calling their ideas old and outdated and I am saying that they are engaging in the debates of the past. Sorry if that was not clear the first time.
This debate is not about the 1970s or the 1980s. It is about the higher education sector in 2009 and beyond. In 2009, I find myself in the very rare position of being in agreement with the member for Indi on at least one thing. I agree with her that no-one should be forced to join a student organisation against their will, and that is why the provision that outlaws compulsory student unionism is unchanged through this bill. The bill will require higher education providers that receive Commonwealth funding to comply, from 2010, with two new sets of guidelines. The Liberal Party assert that the Minister for Education would somehow have unilateral powers to specify exactly what these guidelines say, and we have just heard that argument again. But, once again, they are not letting facts get in the way of a good story. Not only does this demonstrate that they do not understand the bill; it also shows a total ignorance about parliamentary process. If they understood the processes of the parliament, they would know that if ever this government, or indeed any future government, wanted to change these guidelines, an entirely new instrument would have to be tabled in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Instead of talking about what the bill does not do, I am now going to concentrate my focus on what the bill will do. For the first time, universities will have to meet national access to services benchmarks, which will require them, as a very condition of their funding, to provide students with information on and access to health and welfare services. This is very similar to the benchmarks that the Howard government put in place which only applied to international students. We on this side think that domestic students should also have access to these important benchmarks. This will better align the arrangements for domestic students with those obligations for international students. The bill also introduces, for the first time, a requirement to meet national student representation and advocacy protocols. This is a new requirement that does not exist now. There is no obligation on universities to consult with students about decisions which may affect them directly—no obligation at all. For the first time ever universities will be required, through these protocols, to provide opportunities for democratic student representation and to take student views into account in institutional decision making.
This is a value that is reflected in the democratic rights that underpin our nation and our community. This new requirement has nothing to do with the student services and amenities fee and is not being funded by this fee. Universities will be required to establish new representation arrangements, irrespective of whether or not they choose to implement a fee. Over and above these basic services, representation and advocacy rights, 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. Universities that choose to levy a fee will be expected to consult with students on the nature of the services and amenities and advocacy that they will provide. But to ensure that the fee is not a financial barrier, any university that implements the fee must also provide eligible students with the option of taking out a HECS style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, SA-HELP.
I was also very interested to hear the Liberal Party’s new-found concern for student welfare where a university chooses to introduce a fee. The government is very mindful of the impact on students, whose average debt increased massively under the previous government.
Perhaps the member for Indi might like to explain why she voted time and time and time again under the Howard government to massively increase fees on students—including the time she voted to increase HECS by 25 per cent—but now sits here and cries crocodile tears over this capped and deferred $250 fee. Of course, even more recently than under the Howard government we have also seen this sort of hypocrisy because the members who sit here and rail against universities having the choice to implement a capped and deferred fee are the very same members who voted against the $950 payment to every eligible student across Australia.
Well, clearly it is $700 that you voted against—so are you worried about student income or are you not worried about it, because you are trying to walk both sides of the street at the moment and it is not a very convincing argument.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will be sure to do that. I would like to address some comments through the chair about external students, because there have also been some arguments put about the impact on external and part-time students. I want to make it very clear that if universities opt to implement this fee then they will be able to charge some groups of students less than the maximum. In fact, this is clearly the case for external students—where there is a clear expectation that if universities choose to implement a fee then they will implement sensible arrangements for part-time students and for external students.
The guidelines will specify the purposes for which the fee can and cannot be used. Universities will only be allowed to provide amounts raised through the student services and amenities fee to organisations for the provision of services specifically outlined in the fee guidelines. These include such radical things as: child care, health and welfare support services, and sport and recreation. These are things that we believe are very important on our university campuses. Despite the wild claims from the opposition, they do not include political campaigns or broader political activity and nor do they even include student representation.
The money will not be able to be spent on boozy pub crawls like those the member for Fadden spoke about so fondly in his speech. I would like to again stress that this fee will be collected by higher education providers, not by student organisations. So while members opposite are engaging in the debate of the past about student organisation control of these funds, under this initiative they will be controlled by higher education providers. I say to all members: if passage of this bill is delayed, essential student services will continue to decline and the student experience will be further diminished. The losers in those circumstances will be not just our universities but also students, and particularly those students from regional areas or attending regional universities who depend on the availability of services to help them make the transition to university life.
The provision of services and amenities on our university campuses is a key part of Australia having a world-leading higher education system and the new arrangements need to be available as soon as possible. This bill is not about the past; it is not about student politics in the 1970s; it is not about returning to the former system—it is about establishing a sensible, reasonable and rational new way forward. It is about the universities which will play a key role in our future. I urge members to support this bill, even if that means swallowing their pride and admitting the obvious truth that the Howard government’s legislation went far too far, just as everybody said it was going to. I commend this bill to the House.
That this bill be now read a second time.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.