House debates

Monday, 23 November 2009

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

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 9 September, on motion by Mr Marles:

That this bill be now read a second time.

4:25 pm

Photo of Sophie MirabellaSophie Mirabella (Indi, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education, Childcare, Women and Youth) Share this | | Hansard source

As the shadow minister for, amongst other things, youth I rise for a second time in this place to outline in the strongest possible terms the coalition’s objections to this legislation and to detail the reasons behind our opposition to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009.

Firstly, let me make one point very clear: that the introduction of this bill and the provisions within it represent a clear and unequivocal breaking of a very clear commitment by the Labor Party. At a doorstop in May 2007 the then shadow minister for education said: ‘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 May 2007, just five months before the last election was called, and Labor categorically said it was not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee. But, like so many other election promises, that has fallen by the wayside.

In February 2008, just a few months after they were elected, Labor set up their review into the impact of voluntary student unionism, which obviously as we know with these sorts of reviews was designed to give them an excuse, an opportunity, to do what they really wanted to do all along, and what we knew and what so many students knew was the real agenda of the Labor Party: to reintroduce a compulsory fee. It is one of a long list of promises made; made because the Labor Party would say and do anything after so many years in opposition to win; made to be broken. I have come across a whole raft of these policies in my other portfolio areas of responsibility of early childhood education, child care and women, but also we see them right across the spectrum of government responsibility.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009 should be relabelled more accurately the ‘Slug all students so as to prop up failing student unions bill’ because that is exactly what this bill is really designed to do. Despite what the minister says, this legislation is a lifeline for unrepresentative student unions that need compulsorily acquired funds to survive, because they do not have the confidence or they could not be bothered to appeal to students to pay to become members voluntarily. It is an attempt to breathe life back into these old-style student unions, many of which were corrupt and many of which had huge administrative costs that fell apart when the substantial and steady flow of funds they enjoyed with very little accountability under compulsory student unionism dried up as a result of the Howard government giving back power to young adults smart enough and hard-working enough to get a place at a tertiary institution, giving them the choice to decide whether or not it was in their interests to join a student union. That was, of course, through the landmark Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005.

I was one of many members to speak in support of that bill in 2005. As I noted at the time, I had campaigned for the very important principle of voluntary student unionism for all of my political life. I make no secret of that fact today. It was just as offensive when I was 18 to be forced to pay student union fees and for students from not wealthy backgrounds, with their limited resources, to be forced to pay compulsory student union fees when they could have put that money to better and more important use. So I make no apologies for that. We have currently a global financial crisis, with students being forced to work extra hours in order to qualify for the youth allowance. We have seen an extraordinary rise in youth unemployment, so, more than ever, it is important for students to have greater disposable income that they can control—not income that is diverted for the political and the social priorities of a small group of student politicians.

This legislation is obviously a step backwards. For all of Labor’s talk about an education revolution, this legislation is simply a return to the good old days when unions ran all sorts of services on campus and played their political games courtesy of funds siphoned from their fellow students who did not have any choice in that matter. I have heard this criticism time and time again from those on the other side who say, ‘You and all those other Liberals were involved as student politicians on campus.’ Of course we were, courtesy of what we believed and the values that we held—not because we were getting some sort of free ride and some sort of carte blanche because of compulsorily acquired union fees. In fact, the very existence of those fees drove and motivated many of us to stand up for freedom, to stand up for what we believed in. Just because someone chooses voluntarily to be one of those few Australians to actually engage directly in political activity on campus, it does not make them, for one moment, a supporter of compulsory student unionism.

Once again, with this legislation we see that students have choice taken away from them. Universities will be able to charge this $250 fee as a compulsory condition of enrolment. Once again, with this legislation student unions will be able to receive the funds they crave for the purpose of providing so-called ‘supported advocacy services’ whether that be administrative support for clubs and societies or the dissemination of student media, both of which are in the proposed guidelines. Once again, student unions or guilds or whatever other name they may have at a particular campus will be able to spend those fees as they see fit, without any real oversight or reporting.

We see that the Minister for Youth and Minister for Sport has been given the carriage of this legislation, I assume in order to give it a softer, less sinister look than might be the case if the Deputy Prime Minister had been arguing it. The minister has told the House that, ‘The bill is not a return to student unionism.’ Come on, let us get real. Let us be clear. Saying it does not make it so. The Prime Minister may think that saying something makes it so but there is a reality out there and saying so, Minister, will not make it so. With this legislation, in all probability students’ money will be used for highly political purposes, despite what the minister says. You would expect her to say that.

The guidelines which underpin this legislation are so broad that they basically mean this fee can be used for whatever purpose is seen fit. I am sure there are very many creative political minds on campus that will be able to facilitate this. The minister’s one assurance when she announced this plan in November last year was that the legislation would prohibit money being spent for political purposes. Let us have a look at the details of this so-called promise. The only political activities expressly prohibited by the legislation are: support for political parties, and support for the election of a person as a member of a Commonwealth, state or territory legislature or local government body. That is a pretty narrow description. It still leaves a large range of political activities, including funding campaigns against legislation and policies, and potentially against political parties obviously, or funding for campaigns for direct elections to the student union. So the university could decide to give the student union a substantial sum for the provision of—let us say—student media and the resultant newspaper could contain all manner of political messages and campaigns. That would be okay because that fits in with ‘…in student media’. The union could receive money to provide so-called administrative support for clubs and societies and use that money to fund the wages of someone they employ to do that, but who actually spends their time campaigning for the re-election of the union president. That would not be the first time that these paid student union positions have been used for such political purposes. This bill would allow exactly that to happen.

Many of the services listed on the guidelines are currently provided by either the government, private sector or universities. The list includes things such as food and beverages which can be—and are—largely provided by the private sector, child care which is already heavily subsidised by the Australian taxpayer, legal services, health care and employment services—all services currently provided by the government. The union could ostensibly receive funds to provide important so-called services, but we all know how much of those funds have been and can be eaten up in administration costs.

Before voluntary student unionism, Monash University collected over $8.5 million in compulsory fees in one year and a whopping 15 per cent of that went in administration costs. You work that out, Mr Deputy Speaker: 56 per cent of $8.5 million went in administration costs. One wonders whether there were 24 hours of truth in having a look at the accounts of that university and at how that 56 per cent in administration costs were broken up. I am sure that we would find many amusing items funded and certainly some very imaginative titles for that funding.

In short, the minister has failed to deliver on her promise that this new massive $250 million fund will not be used for political purposes. She has failed to provide any protection whatsoever against militant student unionism. The minister will point to the guidelines as some sort of guarantee but they are not worth the paper they are written on, and she knows that. If she does not know that, she should know that. The content of the guidelines becomes largely irrelevant because this bill does not provide for a system of monitoring or policing whether or not universities comply with the guidelines. There will be no reporting system by which the education minister can ensure that the quarter of a billion dollars, collected through the new tax, will be spent appropriately. It will essentially be up to individual students to become whistleblowers and to raise any concerns they might have about how their amenities fee is being spent. Even if they can prove a breach, it will then be at the minister’s discretion whether any penalty should be imposed.

Can you honestly imagine a Labor minister having to hold to account a Labor student union president? You can imagine the weird factional deal: the minister could be from the left, the student union president would be from the right and there would be huge discussions and machinations behind closed doors about how to save the bacon and the reputation of the student union president. It does not work in the big playground of the Labor Party. How is it going work at the student union sandpit level? It will not work. We have seen how dysfunctional the Labor Party is, particularly the New South Wales Labor Party. They have no shame. Look at the deals they do with developers. Look at how they run the states. Look at the contracts they give left, right and centre. It smells in the big party and it will smell even more in the sandpit of politics, because what do many of these student politicians see? They see their heroes who are not held accountable in the federal parliament or in the state parliaments around the country, and so why should they be held accountable? In that there is some consistency.

The minister will be able to table any changes she wishes to the guidelines—and that makes a joke of them as well—and it will be up to the minister as to whether or not any action will be taken against those not following the guidelines. This is a joke. It is like the incessant consultation that this government has. They consult on this issue and that issue but, when you look beneath the surface, it is not really consultation. When you look beneath the surface it is just window-dressing, because they want to make it look as though they care what people think. They do not care what people think. They have an agenda and they will push it, and that is exactly what the minister is doing with this legislation. Did I mention, Mr Deputy Speaker, which minister that would be? It is not the one presenting this bill; the minister responsible for the Higher Education Act will wield all this power—none other than the Deputy Prime Minister. The Deputy Prime Minister is a long-time advocate of compulsory student unionism. She grew up politically within that system, and so you would expect her to quite naturally support that system.

There are many reasons to oppose this legislation. It represents a broken promise by the government. The guidelines that underpin this scheme are very wide ranging. There will, in effect, be no reporting or accountability to ensure that the funds collected are genuinely spent on student services. But perhaps many will say that the very best reason to oppose this legislation is that the $250 slug will be imposed at a time when students and their families are under considerable financial stress. Many university students often work several jobs and exist on a shoestring budget. They often live on a diet of two-minute noodles just to survive and to afford basic accommodation, food, education and living expenses. This fee is effectively an extra up-front cost, an additional burden, an additional tax on education which will inevitably grow and compound over time. Research has shown that this sort of regressive fee hits those of low socioeconomic backgrounds the hardest. You do not need to be an economic genius to work that one out. These students are the ones who have to work harder and longer to put themselves through university. They do not have the luxury of additional time to play political games for 10, 20, 30 or 40 hours a week or to indulge in afternoon after afternoon of free drinks down at the union bar. The truth of the matter is that campus life is not what it was in the sixties, seventies or even eighties.

Times have changed. Most of today’s university students live and work in local communities. They are members of their local sporting clubs and community organisations. They do not rely solely on campus activities or services. These students see university as a place of learning; they have highly developed social and community links before they even set foot on campus. The vast majority of students are at university to gain an academic qualification to help them get a job, to give them that financial freedom to get on with their lives and to carve out a life that they wish for themselves and their future family. They should not be forced to pay for services or amenities they do not want and, in the case of over 130,000 external students, may never have the opportunity to use.

Many university students choose to be part of sporting clubs, associations and community activities situated off campus for which they do pay a fee. Why should they subsidise the activities of those on campus? Why? If the university gym is genuinely better than their local gym, and cheaper and more practical, then they can switch and pay for that service, just as you would expect them to do, but why should they subsidise this choice for others? Most importantly, at a time when the financial situation of students is becoming increasingly difficult and getting an education is their top priority, why should the choice to spend $250 on textbooks, on the internet or on other academic purposes be taken away from students?

If universities are genuinely struggling to provide the basics for students like access to food and beverages then the government ought to take a close look at increasing university funding. They have plenty of money to splash around—$16.6 billion alone is being squandered on the ‘Julia Gillard memorial school hall’ program. Surely they can help out any university which is genuinely struggling. Why do struggling university students have to pay for this government’s economic mismanagement? Perhaps they think direct government payments to prop up student unions would look too much like payback or a bit of paid training for their future politicians. As we know, the student unions have been very kind to the Labor Party with the National Union of Students finding a whopping $250,000 to fund its campaign against the Howard government at the 2004 election. And if that money had been collected by those who had voluntarily joined and paid their union membership fees, I would not have a problem, but it was not; it was part of compulsorily acquired union funds used for such blatant political purposes.

Whichever way you look at it, this legislation is compulsory unionism by stealth and the students have voted with their feet on whether they want to be part of a union. Since voluntary student unionism was introduced, membership of student unions has fallen substantially. Why? Because students do not deem that it is in their interests to join. It is quite simple. They are adults and they can make that decision. You may not agree with it if you are on the other side of the House, but why do you deny them the right to make that choice? We have seen that despite dropping their fees from $590 to $99, the University of Sydney has seen student membership fall to 30 per cent; Deakin University student union membership fell to just 17 per cent; Monash University dropped their fees from a whopping $441.20 to just $55 and still their membership fell to just 10 per cent of students; RMIT dropped fees from $500 to $80, yet their union membership fell to just two per cent; La Trobe University, seven per cent; the University of Melbourne, nine per cent; and, the University of Adelaide, six per cent. Interestingly, the University of Western Australia kept their fees at the same level and their membership remained steady at 60 per cent, mainly because, due to state legislation, they have had a system of voluntary student unionism for many years and it seems from their membership figures that they have been able to respond better than others.

So to suggest that voluntary student unionism can work and that union membership can be maintained is quite doable. We have seen that from Western Australia because the union there offers services that are deemed worth while. The fact is that the Howard government provided over $52 million to help universities through the transition and universities are continuing to receive that money this year. We recognised that there would be a transition and that universities would have to adapt. But instead of continuing with this reform—we know this Labor government is frightened of reform; they do not even know how to spell the word, let alone try to engage in some meaningful reform—Labor has said, ‘Let’s turn back the clock, let’s go for the mediocre, let’s take the easy path, let’s go back to the good old days, let’s compel students to pay for something they don’t want and quite often they don’t use. Let’s help out those student union friends of ours who are struggling to adapt to the brave new world of accountability. Let’s go back to creating a nice little cash flow for them with no accountability and no consequences, because at the end of the day they are part of our broader family.’ That is what this legislation is about and that is why the coalition strongly oppose this bill. And no matter what the minister may say, no matter what assurances she may give, we know and students out there know that they are empty assurances.

The bottom line is this. This minister and this government are treating university students, intelligent thinking adults, with absolute contempt for the simple reason that it does not suit their political agenda and their political ideology, no matter how outdated that ideology is. There are some on the other side I know who do not agree with compulsory student unionism but they would not dare raise their head. They would not dare speak against the old style orthodoxy, but I encourage all fair members of this House, on this side and on the other side, to think very carefully about this bill and what it actually does, to realise we are in the 21st century and the way students study, the way they socialise, the way they play sport, the way they access services has changed. Their expectations have changed and their costs have changed. Compulsory student unionism will try to drag us back to the bad old days. I encourage all fair-minded members to think about this, to have respect and a bit of compassion for struggling students and to reject this bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr McClelland) adjourned.