House debates

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

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

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 29 September, on motion by Mr Garrett:

That this bill be now read a second time.

11:51 am

Photo of Luke HartsuykerLuke Hartsuyker (Cowper, National Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. The coalition opposes this legislation. As explained in the report of the inquiry by the House Standing Committee on Education and Employment regarding this legislation, as tabled yesterday, the government have rushed this legislation into the parliament so that its provisions can be implemented by higher education providers in the new academic year.

The government introduced similar legislation twice in previous parliaments. This is despite Labor promising before the 2007 election that it would not be introducing a student fee to pay for services and amenities on university campuses. Labor’s spokesperson on education, the member for Perth, promised:

… 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.

Both of the previous bills were opposed by the coalition and each bill failed to pass through the parliament. The legislation amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to allow higher education providers to charge a compulsory student services and amenities fee. The fee will be $250 per student per annum, indexed to $254 in 2011 and indexed annually thereafter. Given the legislation is not intended to apply until 2011, the fee will actually increase before it comes into effect.

The bill requires universities to spend fees collected on numerous specified services, including food and drinks, supporting sport or recreational activity, supporting the administration of clubs, and legal and health services. Whilst the bill prevents a service provider from spending the collected fee on supporting political parties or the election of a person to Commonwealth, state or local government, provisions will clearly allow funds to be spent on political campaigns in favour of policies or against governments.

The coalition agrees that certain student services are an important aspect of universities and university life. However, we do not believe that students should be forced to pay for services that they may not want or that may not be needed by the majority of students. Given these concerns, the coalition submitted this legislation to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment. We asked the committee to carefully consider the legislation and report during the next session of parliament. Despite the Selection of Bills Committee requiring a report by the autumn session of 2011, the Labor majority on the education committee rushed through the inquiry and tabled its report in a little over two weeks. Interested members of the public were given just six days to make a submission. The committee held no public hearings and did not request any further information from those making a submission. As the coalition members noted in their dissenting report:

… Coalition Members … hold concerns about the broader nature of the Committee process in circumstances where there has been little time and limited mechanisms to discharge the obligations associated with membership of such a Committee. In our view, the use of an effective “guillotine” in standing committees would seem to be outside the much proclaimed new paradigm in the Federal Parliament.

The chair’s report explained that the government was trying to push this legislation through parliament this year so that it could be implemented by higher education providers in the 2011 academic year. However, by preventing the committee from completing the inquiry in a reasonable period of time, the government has prevented individual students from making submissions and detailing how the fee would impact on their study needs.

The coalition legislated in 2005 to prevent these students from paying a compulsory fee, particularly those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. In 2005 the coalition amended the Higher Education Support Act to abolish compulsory student unionism and prevent student unions from imposing a compulsory levy on students. The coalition believes in the fundamental right of freedom of association. Before our amendments, students were forced to join the student union upon enrolling at university and were forced to pay an annual or biannual fee to the union. This fee paid for amenities, facilities and services that many students did not use and, in many cases, did not want. Students were prevented from continuing their courses or even from graduating if they failed to pay their union fees.

In contrast, voluntary student unionism requires unions to be financially accountable for the services that they provide. The system allows students to pay a fee when they feel the union is providing value for money and that this fee represents an overall asset to university life. This bill reintroduces a compulsory fee because the government claims that campus services have been reduced since the introduction of voluntary student unionism. The minister argued in his second reading speech that student services fees are necessary because there is now a $170 million shortfall in funding for student services and amenities. Under the government’s legislation, a tax will be placed on students to recoup this apparent shortfall. However, Labor’s figures are based on revenue lost from the compulsory fee, not on total university funding. Since July 2005 funding for universities from all sources grew from $12.4 billion to $17.4 billion in July 2009—an increase of $5 billion. The coalition government’s reforms did not take money out of the education system; the reforms simply allowed students to spend their money on necessary items for their study, like textbooks, stationery and accommodation and living expenses.

I note that Labor’s committee inquiry report uses Griffith University as an example of the revenue shortfall. Griffith University estimates that it has lost $31.3 million in revenue since 2005. According to the inquiry report, the university projects that without student fees it will need to redirect $10 million a year to student support services and amenities and away from teaching and research. Yet according to Griffith University annual reports, the total revenue for the university has increased by $243 million since 2005. Again, the lost revenue claimed by universities is simply that which they could have taxed students under compulsory student unionism. The figures do not represent funding shortfalls, and the decision on whether to fund additional student services and amenities is one that is made by each university.

As detailed by the coalition’s dissenting report to the House of Representatives inquiry, the university sector supports this legislation simply because it reopens an alternative funding source with regard to student services. Each organisation that made a supportive submission to the inquiry stands to gain financially from the compulsory tax on students, and that is a very important point. The supporters of this legislation all stand to gain financially from its introduction.

Yesterday, the government called on the coalition to recognise the value of providing good services to students on our university campuses. The coalition supports good university services, but we are calling on the government to find alternative solutions for improving university funding that do not force students to pay a tax. The majority of student unions were guilty of mismanaging money when the fee was compulsory. Student unions were simply not providing good university services. The bill’s explanatory memorandum claims that compulsory fees will be spent on student services such as advocacy, health care, sport and recreation and child care. There can be no doubt that many students would require these services when attending university, but when we look at how student unions were actually spending the money before the introduction of VSU we get a very different picture of where the money goes.

Let us look, for instance, at the spending at universities in Melbourne in 2004, the year before voluntary student unionism was introduced. At Monash University in 2004 the student association collected $8.5 million in compulsory fees. The association spent five per cent on sport and recreation, 1.2 per cent on child care, no money on health care and over 50 per cent of their expenditure on—what do you think they spent it on?—administration and the costs of running the union. They were slugging university students with a compulsory fee—collecting $8.5 million—and then blowing half of it on administration. They spent none on health care. We hear the members opposite rabbiting on about the importance of health services at universities, yet at Monash $8.5 million was ripped off students—half of it was spent on administration but not one zack was spent on health care. Over $4.7 million of student taxes were spent on administering the union itself.

At Melbourne University in 2004 the union collected $7.6 million. What did they spend it on? They spent two per cent of that money on legal services, 1.6 per cent on health care—that is quite a bit better than Monash, up from the zero at Monash to 1.6 per cent of expenditure on health care—and 2.4 per cent on academic support. As for sport and recreation—how much would you expect sport and recreation to feature in the $7.6 million collected from Melbourne University students? Sport and recreation got nothing, according to the financial statements. These percentages are comparable with nearly all Australian universities at that time, as I understand it. It is interesting that it is only Victorian universities that published their figures—it is only because they were compelled to by Victorian legislation. You would expect that if student unions were genuinely interested in providing value for money and good services they would be keen to disclose to their conscripted members where the funds were going to. Instead, what did they do? They put in place a veil of secrecy so that, outside of Victoria, conscripted members would not know where their money was going.

In its submission to the Senate Select Committee on Scrutiny of New Taxes, the University of Queensland Union detailed how it is managing the union under a voluntary system of fee collection. The union said in its submission:

As a student organisation, we have reshaped … ourselves to become more relevant to the concerns of our members and place particular emphasis on providing services and social events that will actually appeal to the wider student body and get them involved in the great services, support and representation that we offer.

What a refreshing idea: actually providing what students want. That is a very interesting concept. The end of compulsory student fees has forced the union to start taking student funding seriously and to provide the services that the student population actually needs and those services for which they are willing to pay. Whilst there was a shortfall in revenue for the University of Queensland Union after the introduction of VSU, the union placed a higher emphasis on its commercial operations and managing its finances in order to build an appropriate revenue base. Through cross-subsidisation of services, the UQ union is able to provide free academic and welfare advocacy, tenancy advice, employment support and advice on government assistance programs as well as free legal and emergency loans. That is an interesting concept—a student union organisation that is actually meeting the needs of its members rather than relying on the good old Labor Party to impose a compulsory tax that many students cannot afford to pay and for services they do not want to pay for. It is a refreshing change, I must say. And it goes on to say that the union will soon be in a position to operate on a basis of complete financial independence from the University of Queensland. Hear, hear to that, I say. This is exactly how a student organisation should operate: a union that is providing services that the student population demands and remaining viable because it has chosen to accept responsibility for its finances and is operating commercially, not protected by a great big new tax.

Other university unions have failed to meet these challenges. For instance, reports have been made that student unions are currently involved in purposely running budget deficits in order to extract more funding from universities, and to continue pressuring the government to reinstate compulsory fees. We hear accusations from Labor that the opposition is taking an ideological approach towards this legislation. However, it is the government that are pushing their ideology on the university sector. As it proved in its first term, Labor simply does not believe in responsible budget management. When the budget goes into deficit or there are insufficient funds to fund its programs, Labor’s answer is to raise new taxes and force taxpayers to fund programs that they did not vote for. This approach encourages waste and mismanagement because taxpayers can always be called upon to bail out failed programs—let us think for a moment about bailing out the pink batts program, $2.4 billion and bailing out the Building the Education Revolution program. That was way over budget. It is unbelievable.

During Labor’s first term we saw the budget go into record deficit, so the government invented a new mining tax to bail out its mismanagement. Australians are now being threatened with a carbon tax which will push up electricity prices around the country. Under compulsory fees, student unions will be allowed to use Labor’s approach to financial management. The student services legislation does nothing to encourage the financial management and responsibility that students should expect from their representatives. In contrast, under a voluntary system student unions are made to be directly financially accountable to the students that they represent. Students can also voluntarily choose to vote in the union elections and select their representatives on student unions and councils.

Through this bill, though, Labor is proposing to remove financial accountability from those student unions. Perhaps this is why Labor is trying to define the services and amenities that can be provided under the taxes collected by unions. Under compulsory unionism, student unions frequently spend funding on political activities. For instance, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on campaigns against the VSU changes. More recently the National Union of Students spent funds campaigning against the coalition in the 2010 federal election. The government argues that union funding cannot be spent for political purposes under this legislation. The explanatory memorandum to the bill states:

… none of the payment will be spent by the person or organisation to support a political party or the election of a person as member of the legislature of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory, or a local government body.

But this bill does not rule out money being spent on political campaigns in favour of or against legislation. It does not prevent funding being directed to political organisations such as trade unions and political groups such as GetUp!—that totally independent organisation, if you believe their rhetoric, although I do not think anyone does. And I do not think anyone believes that this compulsory tax on students will not end up in the hands of those running political campaigns. You would have to be living in a dream world to believe that. The union will still retain ultimate autonomy on spending and will have the flexibility to spend funding on a wide number of political issues. As I outlined earlier, the union will not be held accountable either financially or through union elections. The coalition cannot support mandatory funding of political campaigns not in the interests of students.

The inquiries into this legislation make it clear that individual students also do not support the changes. The vast majority of inquiry submissions from students expressed concern about the legislation and the compulsory nature of the funding. For example, Jonathon Roberts told the Senate committee:

We need to make sure that we provide incentives for students to want to further their studies. Students already pay a great deal for parking, travel, textbooks and course fees, and now potentially another few hundred dollars a year for facilities many do not have the capacity to use. This makes a difference for those students who are paying their own way through University. It will make a difference for me and many of my friends.

Mr Mathew Scott from Deakin University submitted:

Students like myself already have other things to pay for while studying—textbooks, travel, course fees, to name a few.

Student services have not suffered that much since VSU was introduced. In fact at Deakin, the student union seems to have enough money to run their own book store, bistro and cafes on campus!

Before the election, Labor promised to increase university participation of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds by 20 per cent by the year 2020. The government’s policy to increase percentages is to provide universities with cash incentives that are designed to encourage enrolments of students from poorer backgrounds. If the government is actually serious about improving participation rates of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, they should be considering the financial barriers on individual students rather than increasing those barriers.

The financial costs of attending university can be considerable. For many students, working is not an option due to time constraints and study pressures. Every direct cost to students is another barrier to education. As a parliament, we should be debating ways to reduce these barriers, like fees of $250 indexed every year, rather than ways to increase them.

The National Union of Students, which is an organisation run by Labor-affiliated students, strongly supports this legislation and the idea of taxing students. This support by the NUS is despite its campaigns to increase the amount of welfare provided to students due to cost-of-living pressures. According to the NUS website:

1 in 8 students miss a meal regularly because of lack of money and 1 in 2 students report that their studies are adversely affected by financial stress. Students from regional Australia suffer huge relocation costs.

If this is the case, why would the student union movement support a tax that will take money away from students, take away their ability to buy textbooks, and put them under greater financial stress? The government knows that the tax will be a significant burden on students, which is why the legislation provides for a complicated loan scheme called SA-HELP. SA-HELP will provide loans to students who do not wish to pay the fee up front. Students will need to make a request for assistance and provide their tax file number in order to get a loan.

However, the practical implementation of the scheme is not made clear by the legislation. Professor Jane den Hollander, convenor of the Universities Australia Deputy Chancellors Committee, has described the proposed system as ‘complex, complicated and confusing for students and annoying and time consuming for everyone.’ The proposed loan system is not an answer to the burden being placed on students by this legislation. Those who are eligible to access loans will merely be forced into a liability to the Commonwealth, which has not detailed how and when the loan will be repaid.

Instead of reducing the study disincentives of an up-front fee, the complexities of the loan system actually add to the burden that this legislation places on students by enforcing a complicated and time-consuming process on those who are eligible to access SA-HELP. Again, if Labor’s purpose is to help students and provide incentives for study, adding financial disincentives and complex loan procedures to the university experience is not going to help.

I am particularly concerned with the impact this legislation will have on students studying externally and those from rural and regional Australia. The $250 fee will be applied to students who do not actually study on campus and who cannot even access the services provided by the union. The impact of such provisions was made clear in many inquiry submissions. Dr Michael Ayling, an external student at the University of New England, told the House committee inquiry:

I am in full-time practice as a specialist anaesthetist in South West NSW and a father of two young children. It is not my intention to ever visit the UNE campus in Armidale.

I will have no role in student politics at UNE. I will never visit the university gym, join any clubs, make use of their childcare facilities, buy a subsidised cup of coffee at their refectory, nor seek the advocacy of their student union. Yet it is still envisaged that I should pay the new tax.

Mr Scott from Deakin University submitted this to the committee:

I live in regional Victoria in Bendigo, however I attend Deakin University in Melbourne. I am on campus one day a week, but also study several units from my course online.

Why should I be stuck paying for student services which I won’t be using? I already have to pay more to travel from my home in regional Victoria to my university campus in the city of Melbourne, as well as having to knock back shifts at work in Bendigo so that I can travel to University.

The Rudd-Gillard government has shown that it does not understand the pressure facing regional students.

As parliament is aware, the coalition is currently seeking to overturn Labor’s alterations to the eligibility criteria for independent youth allowance, which discriminate against regional students. Unfortunately, we have not been successful to date. Labor’s system currently classifies groups of students as ‘inner regional’ and forces those students to work additional hours in order to qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance. The plan to reintroduce compulsory union fees only further gives regional students a disincentive to study at universities, and studying at universities is so important for improving the economy and fortunes of those living in regional and rural Australia.

The coalition opposes this legislation for each of the reasons I have listed. We believe that Labor’s tax on students infringes the right to freedom of association. This legislation will force students to be financially associated with the union even if they decide not to join the union and vote for union representatives. By compulsorily acquiring fees, student unions and associations will not be held accountable for how they choose to spend student money.

There is evidence that voluntary student unionism has forced student unions to be more responsible and to provide services that students actually need. What a wonderful idea. This bill will allow student unions to descend back into their ugly old ways and spend money on political campaigns and frivolous activities not in the best interests of students. The amount of the fee and the complex process involved when a student applies for a loan to pay the fee provide further disincentives for young people to study at university.

As evidenced by the committee inquiries, the organisations supporting this legislation are those that will benefit financially from it. Individual students who do not want to pay this tax and believe that their study will suffer because of it have been ignored by this government. Finally, the legislation will particularly hurt regional and external students and discourage them from studying. External students will pay the fee despite never using the services provided. Is there equity in levying a tax on people who will never use the services that they are being taxed for? For those students facing the costs of relocating to the city, the legislation provides them with an additional financial burden. The coalition believes that we should not be increasing upfront burdens on students and giving disincentives for them to undertake tertiary study. I urge the parliament to oppose this bill in its entirety and to reject the inequity that it imposes on many struggling students who cannot afford $250 and who are keen to pursue their studies.

12:18 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12:33 pm

Photo of Jane PrenticeJane Prentice (Ryan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to contribute to the debate on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. I speak on behalf of the students, parents and families of Ryan and I state from the outset that I will not be supporting Labor’s bill and broken promise.

Let me be clear—the bill is not a return to compulsory student unionism.

So said the member for Kingsford-Smith in this House on 29 September during his second reading speech. Is that true, Mr Deputy Speaker? Is he correct? Is this bill not in fact a return to compulsory student unionism? This bill is a covert reintroduction of a compulsory fee and compulsory unionism. As my friend and colleague Senator Brett Mason said on this topic recently:

… if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.

Ostensibly, if this bill is passed students will be compulsorily required to pay a $250 ‘fee’ each year to universities. According to the bill, this money is to be used to provide ‘services and amenities’. But how long will it take, in reality, for student unions to make a claim on this money by arguing that they are the de facto campus providers of services and amenities? Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is just a weak disguise for the reintroduction of compulsory student union fees. This is yet another broken promise, another deceitful trick, by a Labor government so entrenched in dishonesty it has, in the words of the Prime Minister herself before the public knifing of the now Minister for Foreign Affairs, ‘lost its way’.

So what is the reality for students if this compulsory fee—or, let’s call it what it really is, a union fee—goes ahead? When students start their new academic year they are met with a raft of financial imposts, most significantly a CSP debt owed to the Commonwealth. For a three-year arts degree at the University of Queensland the financial burden placed on Commonwealth-supported students will be at least $5,550 per year. Over three years this burden will grow to over $16,600. Then there are costs for books, transport, accommodation, expensive computers—the list goes on. The extra impost of an ‘amenities fee’ is seen by many students as unnecessary and counterproductive to the improvements made to student unions since the compulsory fee was removed by the Howard government in 2005, a move welcomed by students around the nation.

The student campus today is a different place compared with the one many of the honourable members present attended. And the students who attend our learned institutions are likewise very different. Not all students are the same. The reality is that students today often have to work part time, or even full time, to support themselves. They do not always need the services that are offered by the unions or even have the time to use them, and they fail to see why they should subsidise those who do. They probably do not care that much about campus politics or student activism, and many of today’s students are of a mature age or are using new technologies to study remotely or to study in the evenings. Some are staggering their study and only doing one subject at a time. Some are juggling family commitments, jobs, a tight financial budget and study. So why should these people, all with different priorities and demands, be forced to join a union organisation or pay a compulsory fee for something that they have little need for or, if they do have need for it, that can be purchased on a user-pays basis as and when required?

The Labor way has always been to charge more and provide less. This bill goes to the heart of that notion. This bill is about charging students more and imposing on the modest lifestyle of students. It is once again clear that Labor believes students belong in a union and, no matter their personal views, the union way is the only way. I am very proud to say that it was under the leadership of the Howard government that the burden and shambles of compulsory student unionism were removed and students were finally allowed to make their own choices—a choice Labor does not believe should exist.

This bill, if passed, will be seen by students and the wider community as an act of forced unionism, as a removal of the choices bestowed upon student communities across Australia by the coalition in 2005. But let us face it: Labor have a history where compulsory unionism is concerned. They introduced a type of compulsory unionism in Australia as far back as 1932, when a Labor government amended the Queensland Industrial Arbitration and Conciliation Act to give preference to union members for jobs. This virtually forced all employees working under Queensland state awards to join a trade union or face dismissal. It seems a leopard does not change its spots. In May 2007, the then shadow education minister and now Minister for Defence, said:

… I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

Was that really so? And what did the Rudd-Gillard government then do? In 2009 they broke this promise when they introduced the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 2009, a bill with a specific intention: to force more than one million Australian university students to pay $250 a year, regardless of whether they can afford it or whether they want it. This was defeated in 2009, but, as we can see, Labor has not given up on this incessant and obsessive fight for a covert compulsory student unionism. Once again, it has been proven that the word of a Labor politician means absolutely nothing.

In my electorate of Ryan I have one of Australia’s most prestigious universities—the University of Queensland. When compulsory union fees were abolished by the Howard government in 2005, the union there immediately and practically addressed the new realities and went about establishing a financially self-sustainable model. The union was placed on a business footing, where the focus was on maintaining representational and advocacy services. These, in turn, were funded by the various business enterprises run by the union around the campus. Students immediately benefited. The financial burden on them was eased and the University of Queensland Union was afforded choice. The result is simple: the union is now listening to students. The union is now acting for the interests of students.

Photo of Luke HartsuykerLuke Hartsuyker (Cowper, National Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the House) Share this | | Hansard source

What a great idea!

Photo of Jane PrenticeJane Prentice (Ryan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Very novel. The student union was forced to become relevant to the wider student body. They seized the opportunity and are now thinking smarter and working harder to produce good outcomes for students. I do not see that the experience at the University of Queensland should be in any way unique. They are a shining example of what can be done with a bit of enterprise. The UQ student union is now accountable, transparent and much more efficient, whereas previously this body was plagued by allegations of waste and mismanagement. These benefits for students would have never been realised if the Howard government had not moved away from the previous 30-year-old ‘dinosaur’ concept of compulsory student unionism.

A common thread in Labor’s argument against VSU is the notion of a campus culture—the university experience. Labor needs to honour its pre-election pledge in 2007, a commitment made by the shadow minister for education, ‘to ensure that students, if they so choose, can voluntarily organise themselves into representative organisations and to allow students, if they so choose, to make voluntary contributions to those services’.

I will conclude where I began. The Labor Party is not in touch with the needs of students at universities across Australia in 2010. Labor’s attempt at compulsory unionism is a farce and this bill must not be supported, in any form. We on this side of the chamber have every faith and belief in the decisions students make. Students can drink legally, drive legally and vote. They should be able to choose how they spend their money and which organisations they join. The Labor Party instead believes students should be forced to pay and be made to join a union. This is an indictment on a party very out of touch with reality. Ultimately, this bill is about legitimising a form of extortion and it is representative of yet more broken promises from Labor. Just how many more promises are they prepared to break, I wonder?

The coalition will continue to stand up for students and defend their rights on campus, in particular their right to make the choice about what organisations they support and what services they want to use. I urge members not to support this bill. It is bad policy. It is morally wrong. Labor members opposite and Prime Minster Gillard stand condemned for yet another broken Labor promise and for pushing ahead with this attempt to burden students further. I urge honourable members to put the interests of students first. It is for these reasons that this bill should not be supported.

12:43 pm

Photo of Jill HallJill Hall (Shortland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I never cease to be amazed, when I listen to members on the other side of this parliament debate any legislation, by how they let their ideological predisposition and hatred of unions permeate every contribution they make to debate in this House. We are not talking student unionism here; we are talking about an administration fee so that students attending university can have the services they need, so that there is infrastructure in place to support students. Members on the other side of the House, like the member for Ryan, roll out the same, tired old arguments we have listened to in this parliament time and time again made by the ideologues on the other side. It is amazing. They absolutely never change and because they are so embedded in their philosophical hatred they are disadvantaging students and universities.

This legislation will amend the previous government’s voluntary student unionism legislation and deliver a balanced, measured and practical solution to rebuilding student services and amenities of a non-academic nature and restoring independent, democratic representation and advocacy in the higher education sector. Listening to speakers on this legislation from the other side of this chamber, one would think that it was only the government—the Labor Party—that was pushing this agenda. But, no, that is not correct; the universities are very supportive of the legislation that we are debating today. Universities throughout Australia have pledged their support for this legislation. I may have glimpsed the member for Cowper on his feet earlier in this debate and I know that universities and students in the area that he represents will be able to benefit from this administration fee that will be used to improve non-academic services and infrastructure within the university—I think it is Southern Cross University—in his area.

Earlier this year I had a visit from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle and he talked to me about an application that the university had made under the Structural Adjustment Fund. At the same time he took the opportunity to raise with me what he thought was one of the most important issues facing the university. Given my role as a representative for Shortland electorate, where one-third of the students attending that university actually come from, he felt that he had my ear and so he would raise this exceptionally important issue. What was that exceptionally important issue? It was student administration fees, and how the legislation introduced by the previous Howard government—driven by ideologues such as the previous speaker, the member for Ryan, and people who are out of touch with their communities—had impacted enormously on students and the university itself.

The fees collected at the University of Newcastle had decreased from $6 million to $1.5 million. That meant that the university faced the dilemma of whether it took money from some other source or took money out of another bucket of money, which was very important, to ensure that these vital services continued or let the services decline and do away with them. Along with that, the effect would be that the students attending the university would not have access to those services. So far, the university has been able to continue to support the students. What that university—the one attended by the majority of students from the area that I represent—would like to see happen is for this legislation to pass through the House.

As the representative of the people in the Shortland electorate, I argue very strongly for this legislation to pass through the House and for the members on the other side of the House to get over it—to leave behind your hatred of unions. This is not about unionism; this is about ensuring that students attending university actually get the services that they want and have exposure to a whole lot of different life experiences whilst they are at university, rather than the sterile picture that members on the other side of this parliament have of the types of services that students need and deserve.

The new provisions prohibit the new fee being spent by a higher education provider on supporting political parties or candidates for election to the Commonwealth, state or territory parliament, or local government. The higher education provider must also impose this prohibition on any person or organisation to which it pays any of the fee revenue. Maybe that could be a problem for members on the other side of this parliament after listening to the debate on electoral reform. Maybe that is something that they would like to see happen rather than not. The legislation is not a return to compulsory student unionism and the government is not changing sections 19 to 37 of the Higher Education Support Act.

The introduction of the voluntary student unionism legislation by the previous government stripped close to $170 million out of university funding. I just pointed out how much money it stripped out of the University of Newcastle, the university attended by the majority of students from the Shortland electorate.

Members on the other side of this House have argued ‘choice’. Students do not have choices about a lot of things in their lives. I strongly encourage members to go and talk to the students that they represent in this House. The voluntary student union legislation has led to huge increases in the cost of child care, parking, books, computer labs, sport and food. When I was attending university, one of my children attended a childcare service. I would not have been able to complete my university degree if the provision of that service had not been subsidised through the fees that were being paid then.

Students have also experienced numerous rises in indirect costs. These are things that they do not have a choice about. These are things that are happening now. I think that for members on the other side of the House to sanctimoniously sit there and say that this takes away choice shows just how out of touch they are with what is happening in their electorates and how out of touch they are with what is happening at universities. These are just more platitudes by an opposition that is only good at slogans and opposing everything, not at representing the people of their electorates. It is the students who are paying the price for the outdated ideas of the ideologues on the other side of the House.

What I find a little bit confusing is the position of the National Party. They recognised publicly that these fees should be supported. The member for Cowper would have been at the recent party conference that supported a compulsory fee being levied on university students to support services and amenities on campuses. That is the belief, the argument, that has been put forward by the National Party outside the parliament. But inside this parliament, subservient to their Liberal Party masters, they vote against what their national conference supported.

I can understand why many electorates previously held by National Party members are now held by Independents. People in those electorates can see that it is Independents who stand up for them and Independents who understand what their needs are—not National Party members, who say one thing at their national conference and come into this parliament and vote against the interests of the students and the people they represent. I find it so disappointing that there is one voice outside the parliament and another voice inside. All of this shows a lack of understanding of the issue and the need for members in the parliament, on both sides, to get up and support their universities as I am doing.

The vice-chancellor of the University of Newcastle pointed out that fee income had dropped from $6 million to $1.5 million as a result of the voluntary student union legislation. That is money that has been ripped out of the University of Newcastle. That money needs to be reinstated and this legislation is vitally important for achieving that. In the previous parliament, this legislation was supported in the House. This is really a reintroduction of previous legislation, legislation that the opposition voted against in the Senate, getting enough support to defeat it. I implore senators to get behind this legislation, because without urgent intervention the services at universities will continue to decline.

This legislation is vitally important for students. The non-academic services provided by universities go towards creating the whole-of-university experience for students and they go towards supporting child care, the cost of food and the many other costs that people have no choice but to pay. Those costs are increasing simply because members opposite cannot understand that these costs are being passed on to students. This is great legislation; this is legislation that will benefit students attending all universities. I urge the members on the other side of this parliament to put aside their ideological hatred of unions and support the legislation. (Time expired)

12:58 pm

Photo of Jamie BriggsJamie Briggs (Mayo, Liberal Party, Chairman of the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a great pleasure to rise today and again oppose the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. This bill is, ultimately, a breach of a 2007 election promise by the Labor Party, an occurrence which is all too common in this parliament.

We have just had a lecture from the member for Shortland about national conventions and the issue of policy decisions made by political parties outside the parliament differing from the policy decisions made by members inside the parliament. We will be fascinated to see, tomorrow morning, where the member for Shortland, the member for McEwen and the Special Minister of State end up on the member for Melbourne’s motion on gay marriage. On the one hand, the Labor Party said at their national convention that they are opposed to gay marriage. On the other hand, the vast majority of members of the Labor Party are telling Sky News on background that they support it. We know of a deal between the former Prime Minister and the left wing of the Labor Party to support the motion, so it will be fascinating tomorrow morning to see, after that lecture from the member for Shortland, exactly how many of these honourable and tough minded members support Mr Bandt’s motion in the House.

As I said at the beginning, this bill is another attempt by the Labor Party to breach yet another election promise. In 2007 the then shadow education spokesman, the member for Perth, said:

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.

This bill will introduce exactly what the now Minister for Defence said they would not do: a compulsory amenities fee. This is not about the constant claim by the Labor Party that there is some great hatred of unions on this side of parliament. We do not hate unions; we just hate the compulsion that the Labor Party requires. Special Minister of State, I need to talk clearly so you understand how passionately opposed we are to this bill. This is a bad bill. I know that as a good man, you would be very uncomfortable with the fact that this is another broken promise by a Labor Party which does not seem to know how to make a promise before an election and stick to it after an election.

There seems to be two main claims by the Labor Party in this debate: firstly, that there is hatred on this side of parliament for the unions, which is wrong; secondly, that the long awaited reforms of former Prime Minister John Howard somehow ripped $170 million out of university services. The latter claim is based on a false premise. What that act of parliament actually did was put $170 million back into students’ pockets so they could make decisions about which services at university they wanted to use and what services were appropriate for them to use. So it was never about ripping $170 million out of services; it was about giving the $170 million back to those students so they could make their own choices about whether they wanted to contribute or not.

What we have seen is that students have chosen to spend their money on the services that they want to spend it on, but that runs completely counter to the modern Australian Labor Party. They do not like people making decisions on their own; they want to tell people what to do. They want the students of Australia to be told which services they need. They want the students of Australia to fund services that they themselves have said, through their own choices, that they do not want or do not consider that they need.

We are opposed to this bill because it undoes important reforms. Again, this is another attempt to undo the very important and long awaited reforms introduced by the Howard government. This is a purely ideological approach from the Labor Party to again install compulsory student union membership. The member for Shortland claims somehow that this was not about student union membership but that it was a student amenity fee. But we all know that this is all about them delivering back to their training grounds, the student unions.

The claim by the Labor Party is that there is a protection in the bill against using this money for political activity. Of course, you can drive a truck through those provisions. I am thankful to Senator Scott Ryan for his work in the dissenting report before the election when the government tried to move this bill through the parliament. This bill opens the door again to use this money to support the political activities of student unions, which are the training grounds for the modern Australian Labor Party.

So many of those on the other side, including their new members, have come through this union training field and state parliaments littered across the country before entering this place. You do not have to go any further than the state of South Australia to see people, such as my good friend the member for Kingston, coming through the student union training school. The member for Adelaide was also a very longstanding contributor to student union politics in South Australia. It is part of what is known as the machine operation in South Australia. It is run by Senator Don Farrell and the shoppies use it as a training ground to build their next group of activists in the state and federal parliament. We see this now in the state parliament of South Australia, where many of these people were involved in the machinations to replace Premier Mike Rann and Treasurer Kevin Foley as they ran out of energy at the end of their careers. You only have to look at Jack Snelling—and even Tom Koutsantonis, I understand. They all come through this similar training school.

We say that claims that these provisions do not allow the money to be used for political activity are wrong. As Senator Scott Ryan’s dissenting report makes very clear, the provisions for freedom of association are absolutely put in jeopardy by this bill. This is money that will be collected and used in support of political activities. The report has all sorts of examples of how this money will be used, such as funding campaigns of a political nature by third parties to assist particular parties or candidates. We saw that in the previous bill, which the Special Minister of State moved through, where they use organisations like GetUp! and so forth to run campaigns which support the political outcomes of the Australian Labor Party.

So we say that there is a range of ways that this money can be used to do what it has always been used for—as a training ground for new Labor activists. I will quote from the Hansard of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations hearing, where Senator Scott Ryan said:

I recall an incident quite a while ago where students held a protest. It reached a degree of violence, the police intervened and several students were arrested and charged. The student union legal services funded their defence or contributed to the funding of their defence. There is no restriction whatever on how these legal services can be used; it is just the provision of legal services, isn’t it?

The DEEWR representative at the Senate committee hearing answered very clearly:

There is no further specification than is proposed there.

In other words, there are a range of ways in which the money that is collected compulsorily from students can be used for activities which are part of the training structure of the Australian Labor Party and the trade union movement in this country. This is what the real intent of this bill is. In 2005, when the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Act first came in, there was a lot of noise coming from the other side of parliament because the compulsory element of the fee, which students will choose not to pay when they have a choice, had been used in part for their union training camp to produce the new group of activists.

This bill is about choice; it is about giving the $170 million that the Labor Party claim is being ripped out of services back to students so that they can put it in their pockets and spend it on what they want to spend it on, not on what the Australian Labor Party tell them they must spend it on. This is where there is a very large gulf between what we believe and what the Australian Labor Party believe. The Australian Labor Party believe that they know what is best for students. They believe they know what is best for Australians. They do not want Australians and Australian students making their own choices in life. They would prefer that they tell them what to do. They would prefer to tell them how they spend their money and, as a result, you get these claims trumped up as an argument by members in this place such as the member for Shortland, who says that this money is being ripped out of universities, when of course it is being put back into students pockets.

This is an extremely important bill and one that we hope does not pass this parliament. It would completely offend the freedom of association principles that we so rightly defend on this side of parliament. If those on the other side of parliament have their way—and it will be interesting after July next year when they do get more of an opportunity to do that with the Greens who will be in control of the Senate; we know that Labor may be in government but the Greens are in power—whether they go to other pieces of legislation to give their union friends the leg-up they so desperately need. When Australians get a choice, they choose not to pay—and that is a very important thing to understand. That is what we will defend. We will defend it on this bill. We will defend it when those opposite try to increase the reach of the workplace relations act, which I am sure will come in, to push for more friendly provisions for compulsory membership of trade unions. This is the easy, soft way for the Australian Labor Party to attempt to stay in power at federal and state levels, and it is something that we should stand very much against.

This is a bill about choice. It is a bill about the fundamental right in this country of freedom of association. We will continue to fight tooth and nail, as we have for many years, for this right. There have been many fighters on this side of parliament for this cause. The member for Higgins, Senator Scott Ryan, whom I have mentioned, Senator Mitch Fifield, the member for Casey and the member for Indi are people who have fought against this injustice, this decision by the Australian Labor Party, to compulsorily take money from students to fund their activities, to fund their training camps in order to produce the next level of activists in this country. We oppose the bill, and we will continue to oppose it. It is a bad bill. It is nothing more than a political device used by the Australian Labor Party at the expense of Australian students.

1:11 pm

Photo of Mike SymonMike Symon (Deakin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. The previous Liberal government’s abolition of compulsory student services and amenities fees has had an extremely negative impact on universities Australia-wide that continues to this day. As a result of the Howard government’s Higher Education Support. Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union. Fees) Act 2005, $170 million of support has been stripped from student services. As we have heard today, the Liberals ideological hatred of unions continues in this place and gets applied to this bill, even though this bill is not about student unions; it is about amenities and services.

The removal of compulsory student fees has led most universities to draw funding away from other education services in order to supplement, often at a reduced level, the many student services formerly catered for by this revenue stream. As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training, which completed an inquiry into the bill just this week, I can say that the evidence presented was compelling in its support of the bill. For instance, a submission from the University of Sydney identified that, over the last three years, $38 million had been diverted from their teaching and research into areas such as non-academic student support services and amenities. The committee also had a submission from Griffith University, which estimated that, since 2005, it had lost $31.3million in revenue due to the same impact.

The committee’s report recommended the release of the Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines. This important step has happened already. There is a particular point in there that needs to be made in this debate, because I think some of those on the other side are still missing it. Professor Alan Robson, from the Group of Eight universities, said:

The guidelines … make it very clear that universities will be required to use the funds for services and student representation and advocacy, not for “marginal and extreme political activities” as claimed by the Opposition in its Senate committee report on this issue.

The committee report also highlighted that all higher education institutions, including those located in regional Australia, are in favour of this bill going through parliament and becoming law. The Go8, as I said, support this bill, which they have done right the way through. They also supported the previous bill on the same matter when it was before the House, but it did not get through the last parliament. I again go back to Professor Robson, who only yesterday said:

The Federal Government’s decision to allow Universities to support essential student support services through the collection of a modest fee is a sensible compromise that will enhance the quality of Australia’s higher education system.

He went on to say:

The Go8 strongly supports the Government’s decision to ensure students will have the option of a HECS style loan to cover service fee costs.

This means the student service fees will not pose an up-front barrier to any student.

I now turn to Universities Australia, which noted that universities have:

… continued to offer vital services from their own operating budgets, to the detriment of their teaching and research operations.

I gave examples of these before. Universities realised that these essential services had to continue. They have had to make cuts to their core business to have a package so that students can go and learn but also have support whilst they do it. Services such as child care, employment, health services and welfare support would have collapsed overnight if that funding had not been diverted. But some institutions have not been able to do that. Some institutions have not been able to cut or have not had reserves. Therefore, there are no student services in some of those areas, especially in smaller regional institutions.

For example, Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory does not fund many of these vital student services that assist students on campus, and the student union, which had previously done that job, was shut down after the legislation came into effect. Students need support especially when moving away from home. It may be a long way from home in the case of the university up in Darwin. They may need accommodation and employment services and may require child care or help with financial or other personal issues. Rural and regional institutions such as Charles Darwin need services on campus as much as, if not more than, the larger institutions in cities because of the large numbers of students living away from friends and family without necessarily direct means of support. Dedicated student services at universities have helped students remain and continue their studies. If these services did not exist, many may have dropped out or failed to complete their courses. The last thing that we as a country want to see happen is for someone to make it to university and not come out the other end with a qualification.

Under the proposed legislation, higher education institutions can charge students up to $250 per student per year for student services with an indexation factor of up to $254 in 2011. Eligible students will be able to pay the fee through SA-HELP, a HECS style loan also referring back to the Go8’s comments. In many instances, students paying the $250 student services and amenities fees will pay less than they did before the Howard government introduced VSU. For example, a full-time student attending the La Trobe University Bundoora campus in 2006 would have paid a $356 general service fee. A student attending the same campus of the same university in 2011 would pay a minimum of $106 less, should La Trobe University choose to implement a services fee. I highlight this to underline the fact that the government is not seeking to increase the financial burden on students.

The Gillard Labor government is seeking to support students and rejuvenate campus culture and support on campus and to do so in a way which impinges on students in the minimal way possible. Services provided by this fee will provide a safety net for students who may need to rely on them during their time at the institution. For students who, in the first instance, may not use services such as employment advice, financial advice, child care or individual advocacy, there are still many other services that can make their time at university so much better. For instance, services such as clubs and societies may enable new students to join a debating club or a bushwalking club, to meet new friends or maybe develop a lifelong pursuit or maybe use university performance spaces and art galleries through clubs that focus on music or drama. University sporting clubs can provide students with a chance to continue their sporting interests or discover new ones, meet new friends and be part of a team.

The Liberal Party have presided over the removal and the reduction of student services in tertiary campuses right across the nation. These include advocacy, advice, legal counsel, support for mature age and international students, campus child care, support for new mums returning to education, medical services and, importantly, student peer support and orientation for new students. All these services were cut by the Liberals in government, many of whose members still sit in this place today. In particular, students from rural and regional communities have been disadvantaged by the removal of these services and the introduction of a user-pays model for the provision of services on campuses.

More often than not, rural and regional students face a greater financial burden in seeking a place at a tertiary institution, especially if they have had to relocate some distance to be there. Living away from home is not easy and, if it is your first time living away from home, it is even harder. Living away from families, friends and a familiar environment, these students—more than most other students—depend on campus student services to support them through their tertiary education. That is especially so in their first year. If a student comes down from the country, they may well be in a huge institution where they do not know many people, they do not know how to ask for things or where to go. That is where services such as these can be vital. Even a basic orientation of what happens is something that needs to be explained and needs to be shown—where the service is and how to access it.

This bill assists universities in turning around the years of neglect that we have seen from the Howard Liberal government when it comes to funding. This important funding stream will help universities rebuild campus facilities, including important student amenities like child care. These are the same childcare services this bill will help university staff to equip and encourage students to use. With the passage of this bill, as I hope to see, the Gillard Labor government will undo yet another rotten hangover of the Howard Liberal government. We will restore the sense of community to Australian universities.

Universities Australia have said that they ‘believe the bill will greatly assist in reinvigorating campus life across Australia, and will help restore essential services’. Universities Australia also note that these services will ‘particularly assist students away from home networks’, and that access to services will ‘support more students from low-socioeconomic, Indigenous and/or disabled backgrounds’. This bill enables a university to charge, as I have said, a fee of $250 per year for each full-time student so that these services can be provided on campus for all students. The bill limits what money can be spent on and precludes political donations. This legislation is about enhancing the university experience and is fairly balanced and designed to protect these resources for student services and programs. I support this bill and I encourage all members of the House to support the return of student services to Australian universities. I commend the bill to the House.

1:22 pm

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to talk about the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. The bill is being introduced by Labor for a third time. The first bill was introduced in February 2009 and then again in September 2009. The point of course is that Labor promised during the 2007 election that it would not reintroduce a compulsory fee. This is another broken promise. I think we should remind the government of the day that Labor’s election promise was that in both principle and detail they would not reintroduce non-academic fees and as well they would not have any form of loans scheme to fund them. The then shadow education minister Stephen Smith was quite explicit about this. On 22 May 2007 he said:

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.

So here we are today, November 2010, for the third time talking about a compulsory student services and amenities fee—some $250 per year and it is going to be indexed annually. If you have a three-year degree or a four-year course, those dollars accumulate.

I need to remind those opposite that, unfortunately, not all those pursuing a tertiary education come from comfortable families, or come from families in metropolitan areas where they can stay living at home and catch the tram to their college or university just up the road. A lot of tertiary students in Australia are rural students from rural Australia—although, sadly, increasingly fewer—who also aspire to a tertiary education, and $250 a year is a substantial financial burden, particularly for mature age students (for example, women) who are seeking to get some off-farm income through the development of a salaried position, or people who are looking for a mid-career change and who are looking to do their training close to their home in rural and regional Australia. Those families look at the fees and if on top they have a $250 compulsory student services and amenities fee, it all goes to make it more difficult for them to take this extra study.

I have been very closely associated with the tertiary education sector. I have been appalled to see in the past this compulsory student amenities fee buying all sorts of wonderful services in Parkfield, in Bundoora and on the Monash campus in Clayton where students enjoy dental services, childcare services, free parking and a range of drama, sporting and other cultural activities. Meanwhile, students on small campuses like Dookie College, for example, not far from Shepparton, who paid the same compulsory student amenities fee had no access to any of those sorts of amenities. That is quite unfair. I do not see why someone in a country campus should be contributing to the fabulous alternative activities of students based in metropolitan Australia.

I also think it is very unfair for students who, for various reasons, do not want to participate in those additional non-academic activities to have a compulsory fee put onto their entry requirements. Perhaps they do not have the time, the ability or the capacity to play one of these great sports or to attend drama or music activities, or even to access the child care or the car parking and so on. Why should those students have to pay the $250 per year indexed annually? I think that is a very serious issue. In relation to non-voluntary contributions, what we originally objected to as the coalition was based on the great liberal philosophy that no-one in Australia is required to belong to any organisation or association. And yet we were requiring university students in tertiary institutions to join, in effect, a union. We know that a substantial proportion of those funds were directed into party political activities on the campus. Whether they were Labor or Young Liberal Movement activities is irrelevant. None of these funds should be delivered towards party partisan or other political activities when not all students choose to participate. Indeed, even if they did, those sorts of activities should be funded from the students’ own means.

The establishment of a loan scheme, SA-HELP, to provide Commonwealth funded loans to help students pay the fee is an acknowledgment that lots of students will find this fee a financial burden, but it by no means helps. As Mr Smith originally said, it is something that Labor promised it would not do. Here we have a loans scheme put in place to help students raise this $250 a year. I am quite concerned that it will be an even bigger erosion of the capacity of lots of students to even attempt to gain tertiary entrance. Of course, student union taxes were abolished by the Howard government in 2005. The Higher Education Support Act then said that students did not have to be a member of an association, union or guild. It said you could not have a compulsory fee for facilities, amenities or services that were not of an academic nature. We believe that if the user pay principle is appropriate for others seeking to play sport or participate in some other cultural activity then that should also extend to the campuses of universities.

I am appalled, I have to say, that we are again debating this issue when there are other extremely serious problems now facing Australia’s university students in prospect—that is, the students who are just now completing their year 12 courses. Unfortunately, across rural and regional Australia, many students who have strived for 13 years of education, who have aspired, perhaps for years, to go to a university, are now not even applying because they are not going to be able to fulfil the criteria of the independent youth allowance. We have a new set of conditions and criteria which say that those students living in a so-called ‘inner region’—that might sound like suburbia, but an inner region includes places like Shepparton, Echuca and up to Deniliquin—are not able to use the criteria that were in play when the coalition was in government and therefore, with only one gap year of work, go on to university with sufficient financial support for them to pay the up to $20,000 it costs to live away from home.

This government has turned its back on the needs of rural and regional Australians. I think it is absolutely appalling that Labor have acknowledged that their new regime is going to discriminate against rural students. They have acknowledged that by saying that those living in outer regional Australia or remote Australia may still be eligible to apply for independent youth allowance under the John Howard coalition government criteria, but those living in the so-called inner regions—remember, I have said that those are still very far from a capital city—are going to be ineligible, mostly, because of the new criteria imposed.

We already have the consequences of that in my area, where the numbers attending or even applying for university have dropped dramatically. I am so sad to think of the students whose family farms are now being rendered non-viable because they have been forced to sell their water during the drought—their lenders have been leaning on them—and now face further reductions of water under the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s new guide proposals. For those farm families, their only hope for their children is for them to have an alternative non-farm career. That usually means tertiary education for those students as a key pathway to an alternative career. But no, in our rural and regional areas, so hard pressed—just having gone through nearly 10 years of drought in my area—they are now not able to contemplate a tertiary education for their sons and daughters because they simply cannot afford to pay. Their sons and daughters cannot undertake what is in effect a two-year gap and they cannot find the $20,000-plus per year to go and live away from home.

I would like to tell you some of the statistics that are now the fact in the Goulburn Murray Local Learning and Employment Network Area. The data is for 2007 and 2008 school leavers, but I am told anecdotally that it is now worse this year. Twenty-nine per cent of school leavers in the Goulburn Murray region went on to university. This compares with 44 per cent for the rest of the state, so less than half the number of graduating year 12 students from my biggest populated area, in the Goulburn Murray region, attended university compared to the state average. I think that that is an extraordinary indictment of this government. When we look at the number of school leavers looking for work, 6.8 per cent of school leavers in the Goulburn Murray area are looking for work after year 12. The average for school leavers looking for work after year 12 is 3.8 per cent for the rest of the state. So our students are out of year 12 and nearly seven per cent of them are looking for work. The school leavers from the Goulburn Murray area were not in training, they were not in an apprenticeship, they were not doing a VET course; they were simply looking for a job. I am afraid that when the parents and school leavers were asked why they were not in fact studying, why they were not putting up their hand to go to university, it is no surprise that 43.1 per cent said that financial pressures on the family were the reason that tertiary places offered were not taken up. That is nearly half. That is 43.1 per cent of those families in my electorate saying that they could not take up the offers, compared to only 26 per cent of families in the rest of Victoria saying that financial pressures had kept their sons and daughters out of university.

You might think that $250 is not a big amount of money. Well, it is to these families, who are working out every dollar and cent to see if they can afford to have their students go to Melbourne, Ballarat, Albury-Wodonga or Bendigo to study—in every case, away from home. I have to tell you that over half of the parents had to decline those places on behalf of their students because of the financial pressures. I think that is a shocking statistic in 21st century Australia. It means that we are going to lock into our region intergenerational skills shortages, because we know that if we do not have our sons and daughters go off and train as doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants, lawyers, teachers, surveyors—you name it—then we will be much less likely to see those numbers of students return in the future to be our skilled workforce. It is a reality in Australia that if you are not born and bred in the bush you are less likely to take up a job vacancy in the bush. So we are perpetuating the inequalities, the two-speed economy, of metropolitan Australia and rural Australia—and I am excluding the mining sector in Western Australia.

I am saying that it is a very serious problem when any further financial impost is compulsorily added to the cost of going to university in this country. This additional new fee that the Labor government is trying to introduce therefore does not stack up on a number of fronts. It does not stack up because it is another cost impost—over $1,000 during the course of a degree, for example. A lot of my families simply cannot afford that. It is not enough to say that there is a loans scheme, because you have to find that money upfront and families cannot do it.

I have to say too that it is not the Australian way to require people to compulsorily pay for services and amenities that are not available to them on their campuses or that they do not choose to use. And, of course, we have always been concerned should any of these student union taxes, in effect, be used for other than academic purposes, particularly if they find their way into the pockets of student political movements. We think that is a very wrong way for taxpayer dollars or student raised fees to be directed.

I think universities have to look harder at how they fund their campuses. Most certainly we cannot agree with a bill that goes back to a bad old situation from many years before, and we want to remind the government that they promised in 2007 that they would not reintroduce a compulsory fee. This is another broken promise, with very heartbreaking consequences for rural and regional students, particularly in the electorate of Murray.

1:37 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to support this bill, which will return high-quality essential services to university students around the country, and particularly in my electorate of Parramatta, and will return them on a sustainable long-term basis. The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 represents a balanced and practical approach to the funding of student services and replaces the heavily ideological approach adopted by the previous Howard government. The impetus behind the Howard government’s voluntary student unionism was, no doubt—and we have just had it confirmed by the member for Murray—the destruction of political activity on campuses but also, as she said, the creation of a user-pays system. The irony in this is that, where once with student unions we had services provided and paid for by the students of the university, once those student unions were abolished the taxpayer stepped in to fill the gap. So, rather than having a user-pays system, everybody paid for the services on the university campus whether they went there or not. It is kind of the opposite of user pays. It is quite ironical really that members on the other side see the abolishment of student unions as moving towards user pays and then ask the taxpayer to pay for it.

It also did not work in the removal of politics from campuses. You do not actually stop people from having political views and behaving in a political manner by taking away one particular source of funds. Politics still exists on campus. It is well and truly alive and well in Western Sydney. Where the VSU did have a profound effect is that it hurt regular students who were simply trying to get by. The member for Murray talks about the financial pressures on students. I can tell her that in my University of Western Sydney there are people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, single parents, who depended on the services that were provided by the student union, they depended on the free shuttle bus services, they depended on subsidised child care, they depended on the affordable cafeteria. So the financial pressures on many of the students in my area were actually increased by the abolition of voluntary student unionism.

The list of services terminated at UWS immediately following the introduction of VSU does not read like a basket of luxuries. Immediately terminated were social sport programs, including tennis, soccer, indoor soccer, volleyball and cricket. For those who think that might be trivial, I care about health and for students who spend long hours on the campus waiting between one lecture and the next, they actually need an easy way to keep up their exercise levels. These sporting associations play a very important part in campus life, particularly if you are there for a long period of time. The UWS yearly planner calendars which had been provided free of charge were abolished. The shuttle bus services between stations and campuses were abolished. The funding subsidies to all five childcare centres were abolished. Quite a lot of the men and women who put their children in those childcare centres were dependent on those subsidised centres. The child care for school holidays program was abolished. The service assisting students to find casual employment was abolished, a change which dramatically impacts on the people most in need of finding employment, so those who have less money behind them suffered the greatest impact in the most appalling way. Prices went up in the affordable cafeteria, and the vice-chancellor has often said to me that that was one of the things that she found most distressing, that there were so many students on campus who were actually depending on that but could no longer do so. So you can see that the VSU, rather than targeting luxuries, undermined sport and exercise, campus safety and support for parents looking after children.

As well as the services terminated at UWS, the introduction of VSU also substantially reduced a number of other services. The number of student book scholarships of $100 each was reduced from 600 to 30. That is 570 people that would have greatly valued that who lost it each year. Funding for orientation week was reduced from some $100,000 to only $35,000. Emergency loans to students were reduced from $300 per loan to $200 per loan and the number of loans was reduced by 80 per cent. Annual direct funding for sporting clubs was reduced and fees and charges for use of on-campus facilities increased. Opening hours for on-campus counselling services were cut back, again services absolutely essential to many of the people that attend the University of Western Sydney. Annual funding for interuniversity sport was reduced from $141,000 to $16,000.

So what did voluntary student unionism attack under the previous government? It attacked modest scholarships to help students who could not afford the books they needed to complete their course, it attacked services to orient new students to university, it attacked funding for sport and exercise, it attacked counselling services for students going through a tough patch.

The story at University of Western Sydney was repeated nationally, as consultations with the universities in 2008 found that $170 million had been stripped from funding for services and amenities, resulting in the decline and in some instances complete closure of health, counselling, employment, childcare and welfare support services. Also what went was the building of new facilities. We would all know that in our older universities there are extraordinary facilities for sport, health, cafeterias, clubs, you name it, that had been built over years. All that was well and truly put on hold. VSU did not undermine unions or political activism; it undermined fundamental services that helped students to navigate university life and achieve success in their studies and that enabled them to participate in sport and the university community. We have established that VSU did great damage to essential services.

The second point that should be considered is the replacement cost of these services. Again this did not introduce user pays; the taxpayer paid. We all paid, so it was the opposite of user pays. By their very nature, essential services cannot simply be discarded; they need to be replaced. Here is where VSU ran into even greater problems, because replacement was achieved through greater student debt, cuts to other areas of university funding or the taxpayer. It is quite remarkable here. It is students who are being forced to pay the price of the $170 million both directly and indirectly.

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.