Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009
I will not detain the Senate too long. Going back over last couple of days, listening to the debates from the government in particular, they just remind me of the debates of yesteryear. I know today is 40 years after the close of the Woodstock rock festival in the United States. In fact, I understand 40 years ago today was the last day of the rock festival, with Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner. I know that Senator Carr wishes he was there. Perhaps he still is, if not in presence at least in mind—the mosh pit of the mind. That is the problem with the Australian Labor Party in this debate: their perspective on compulsory levies for students is grounded in this antiquated mentality. The courts and the quadrangles of our universities are nothing like they were in their sixties, the seventies, the eighties and the nineties—nothing like it. They have changed enormously since I was at university in the 1980s. Yet the language of the debate from the government is the same. It has not moved on from 1969.
The opposition argument is very, very simple: we do not believe that students should be forced to pay for services they will not or cannot use. Why? Because we know that today universities are mainstream and they are not elite. Most students are older; many more now study part-time and in the evenings, with work and other commitments. It has changed totally from 30 years ago when I was at university. In those days students were younger, they studied full-time, they did not have part-time jobs and they often lived on campus. The demographic—the people that make up undergraduate students in this country—has changed enormously. It is simply not fair to ask people who will not or cannot use those services to pay for them. It is simply not fair. It is a matter of freedom of association. For us it is a very important issue.
What has changed so much—and the government does not seem to understand this—is that not only are students older, not only are they studying part time, but today when members of generation Y go to universities they are there for credentials. That might not be a good thing—I am not arguing with the minister on whether this is a good or a bad thing. All I am saying is that it has changed for good or for bad. It was different 30 years ago when I was at university. Today’s culture is far more about credentials than it was 30 years ago.
People talk about university life. Sure, I had a marvellous time at university. Everyone knows I spent too many years there. But that has become rarer and rarer today. It is simply not acceptable for the government to impose a fee of $250 on every student, particularly when the government—and I think this is an oversight—wants to decrease the amount of disadvantage of Indigenous students at universities. I think that is a noble aim. I may disagree with how the government is doing it, but I think it is a noble aim. The government encourages disadvantaged and Indigenous kids to go to university and then it slugs them with this fee. Most of them will not use these services. It will be subsidising students who live on campus and that is just not fair.
Today most students are simply not interested in student unions. Labor Party politicians might be—that is where they earn their stripes—but the vast majority of students are simply not interested. Five per cent or fewer actually vote in student elections. Services and activities provided by the unions are increasingly superfluous. They tend already to exist and are being provided by the universities themselves, by the government or by the non-government voluntary sector, whether they be cafeterias, childcare services, welfare advice, medical services, legal services, counselling or sporting activities. That is the case and these services do not need to be subsidised by money compulsorily acquired from students, particularly disadvantaged students, for these purposes. It is unfair and certainly goes against the principles of liberalism.
As I think we have uncovered today in the committee process, quite simply there are still flaws in this bill relating to enforcement and trying to ensure that students actually have a say in how their money is spent. The government admits that the relationship is between the government and the university. When students have a problem there is no certainty at all that their grievances will be adhered to. I must wind up now—that is the agreement—but can I finish by saying that the language of this debate is mired in debates of 20, 30 and 40 years ago. The world has changed, the world has moved on, the profile of tertiary students has changed enormously and it is time that the government started to understand that.