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.
The compulsory student services fee is a tax on the poor—nothing more, nothing less. It is a tax on university students. It is a tax on those who can least afford it. Students are doing it very, very tough. If the Rudd government realised how tough they are doing it, they would not be slapping a tax on students, a compulsory fee on university students. We have to be clear that it is nothing more than a tax on them.
I will make a statement that I have made a couple of times before. The National Party’s position is absolutely ridiculous. It is a halfway house. They are half pregnant, saying, ‘Look, gee, we don’t like a $250 compulsory fee, but we’ll have a little less for sports.’ I play sport, I love sport and most Australians love sport, but how can you argue the principle that it is okay to slug the students with a compulsory fee for sports only? What about those people who are not interested in sports? It undermines the whole argument. It is a ridiculous position. It is half pregnant—a halfway house. It is crazy.
No wonder the chamber is going to reject this compulsory student fee, because it is nothing but a tax on the poor. It would be used for services that people may not even use—some will never use them. Students are struggling to make ends meet and we should not be putting an extra financial burden on them at all. It is strange that we are again talking about a tax on students. Frankly, that is what it is. I know the two major parties will argue back and forth on history and political grounds. Putting that aside is not the issue. Should students be compulsorily required to pay a fee that is nothing more than a tax? I say no and I think Australia generally would say no. It should not be supported and I think today we will find it will not be supported.
As I stated last night, I believe that this bill is going to be defeated on a tied vote. The issue therefore becomes one of whether it is returned or not. In consideration of the situation down the track, the amendments put forward by Senator Nash, Senator Williams and me may be more worthy of consideration. Our issue was never the reintroduction of compulsory student unionism—not in the slightest. Our issue was about giving universities, as businesses, the capacity to cover those things that make up the greatest proportion of their costs.
We heard Senator Fielding’s comments about our position being half pregnant. I thought this was interesting. What more can we say about that? We thank Senator Fielding for coming dressed last night in theme for the function. He looked as though he had just arrived from a tragic version of Tosca!
Certainly. I have come to the conclusion that it was actually Steve Fielding’s secret agent who was here last night! If we do not find some mechanism to achieve support for sporting facilities, especially for regional universities, those facilities will fall into disrepair. That will be the catalyst for the public to question whether a university is an institution they want to send their son or daughter to. If that is the case, then that university will be put at threat. I think that is terribly unfair and it will begin to bring a sense of discrimination back to regional areas in one of the most fundamental things we want to keep at parity—that is, educational opportunities. I do not think we are asking for a major change but we did seek to remove the major cost. Other people have questions about other costs. They are all conjecture and calibrations of the issue. It is undeniable that the major cost for universities is their sporting infrastructure. I do not think anybody suspects, even in the slightest way, that sport is a political activity. I think that universities, as businesses, should be allowed to cover the costs of their businesses, of which sporting infrastructure is a part. We will look to having this discussion again, I imagine, in about three months.
I want to reiterate the Greens’ support for the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, despite the fact that we do not think it is perfect. We would have preferred to see the money collected from students going to student organisations. We have said that all along. We have been able to negotiate matters which have dealt with some of our concerns, particularly in relation to ensuring that postgraduate international students and undergraduate students will receive the same level of service delivery, welfare support and elected representation under the guidelines in this bill.
First and foremost, I want to address one of the issues Senator Mason raised. He said that the profile of universities has changed somewhat from what it was 20 or 30 years ago. I completely agree—it has. Twenty or 30 years ago, people got their education for free. Nowadays, students are paying more than ever for their university degrees. Students are paying more than ever for their education, but with limited services. They are working long hours because the youth allowance, if they are able to get it—and that is another issue, which is in debate—is not sufficient to cover their costs. Living costs for university students have risen dramatically in the last decade. Students are paying more than ever, not just for the piece of paper that they get at the end but for their entire university career, but with absolutely limited support, advice and services. That is what this bill is trying to address. When students are paying more than ever for their education, we need to ensure that they have the support to maximise opportunities, to ensure that their university career is the best it can possibly be. That is what this legislation is attempting to deal with—to ensure that the services are there when they need them, that the advice is there when they need it. If they need support and advocacy to challenge an unfair decision made by a university board, they have somewhere to go and someone to act as an advocate for them. That is what this bill is aiming to achieve.
There has been a long debate, not just today and yesterday but in the other place as well, about the politics of this issue. When it comes down to it, you are paying $30,000 or $40,000—which is what my HECS bill was; I paid $40,000 for my education. I needed support, advice and advocacy to ensure that my university career was the best it could possibly be and I was lucky enough to have that. Nowadays we are asking students to pay more than ever, with limited support and limited advice. This bill is trying to ensure that university students get a holistic experience so that when they graduate they do not just get a piece of paper which says, ‘You have this degree,’ but they have the networks, the support and the hands-on experience to give them the edge out in the workforce. As I said, I think this bill is far from perfect, but it is better than the situation we have now.
I would like to take this opportunity, however, to state the government’s position clearly. If this bill is passed, this fee will be paid directly to universities and not to student organisations. This is a fee to assist the rebuilding and the restoration of student services and amenities and is not for student organisations. What the Rudd government is putting to this chamber is a balanced, practical and sustainable approach to securing the future of student amenities and services, while maintaining our commitment not to return to compulsory student unionism. The provision of services and amenities on our university campuses is a key part of Australia having a world-class university system. By voting against this legislation, senators are turning their backs on $170 million of support for our universities.
We have seen as a consequence of the attitudes of the previous government on these questions not only much-needed services being substantially reduced or ceasing to exist on many campuses but students being hit with extraordinary increases in prices for basic services such as child care, parking, books, computer labs, sport and food. I cited some of these figures last night. I thought I would remind the Senate that parking fees at Monash University have risen from $80 to $280 per year. I would ask Senator Fielding, when he is considering the plight of the poor in Victoria, to think about what these costs mean for students actually participating at these institutions. Child care at La Trobe has increased by $68 per week and at the University of Technology, Sydney, by $800 a year. The price of food has increased by 15 per cent at that university in Sydney. Membership fees for Sydney university’s sport and fitness centres have risen by 500 per cent. What do you reckon that would do to people at universities who do not come from private schools and who cannot rely on the sorts of private incomes about which we have heard so many laudatory comments made by Senator Joyce and others? What would 500 per cent increases do for poor kids at university?
That is why every university organisation in the country has called on this chamber to support this legislation. Universities Australia have indicated in their release:
Student service amenities underpin the university experience.
They call on the Senate to ensure the availability of quality student services and amenities for Australian universities through the passage of this bill. They say:
As there are important support services stressed by some senators, there are many essential university services such as health care, counselling, career advice, childcare facilities and independent advocacy and legal support that provide a safety net for all students—
that is, not just those with the money to get private facilities. They say:
Without this legislation, universities will have to continue to cross-subsidise their core teaching and research budgets at a time when their budgets are under pressure.
A modest levy, such as that proposed by the government, would be a boon for student life on campus … It is critical for students to have access to support services which augment the student experience and significantly contribute to both students’ success and the development of well-rounded graduates.
There is an appeal being made to us right across the university system, because of the importance of this legislation, to underpin Australia’s reputation for excellence in education. By voting against this legislation, you are voting against the provision of those services that students desperately need.
Let me finally deal with the question of the Liberals’ attitude on this. There seems to be a fundamental misconception here, from what Senator Mason put. There is the notion that somehow or other the conservative parties in this country under the present arrangements in this chamber and in the House have anything whatsoever to do with liberalism. Their illiberal views are no better expressed than in their hostility to universities and their contempt for the fundamental principles that underpin universities. We saw that in government. We saw their contempt for academic freedom when Brendan Nelson, as minister for education, intervened on 10 separate occasions to block Australian research grants to scholars in this country. We had the provision of 7.5 per cent of funding being conditional on compliance with the so-called National Governance Protocols. We saw intervention in the size and the composition of boards at universities. We had their constant demands for the application at universities of their hideous Work Choices principles. There was a fundamental contempt for the principles that underpin the essential nature of what is a liberal institution in our society—that is, the university system.
What you are seeking to do and what we are being asked to do here is to intervene in such a way as to censor student newspapers and to intervene and determine the morality of students themselves, as if we should somehow or other regulate the behaviour of university students. Senator Mason talked about the ‘grand obsessions’. What we have seen are the grand obsessions of the Liberal Party, from when in the 1970s and 1980s they suffered humiliations—and perhaps psychological difficulties—as a result of their encounters with students at universities. Perhaps they should take up those problems with counsellors. They should not visit those psychological scars on this chamber. They should try to direct the attention of this parliament to more productive means.
That this bill be now read a third time.