Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010; Second Reading
I rise this evening to speak to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. As someone who attended university externally from a rural area years ago, I found I had to pay a fee for amenities that I was never able to actually use and I found that very difficult. This takes me back to when I was an external student. I look at some of my former colleagues' children who are now struggling, coming from a rural area and trying to do external studies, and I believe it is really rather cruel to bring this fee back. There is no way that they are going to be able to access the amenities on the campus.
One thing that I am not happy about is that this fee, when the bill is passed, will be administered by the universities. Under the guidelines, the university will have to meet with the democratically elected student representatives and I wonder how many of these people there will be to go through what they want to do with the fee. Also, the universities have to publish and identify the priorities for the fee. Student organisations have to meet with the higher education provider to consider where the fee revenue can best be spent. The Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans, said students 'have a clear interest in how their fees are being spent'.
I have consulted widely with a number of students. Some are part time at university and others are completely external—as I said, I come from a rural area—and they are very disappointed. Those who are studying part time have to travel to Perth, in this instance, from the country, paying for petrol and accommodation for the short time they are there and then having to travel home again. They wonder how they will pay the additional $250 fee in 2011, and then it goes up to $264 in 2012—I do not have that figure in front of me but the opportunity is there to raise the fee.
Having visited a number of universities and looked at the amenities, my concern is that each time I have been there—I do not know whether it was because I was there—these amenities were not being used fully. In one instance I looked at an amenities room to see what was available and there were no students there at all, and this was a very large university. I really do wonder if this fee is a good move. However, once again, as my colleagues have said, it is a broken promise from the 2007 election when Minister Smith said at that stage that a compulsory fee would not be charged again. Lo and behold, look at what we have before us now.
As you are aware, the coalition oppose this bill because we do not believe that students should be forced to pay for services that they would not or could not use. Under the bill, every one of one million Australian students will be forced to pay their $250 a year, regardless of their ability to pay and their ability or willingness to use the services that their fees will finance. I believe, as my colleagues have stated, this is a new tax on those of our society who in many cases can least afford to pay. Students are already struggling under the current tough economic conditions and this bill means $250 less for textbooks, study material, transport or at least $250 more on their HECS debt.
This bill, as I said, represents a broken promise by the Labor Party, which made a commitment before the 2007 election not to reintroduce compulsory student union fees. The changing demographics of students, even in the last 10 years, means universities today are not as elite as they were. It was really difficult to get into a university then. It is amazing now how many more students can go to university. A number are studying part time, externally, and working or attending university in the evenings due to competing work and family commitments. Many more take advantage of greater flexibility and competition, as well as the opportunities that new communications technologies bring to external study. There are about 130,000 students currently studying externally and these students will never have the opportunity to use the services they are forced to pay for. That is highly unfair.
Today's students see their higher education more as a way to gain credentials rather than to chalk up the so-called 'university experience' on their personal development CV. Just as people go to work to work and not to socialise, often students go to universities to gain an education and not to while away their free time on extra-curricular activities. Generation Y, which accounts for the bulk of university students at the moment, is less collectivist and less committed to institutionalised civil society, and whether inside or outside the walls of the university they would much rather and more readily join a group on Facebook than a group at their university. They are still interested in sports, hobbies and activities but they are far more inclined to organise and customise their own free time than to rely on others such as student unions to do it for them.
Students generally, unlike student politicians, are not interested in student unions or the services that student unions provide. In a poll commissioned by the Australian Democrats,59 per cent of students voted against compulsory fees. That was a little while ago, of course, but at that time at most only five per cent of students ever voted in student union elections. That brings me back to my worry about the university collecting these fees and then having to consult with democratically elected student office bearers. If only five per cent of students ever vote in student union elections, how can one say that those elected are actually representative of all the students at the university? So there are a number of flaws here just due to the changing demographic—the change in how students regard their time at university.
I will not go through the services listed in the bill—my colleagues have already covered them. People outside university who need help go to Centrelink or Legal Aid or to organisations like Lifeline. Students do not want to be treated any differently. Outside university they certainly would not expect that everyone in their suburb would be forced to pay a levy or a tax so that they could undertake beer appreciation or enjoy rugby union. I am a rugby union supporter but I am very aware that rugby union at universities is certainly not now supported anywhere near as much as it was when my two sons were at university. In the end, if club services offered on campus are deemed valuable, they will earn the patronage of students without any compulsion. With those few comments, I confirm once again that this bill will not be supported by the coalition.