Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010; Second Reading
I rise to address the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 and to go to the heart of section 19-37, subsection (2), of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. The existing act provides that:
A higher education provider must not require a person enrolled with, or seeking to enrol with, the provider to pay to the provider or any other entity an amount for the provision to students of an amenity, facility or service that is not of an academic nature, unless the person has chosen to use the amenity, facility or service.
The new subsection—subsection (4)—provides an exception to subsection (2) and allows an education provider to require the payment of a student services and amenities fee.
Why are we here debating this today when we have had numerous promises that we would not see the reintroduction of a mandatory fee? I would like to address this bill in three areas: matters of principle, some particulars of the bill and the potential of the students at our universities and what they can achieve despite the actions of government.
First is the principle of personal responsibility. I would like to read you a quote from 16 September this year:
And for a long period of time, our great movement believed that one size should fit all in service provision, that those seeking choice were undermining collective aspirations.
Now we understand that desire for choice is rightly strengthening not abating.
In this age we need to pursue our historic mission while also embracing choice and creating ways to give individuals more control.
Australians want to make their own choices and control their own lives.
Now, who would that be? It sounds like somebody from the conservative side of politics, but no—it was the current Prime Minister, addressing the Chifley Research Centre.
On one hand we have what they say—that Australians want more choice and that we should be giving them more choice and more control of their lives. But it is really important in many debates, both in this place and in the broader Australian community, to not just listen to what is said but to look at what is done. So we are here now debating this bill which is about removing choice. With one hand, the Prime Minister stands up and says we want to give people more choice. With the other hand, the government takes away choice.
That brings me to the second principle: integrity. A number of government members of parliament, particularly the then education minister, in May 2007 made very specific statements that the government would not introduce a compulsory amenities fee. That sounds remarkably like 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' Yet here we are, debating a carbon tax. Here we are debating a compulsory amenity fee. Do not trust what is said; look at what is done.
Another principle is equity—the principle of a fair go. Students at universities now come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some students come from professions and are upskilling. One of the brief interludes I had after leaving the other place was doing some lecturing for the University of South Australia in a course for defence engineers or people in the defence industry who wanted to work in defence. All these people had to find time out of their family and work commitments to come to university so that they could improve their qualifications to work within the defence industry. None of these people had time to actually get involved with the whole range of things that these service fees are supposed to provide for. Yet we are levying that charge on them. How is that fair? How is that equitable? They are working, so the argument could be that they can afford it.
How about country students? We know that for the last couple of years there has been a deal of debate in this place about the impact of changes brought in by the Labor government around youth allowance for country young people. It even got to the point, in 2010, where my colleague Senator Nash put forward an amendment to the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill that created a potential constitutional crisis, because the issue was that real—we needed to support rural students. It was reported in February 2007 that rural and regional students were deferring university at almost twice the rate of their city cousins because of the lack of support and the lack of funding to support themselves at uni. Thankfully, by the end of February a $20 million Rural Tertiary Hardship fund was set up, and then the Review of Student Income Support Reforms was announced by the government.
So, with one hand the Prime Minister says, 'Give them more choice', and with the other hand she takes it away. With one hand, the ALP government is providing income because they recognise that many students, particularly those from country areas, are doing it tough and struggle to support themselves at university. With the other hand, they take it away. How is that fair or equitable? Why should people who are at university, who are seeking to improve their lot in life and want just to study and not to take part in the broader range of activities, have to pay this fee so others can choose to participate in sport or other activities—subsidised drinks et cetera on the campus. There is this thing called choice. We can choose to pay for the services we wish to, and it is not a fair go to require other people to pay for services they are not using.
I have heard the analogy from a few of those opposite that it is like paying your council rates. But in paying your council rates you are paying for a service you know you will need—somebody to maintain your footpaths or somebody to collect your rubbish. But in this case you are paying for services you may not even be able to access. Many people now study externally. They never come near the campus. How is it fair or equitable for those people to have to pay this fee?
I now move onto the particulars of the bill. The bill talks about a number of things in the new subsection (4) that the education provider can spend the money on. The list is quite extensive and it includes things like providing food or drink to students on the campus, the supporting of sporting and recreational activities, caring for the children of students and providing legal services—all things that are good that I do not think anyone would complain about being provided.
It is interesting to note though if you take the time to have a look at the university websites. Being from South Australia I have looked at those for the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of South Australia. Some of those opposite would tell us that the current environment in higher education is like a desert with tumbleweeds blowing around and students living in poverty with no support. If you look at the list of services on the website of the University of Adelaide you will see that it lists student services to do with accommodation; careers services; childcare services; counselling services; a dental service; a disability service; an elite athlete support service; first-year students support services; international support services; language and cultural exchange programs; a laptop purchase program; a student grievance resolution processes; student insurance; travel and entertainment; a university health service; campus catering; educational welfare officers; fitness hubs; news and events; health, safety and wellbeing; student magazine; sports association and the list goes on. For those who wish to participate, life on campus is still active and viable.
More importantly, the opportunity for students to take a larger role in engaging in those things that they are passionate about actually develops the leadership and potential of our young people far more than the deadening hand of centralised control that this system will reintroduce. One of the items listed in the new subsection 4 goes to supporting an artistic activity by students. I draw the attention of the Senate to an organisation called AUMO, the Adelaide University Medical Orchestra. This was created after the VSU bill was introduced; so this is in an environment where none of these supports are supposedly there and the student life is supposedly dead, and yet these students have created an orchestra which is, in no uncertain words, outstanding. There are around 150 students involved. They have a stage band, a vocal ensemble and dance crews. They work with a number of partner agencies around Adelaide—the Royal Adelaide Hospital network, the Adelaide Medical Student Society and the Adelaide University Choral Society. They do not just come together to play music. I have been privileged to be able to go both of their major concerts so far in 2010 and 2011. They provide an outstanding opportunity not only for the students to play music but also for the creative potential of those students in both composition and arrangement. How do they do this? How do they get the venues? They use their initiative and they approach sponsors such as BEA Motors, Allans Music and Billy Hyde, and MDA National. Why do they sponsor AUMO? Because it is not just about music. Because of the passion of these young people, they also use the music and the proceeds raised from their concerts to support a number of medical charities and help develop the links between music and better health.
In 2010, the proceeds of their concert went to the Yalata community health project. That is an Indigenous community about 200 kilometres west of Ceduna. Dr Jill Benson from Adelaide University facilitates fantastic work from a range of health professionals and students to support that community. In 2011, the proceeds went to the Insight Global Health Group, providing mosquito nets to people in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia, and the Cambodia World Family. Importantly, they also have a program working with the Adelaide Womens and Childrens Hospital called the AUMO Effect where they look at using their musical skills and talents to assist in the recovery and healing of people.
This shows that life on a university campus, far from being struck down by the lack of a compulsory fee, actually empowers people who are passionate about the activity they wish to be involved with to create something that is bigger than any of the individual students—something that has great creativity and is of great benefit to the community around them—because they have taken individual responsibility and they have individual interest and passion to make this work.
So from a range of aspects—looking at the principle, looking at the particulars of the bill and particularly looking at the passion of the young people and the potential that that develops—I do not believe Australia will be well served by moving towards the big brother approach, the nanny state approach, again of having centralised control and compulsion for people to contribute to something rather than having the free choice that the prime minister herself spoke about only this month. To quote Sir Robert Menzies:
… what we must look for, and it is a matter of desperate importance to our society, is a true revival of liberal thought which will work for social justice and security, for national power and national progress, and for the full development of the individual citizen, though not through the dull and deadening process of socialism.
All this is, by having the collectivist approach of compulsion and taking away individual choice, is the latest expression of socialism by this government. I remind people listening to this debate that they should not just listen to the words spoken here, whether it was those of the then education minister Mr Smith or whether it those of the current prime minister. They promised that there would be no compulsory student amenity fee. The prime minister said only this month that we must be looking for ways to empower the individual and give more choice. I would ask you to look at what is done. Here we are again, with two broken promises, contradicting a principle that was espoused just this month. As a result of a range of reasons around principle, the particulars of the bill and because it will damage the potential of our young people in the future, I will not be supporting this bill.