Monday, 17 August 2009
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009
by leave—I move amendments (1) to (6) on sheet 5802.
(1) Schedule 1, item 4, page 3 (line 21), omit “not of an academic nature”, substitute “of the kind specified in subsection (7)”.
(2) Schedule 1, item 4, page 4 (line 6), omit “$125”, substitute “$75”.
(3) Schedule 1, item 4, page 4 (line 8), omit “$250”, substitute “$150”.
(4) Schedule 1, item 4, page 4 (line 13), omit “$250”, substitute “$150”.
(5) Schedule 1, item 4, page 4 (after line 26), after subsection 19-37(6), insert:
(7) The services and amenities specified by this subsection are services and amenities associated with sporting and recreational activities and facilities provided by, or on the campus of, the higher education provider.
(8) The Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines must not provide for the calculation or inclusion of a fee amount for the provision of services and amenities other than those of the kind specified in subsection (7).
(9) A higher education provider must not require a person enrolled, or seeking to enrol, with the provider to pay a student services and amenities fee if that person is a *distance education student, unless the person chooses to use the amenities or services for which the fee is charged.
(10) In this section, distance education student means a person who is not required to attend the campus of the higher education provider to meet the academic requirements of the course of study in which the person is enrolled, or is seeking to enrol.
(6) Schedule 1, item 5, page 4 (after line 30), before subsection 19-38(1), insert:
(1A) A higher education provider must not spend an amount paid to the provider as a *student services and amenities fee to support the provision to students of services and amenities other than those of the kind specified in subsection 19-37(7).
It is very interesting, of course, to note someone talking about ‘walking the walk’ when they have never actually walked it at all, and ‘talking the talk’ when they have never actually talked it at all—living on the laurels of having a ministerial position that reflects their ability to do exactly what they are told. I think you would find that there are a lot of people on this side who would disagree with you fervently that I am—however you want to term it.
However, putting that aside, this comes down to a core issue: without sporting facilities at regional universities, we will not have regional universities. Without regional universities we dislocate people from regional areas—from their chance of parity in their tertiary education. That is really the essence of it. We want to make sure that wherever you live in Australia you have the chance to get an education. We know full well that if we have a building surrounded by bindi-eye patches, it is not going to attract a student body, and if it does not attract a student body the people in that area have lost yet another semblance of something that keeps them attached to Australia.
As an example, my parents went to the University of Sydney—and good luck to them. When I last inquired, the University of Sydney had about $1 billion—$970 million or so—put aside in trusts and funds to support facilities. At the University of New England, we have nothing. There is a complete disparity, and the only way we can possibly maintain the facilities there is to have a fee. My colleagues and I are the last people to want politicisation in the administration of that. That is not what it is about. It is about the university administering a fee that it collects from the full-time students just like it administers the fee for the economics, botany, rural science or any other department. If they administer that fee fraudulently, they would go to jail for that. It does not require a student union in any way, shape or form. It just says to the business—the university—that it is allowed to charge for the facilities, which it quite obviously has to support.
We have a problem on the principle of how you deal with a business. We see universities as businesses. You cannot say to a business, ‘You can charge for that but you cannot charge for that.’ You cannot go into a McDonald’s and say, ‘We are going to let you charge for the hamburgers but we are not going to let you charge for the recreational area for the children.’ It is their business and it is their choice. We absolutely believe in choice. The choice is this: if you do not like that university, you can go somewhere else. If a university thinks that it is a virtue of their business plan to set aside certain fees or leave certain fees out then they will do that. It is not compulsory for the university to charge the fee; it just allows the university, as a business, the opportunity to charge the fee. That is a vitally important business principle from people who are from the conservative side of the political fence.
I would like to acknowledge one thing: it is great to see that the dignity of this debate is far greater than it was in the first instance. It is being conducted in a relatively good manner and it reflects that people do accept that, on some issues, there are differences. There always will be, and that is the way the Senate should work. It was going along quite well until Senator Carr gave his closing speech.
We have said that all the insinuation in the political side of this debate has been removed. It is just sport. There is nothing political about playing netball. There is nothing political about playing cricket. There is nothing political about playing water polo. There is nothing political about playing soccer. But it is a great mechanism for people to mix. When you get to a position of saying, ‘Barry, kick the ball to Mohammad; Mohammad, you kick the ball to Aziz; Aziz, you kick the ball back,’ you get the capacity to open up those communication channels between people who have never communicated before and you start to get a sense of going beyond where you naturally feel safe. You start to include other people in that community, which is a university. There is so much to be gathered from that community that is the university that will help you grow as a person.
Why don’t we go to other things? If you go beyond that, there is the capacity to go into the realms of politicising where the money goes. It is just so obvious and so simple to stick with sport, because you can look at a primary school and say: ‘There are the fields. Those fields are part of the school.’ If you go to a high school, you can say: ‘There are the fields. The fields are part of the high school.’ If there are no fields at a university then the university does not have to charge for them; it is their option. They are allowed to say, ‘Well, we don’t have any sporting facilities so we are not charging you for them.’ I have to ask the question: are you going to a university or are you just going to an academic institution? It may be warranted, but it is not a university.
We have to deal with the University of New England, the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, Charles Sturt University, Southern Cross University in Lismore, James Cook University and the University of Central Queensland. These are regional universities and we need to have the capacity to fund the facilities around them. We cannot just look at them and say, ‘Well, we know there will be big corporate sponsorships for the big universities in the metropolitan cities, but these smaller universities will just have to go without.’ It is not fair to do that.
Look around tonight. Let us be honest; the Australian people do not give a tinker’s cuss about this debate. There is no-one from the media watching it and there is no-one in the galleries; no-one has turned up to see this. It is right below something that just does not rate. We should remove a little bit of the emotion from this and try to get to a position of what we can do that is reasonable and fair.
I have heard Senator Fielding’s speech and I presume that, if the Labor Party does not support our amendment, this legislation will go down. I say to my own side: that also becomes a trigger for a double dissolution in the future, which is going to be a problem for all of us. The legislation is going to come back and we are then going to have to deal with it. This is an amendment that can move the agenda on. Hopefully everybody does not walk out feeling wounded or insulted. It is reasonable; it is nonpolitical; it creates real choice; it is not compulsory; and it is administered by the university. Being administered by the university takes away any semblance of politicisation. It deals with the fact of what a university is. It is historically correct in that virtually every other university throughout the world does exactly the same thing. The historical principle behind it is backed up by what other universities do, which is what our universities are formulated on: mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body. This is the principle behind these things; it is not just a healthy mind and a big fat wallet. Sport draws people together. I am not saying that sport is the be-all and end-all, but, gee, is a brilliant start to get that socialisation process—not in the left-hand side of the political format—going and to get people to talk to one another and do what we have to do in this community.
We have said before that this amendment is all about inspiring people not to be completely centred on themselves but to participate, of their own volition, in the wider community so that their participation in sport may encourage them, at a later time in their lives, to give back to our nation. There are two arguments here that are incorrect. One is that the fees that students pay completely cover the cost of their courses. They do not. They are a very minor part of the payment for the courses. The Australian people pay the vast majority of the cost of students’ courses. The Australian people, who do not go to university, pay the vast majority of the cost of the courses. The second is that the government pays for everything. They do not.
Yes, there is a little bit of a sacrifice to pay the fee. The fees that we are talking about are $75 and $150. I do not think that that will sink the bank! If that means that you have to do a few more hours packing shelves or, as I did, working at a pub and farm labouring, well, so be it. I do not feel slighted by the fact that I did not play netball but I was helping to pay for the netball courts. That never worried me. In fact, it is probably a good thing. It was part of that communal spirit, and it gave me something to see and to be proud of. I was proud of what surrounded my university. And I am sure that Senator Nash was.
Senator Williams is a classic case. Senator Williams did not go to university, but he sees the point of it. Why? Because he sees that sport is a great thing. It attaches Australian people to the Australian nation. Every time we see the Ashes—when we turn it on—we get a sense of pride. We watch it and go: ‘Yes, that’s us. That’s what we’re about!’ We get the same feeling when we watch the Wallabies run onto the paddock, when we watch the Opals play or when we watch our Olympians compete. One of the greatest mechanisms to get these sporting people into the wider realm which we all feel proud of is the sponsorship of university sport. We all have an attachment to sport.
I find it interesting that when I have invitations—here is a plug—to boxes to watch Australians play sport I am surrounded by politicians who have an absolute sense of pride and enjoyment in watching the green and gold playing in the middle of the field. That pride does not happen by accident. You have to build a culture that brings that out. Is it just the people on the paddock who get a benefit? Is it just the people playing the game? No, it is everybody. Everybody who watches it gets a benefit out of it. Everybody gets a sense of pride through being associated with it. That is why it is good and should be sponsored.
This debate is a totemic struggle that has existed since people’s university days—we acknowledge that—but we are trying to remove the emotion from it a little bit and give ourselves a piece of middle ground. It is not perfect but this amendment will allow the university to remove that bulk of costs which they have to pay for now. Unfortunately, now that money is coming from what should be going into research—medical research, research into veterinary issues, economic studies and a myriad of areas. Universities have to do it to prop up their own institutions—institutions which should have the user-pays principle. But the user is the person who desires a piece of paper that says that they went to that facility.
I went to university. I was very fortunate; I got sent away to a private school. But the school did not hand you the bill and say, ‘You can pay for this but you don’t have to pay for that.’ It was, ‘You pay for the lot or go.’ It was extremely important for me and for others that when I left that institution and I went up to university I did not think that the whole world consisted of people who went to the private school that I went to. I realised that there were other people who existed in the world and I should mix with them. There had to be a venue in which to do that, and I have to acknowledge—and this is supported by others—that sport is what did that more than anything else. Sport brought people out.
Sport breaks down the loneliness of so many people at universities, because they get the chance, especially if they are a little bit secluded and living in a personal sort of cave, to come out into a venue that allows them to participate with other people.
I hope that this amendment is given due consideration. Obviously we do not have the numbers; we are not going to divide on it. There is no point in doing that; that would just further antagonise those participating in the debate we are having here. But I do say, in closing, that like everything else this can later become a trigger. And when it does become a trigger we will be forced into deciding what to do. Surely, this is the most innocuous amendment that could get us out of this position.