Senate debates

Monday, 19 September 2011


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

Debate resumed on the motion:

That this bill be now read a second time.

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.

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.