Senate debates

Monday, 19 September 2011

Bills

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

1:43 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It is with pleasure that I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. The introduction of voluntary student unionism, VSU, in December 2005 and the subsequent abolition of services and amenities fees under the Howard government has had a devastating impact on university life. The introduction of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005 or, put more simply, the VSU legislation, ripped $170 million in funding out of student services and amenities in universities across the country. The ramifications of the VSU have been felt on every campus around Australia and have been particularly severe for students at small and regional universities. We have heard reports from around the country about the full-scale withdrawal of welfare and support services, the closure of sports clubs, the collapse of social and cultural groups and the silencing of an independent student voice.

What is more, since the introduction of VSU there has been a greater emphasis on user-pays systems and a commercial orientation in the way that universities and even student organisations operate their organisations and deliver their services. The increased commercial focus and the subsequent price increases for campus services, coupled with the pressures associated with the concurrent HECS increases, have put even more financial pressure on our students. The result of this is that our students, most of whom are already working part-time hours to assist with the ever-increasing costs of undertaking university study, are feeling the increased financial pressure. As a result, student participation in the non-academic parts of the student experience and campus life has suffered. We should also acknowledge that through VSU, as student organisations tried desperately to cope with the funding shortfall, there have been more than 1,000 redundancies and a 30 per cent reduction in employment across the student services sector.

Thankfully, today we have the opportunity to introduce legislation that will rebuild and revive the student experience and essential student services on university campuses across Australia. This legislation will restore resources for representation and advocacy as well as vital services and amenities that have either been lost or seriously diminished under VSU.

This is not about petty ideology; this is about restoring tangible and essential support services and restoring representation for our students on our campuses. This legislation is about taking the burden back off our institutions, which have been diverting funding from teaching, learning and research to prop up student organisations and essential services. We have witnessed the collapse of independent, autonomous student representative bodies across our campuses. We have heard reports of essential services being cut, operations being closed down and sporting clubs and societies folding. Given all the VSU horror stories we have heard from groups across the sector, ranging from vice-chancellors to student organisations to sporting clubs, is it not time to start supporting our students?

When this legislation was voted down by those opposite in its previous form, there was disappointment far and wide. Universities Australia Chief Executive Dr Glenn Withers said:

Students most in need will suffer most from the failure of this legislation to pass the Senate.

We cannot let this happen again. I hope that those opposite may be prepared to support this bill this time—although from Senator Mason's contribution it appears that is not going to happen—to allow the provision of funding for essential student services, for representation and for advocacy on our campuses.

The proposed amendment gives higher education providers the freedom to choose whether or not to charge a fee for student services and amenities of a non-academic nature. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to allow universities to levy a service and amenities fee which is to be capped at $250 per year. The government recognises the financial burden on tertiary students. That is why this bill includes measures to mitigate any financial problems that students may experience as a result of the introduction of the fee. The bill requires universities who levy the capped fee to give eligible students the option of a HECS-style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, HELP. The introduction of fees and the level at which they are to be set are matters that the government has said should be worked out by institutions, taking into account the views of their students. Moreover, our universities will have the flexibility to charge different fees depending on a student's mode of enrolment, ensuring that distance or part-time students are not levied the same amount as those studying full time on campus.

Let us get one thing straight: this legislation is not a return to compulsory student unionism. Those opposite can try to distort the issue and the purpose all they like. The Howard government's VSU legislation was never about giving students choice about membership of student organisation; it was about crushing the student voice. This legislation before us today, however, is about re-investing in the social and cultural capital on our campuses. It is about ensuring that student services and amenities are restored and that the student voice is resourced.

There are no changes to section 19-37(1) of the Higher Education Support Act, which prohibits universities from requiring students to become a member of a student organisation. Students will still have the choice of whether or not to become a member of their student union. The difference will be that students will again be supported by the essential services and amenities they received prior to the introduction of VSU. Resources for student advocacy and representation will be restored and student organisations and institutions will again be able to offer the tertiary student experience that we regard so highly.

Whilst those opposite want to make outrageous claims that the service and amenities fees collected will be used for or diverted to supporting political activities, that is simply not the case. This legislation prohibits service and amenities fee income being spent by either the higher education provider or the student organisation on supporting a political party or candidate in any local, state, territory or federal seat. Whilst student organisations may criticise the government from time to time, surely that is their right and their freedom of expression. Many other advocacy groups, representing all sections of the community and society, criticise the government but we do not legislate to de-fund them, as it seems those opposite succeeded in doing to our student unions.

We must also acknowledge that this legislation is not the 'dream fix' that our student organisations wanted. It is, as the Group of Eight universities have described, a sensible compromise that will enhance the quality of Australia's higher education system. We have consulted widely on this legislation and on the issues associated with VSU. We have established guidelines for representation, advocacy and student services and amenities. These guidelines include national access to services benchmarks and national student representation protocols. We have ensured universities have flexibility and choice in how to administer funding but that, overall, funding allocation is to be determined in accordance with student views and student need.

It is time to act now to restore vital services and amenities on our campuses and to reinvest in the student experience. In my home state of Tasmania, I have heard first-hand accounts of the hardship that the Tasmania University Union and students at UTAS and the institution itself experienced as a result of VSU. At UTAS, there were substantial cuts to the Student Representative Council, the SRC, to the Postgraduate Council, to student publications, to the Societies Council and to the Sports Council. Advocacy and referral services were scaled back significantly across the state. The TUU was only able to support one full-time staff member in Hobart and one in Launceston to support all undergraduate and postgraduate students at the university, and on the Cradle Coast campus they could only support a part-time advocate, meaning there were only 2.5 advocates for around 18,000 students. Research activities and submissions were diminished—almost non-existent.

Building campus culture post VSU has been difficult and there is phenomenal pressure on student representative and other volunteers who are working with limited resources to service the student population. The TUU had to close down computer labs in Hobart, and has had many clubs and societies fold. The student gallery in the art school had severe funding cuts and welfare initiatives, including emergency food packs and short-term loans, became almost non-existent. The commercial outlets run by the TUU could no longer provide subsidised food for students on campus and the organisation was forced to pay a commercial rent to the university for the space they occupied. Moreover, UTAS forced the amalgamation of the student organisations across the state, a precondition to a funding agreement. This in itself was a difficult enough task and consumed nearly three years of university and TUU time and resources.

I know that across the country we have heard similar horror stories and I hope that today we can take action to address the devastation caused by VSU. In restoring the provision of funding for services and amenities, we need to recognise and acknowledge the vital role that student unions play in universities. Student organisations are essential vehicles for the student voice on campus, in the sector and in the broader community. This is not legislation aimed at supporting outrageously corrupt, extremist activist outfits.

Senator Mason interjecting—

I could be singing from your song sheet there, Senator Mason! This is not a return to compulsory student unionism. This legislation is about investing in the student experience on our university campuses and restoring the student voice. This bill is quite simply about ensuring that higher education students have access to basic amenities and essential support services, as well as access to independent democratic student representation. This legislation is about supporting essential services. It is about bringing back welfare initiatives, counselling services and childcare, and health, sport and fitness services for our students.

It is a move welcomed by everyone, it seems, except those opposite—the Australian Campus Union Managers Association, Australian University Sport, the Group of Eight, the vice-chancellors of regional universities and many others. The National Union of Students and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations have expressed some concerns with the legislation but see it as a step forward for students across the country. The Australian government is committed to ensuring that higher education students have access to the amenities and services they need as well as access to independent, democratic student representation.

This bill provides for measures that support a balanced, practical and sustainable solution to rebuilding student support services. These measures were, as we know, originally announced by the Hon. Kate Ellis MP, the Minister for Youth, on 3 November 2008 and were reinforced in the regional Australia package announced in September 2010. They include the imposition of requirements on higher education providers who receive funding for student places under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme to ensure the provision of, and access to, information on basic student support services of a non-academic nature. There was an imposition on these higher education providers of requirements ensuring the provision of student representation and advocacy. It allowed higher education providers to choose to implement a compulsory student services and amenities fee—capped at $250 per student per annum—to help provide student services and amenities within set guidelines and provided eligible students with the option of a loan for the fee through the establishment of a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, Services and Amenities HELP.

The longer we delay this legislation and deny funding to vital student services, the more difficult it will be for our universities and our student organisations to rebuild and revive the campus experience. I urge you all to support our students and support this bill. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Debate interrupted.

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