Senate debates

Monday, 19 September 2011

Bills

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

1:26 pm

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. Here we are again debating a bill to decide whether students should be forced to pay for services they do not want or do not use. For 35 years this issue has been debated. While I am no mathematician, I can count: the Left now has the numbers. It is a paradox. When this issue was first canvassed 35 years ago in the mid-70s people used to take socialism seriously—socialists were actually taken seriously. They are not any more. So this is the Left's cause celebre for an ideological twilight—reintroducing this bill, again, to force students to pay for services they cannot or will not use. They are hoping like hell to extract money from students for purposes the Left deems appropriate.

The coalition oppose this bill because we do not believe that students should be forced to pay for services that they would not or cannot use. It is that simple. It is not a complicated debate. Under this bill, every one of one million Australian students will be forced to pay $250 per year regardless of their ability to pay or their ability or willingness to use the services that their fees will be financing. This amounts to a $250 million new tax on those in our society who, in many cases, can least afford to pay for it. Students are already struggling under the tough economic conditions. This bill means $250 less for textbooks, study materials, transport and cost-of-living expenses or, at best, $250 more in HECS debts.

This bill represents a broken promise by the Labor Party—by the government—which made a commitment before the 2007 election not to reintroduce compulsory student union fees. That was the commitment the government made prior to the 2007 election. Surprise, surprise! They have broken their promise. The student amenities fees is justified as a way of providing services for students who choose to use them but paid for by all students—whether they are rich or poor, black or white, full time or part time, internal or external students—for the sake of student services that can only and will only be used by some students. Labor and the Greens will train this next generation of politicians courtesy of the compulsorily extracted student dollar. Students are being forced to pay a levy for services they either cannot or will not use so that a small minority of mainly administrators and budding student politicians can benefit. Many things have changed since the mid-1970s when this debate was first witnessed. So much has changed and yet the government does not understand this. This debate is a debate well out of its time. The changing demographics and culture mean that most students today simply do not have the time, the inclination or even the opportunity to use the services offered. This is not like when I went to university 30 years ago, when most students were on campus full time and there was a smaller student cohort. Over the last 30 years the student cohort has changed immeasurably.

Universities of today are mainstream; they are not elite. More students are older. Many more now study part time and in the evenings due to competing work and family commitments. Many more take advantage of greater flexibility and competition, as well as opportunities that new communications technologies bring to study externally. For example, there are around 130,000 students studying externally. These students will never have the opportunity to use the services which they are forced to pay for. They are going to be charged the fee as well. They are going to be up for the fee but they will never use the service. One hundred and thirty thousand students study externally and they will not have the opportunity to use the service but they will be slugged with the fee.

When I started at uni it was a different world, but that is where the government is stuck. Not nearly as many students studied part time 30 years ago; nearly all were full-time. There were not so many students from overseas. Certainly there were not as many Indigenous kids and young Australians from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The cohort, the composition and the demographics of the undergraduate population in Australia have changed enormously. Yet this bill does not reflect that—no, everyone is slugged by it. Rich or poor, black or white, internal or external, part time or full-time, they are all slugged by it.

Today's students see their higher education more as a way to gain credentials rather than chalk up the so-called university experience on their personal development CV. Just as people go to work to work and not to socialise, students today go to universities to gain an education, not to while away their free time on extracurricular activities, as I and many of my contemporaries did. That is the contemporary reality. The world has changed and far more Australians go to university, and when they go to university they go to get a credential for work.

Generation Y, which is the vast cohort of undergraduates in Australia, is far less collectivist, less committed to institutionalised civil society, whether inside or outside the walls of the university. They would much rather and much more readily join a group on Facebook than any group at university. They are still interested in sports and hobbies and activities—that is true—but they are far more inclined to organise and customise their own free time than to rely on others, like student unions, to do it for them. They would say, 'I will organise it.' They might join a local club. It does not have to be a university club. They might join a group. It would not necessarily be a university group. That is the enormous cultural difference that has occurred over the last 30 years since I was at university.

Second, students themselves, unlike student politicians, are not interested in student unions or the services student unions provide. Fifty-nine per cent of students voted against compulsory fees in a poll commissioned by the Australian Democrats. At most, only five per cent of students ever vote in student union elections. A similarly small minority currently voluntarily join student unions and pay the fees. This means that an overwhelming majority of students do not want to pay student union fees until they are forced to do so. They will not pay unless they are forced to do so. They do not want to join a student union, but this bill forces them to do so and to pay a fee, even if they do not want to.

Third, services and activities provided by student unions are largely superfluous. They already exist and are being provided by the universities themselves, by the government or by the non-government voluntary sector. Many of them are free, others are heavily subsidised and all of them are available to university students without any prejudice or indeed without discrimination. When people outside of university need help they go to Centrelink, they might go to legal aid or they may of course go to any non-government organisation, such as Lifeline. When people outside of university are interested in a pastime, an activity or a sport, they join together in a club to pursue that pastime, activity or sport and they all contribute money to the common pool towards their club or association. They choose to join a club and pay a fee. That is what most people do. But apparently that does not operate in a university world. Students do not want to be treated differently to anybody else. Outside of university, they certainly would not expect that everyone in their suburb should be forced to pay a levy or a tax so that they can enjoy beer appreciation or, indeed, rugby union. No-one else would expect that, but apparently here, for undergraduate Australian students, that is appropriate. That is what this bill does.

In the end, if clubs and services offered on campus are deemed valuable they will earn the patronage of students without any compulsion. If they are worth while, they will earn the patronage of students without compulsion. The University of Queensland in my home state has proven this. It has a thriving student life and the provision of quality services, activities and entertainment without compulsory union fees. For those that doubt that this is possible, let them come to UQ.

Fourth, the system remains open to political abuse and is devoid of effective enforcement mechanisms. The opposition is concerned about the effective enforcement of this legislation. While the bill prohibits universities or any third parties that might receive money from spending it in support of political parties or political candidates, there is nothing to prevent the money being spent on political campaigns, political causes or quasi-political organisations, per se, where the students, whose money is being spent, agree with those causes or purposes or not. That is what the opposition is concerned about.

Even with a prohibition on the direct support for political parties and candidates—and I accept that that is in the bill—one has to wonder how this prohibition will actually be policed. Neither the bill nor the guidelines provide any credible enforcement and sanction mechanism. The bill merely states that it is up to the universities to ensure that the money is not spent on political parties and candidates without providing universities with any powers to enforce this. There is no departmental monitoring to ensure compliance with the guidelines on how the money will be spent. It will be up to individual students, in effect, to be whistleblowers. Even then it is at the minister's discretion whether any penalty is to be imposed. In addition there will be no policing or penalties for universities that act in breach of the guidelines.

I understand that the Greens want to give more control to student unions over money compulsorily taken from students. The Greens believe that is actually democratic. The coalition thinks that is rather strange logic. The Greens have no problem forcing—there is no choice here—students to pay this fee in the first place. They do not seem to see any hypocrisy at all. The vehicle for democratic control will be union student elections where, on average, about five per cent of students turn up to vote—usually a bunch of left-wing activists. These left-wing activists would never get the money out of students unless it was compulsorily acquired and distributed on a student franchise of about five per cent. All this is when we are trying to attract more low SES students, Indigenous students and kids from regional and rural areas into our universities. Those groups will not be hanging around campuses and student unions. They will be out working in part-time jobs or studying externally, and they will not have access to these so-called student union goods. They, the Labor Party and the Greens, will force them to pay to foot the bill, even though they will not use the services. They will be working at McDonalds, the local kebab shop or laundrette while the left-wing activists spend the loot. The left-wing activists will be spending the loot while the kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are working part-time. That is what will happen. The Greens have very funny ideas about democracy.

Fifthly, this is compulsory student unionism by stealth. This bill, in effect, attempts to re-impose a compulsory fee which would, in turn, fund the activities of a student union. This legislation allows the funds collected by universities to be used for student representation, thus, political activities of student unions will be funded by all students whether they like it or not. Furthermore, in the past, student unions have proven themselves to be very adept in using the profits from allowable activities to effectively cross-subsidise activities for which direct funding was not allowed. That is what they have done in the past. It was very naughty. They were using legitimate activities to cross-subsidise the not so legitimate activities. You would not believe that would happen, would you? No. Freedom of association including freedom not to join an association remains one of the core beliefs of the coalition.

In the end we have two groups. We have, firstly, those who have to pay the fee. Let us call them 'the unwilling and unhappy givers'. There are about one million of them. Let us call them 'the reluctant one million'. Overwhelmingly the first group, the reluctant one million, does not want to pay the fee. Then we have another group, the second group, those that get the money. The first pay the money; the second get the money. Let us call the second group 'the happy and self-righteous takers'. Let us call them 'the rent seekers'. The government and the Greens believe that the unwilling and unhappy givers, the reluctant one million, should pay a tax—because that is what it is—to the rent seekers. At least the Left is consistent, I will give them that.

The vested interests are, as always, very well organised, very, very vocal and they want the money. One million students on the other hand find it difficult to get their voices heard and they most definitely do not want to pay for services that they do not want or cannot use. They need the Senate to protect their interests because no-one else will. The coalition unreservedly and emphatically opposes this bill.

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