Tuesday, 11 October 2011
Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010; Third Reading
In my quiet way, I would like to make a further contribution on this important bill, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. Before the apparent sad passage of this bill, I just want to remind senators of what this means for students—in other words, those who are footing the bill. This is a tax on students, forcing them to pay for services that many will not or cannot use. It will be levied on all students: the rich and the poor; the old and the young; the black and the white; part-time students and full-time students; external students and internal students; men and women—all irrespective of whether they will or are able to access the student services that they are being asked to pay for.
I am not one for technology, I am afraid, but I have been receiving tweets in relation to this bill. I am moving into the 21st century as best I can. I received a tweet from 'mickthejones', and he said: 'I'm never on campus. Why should I have to pay for others' entertainment?' I think 'mickthejones' asks a very good question that goes to the heart of this bill. Then there is Mr 'gilalbertson', and he says in his tweet to me: 'If you have to rely on legislated theft for funding, you should probably explore alternative revenue-raising methods'—again, a most appropriate and apposite tweet. I have to say they go to the core of this debate.
This bill is a subsidy for largely middle-class, fashionable, left-of-centre student activists. That is who is being subsidised here. The disadvantaged students that I mentioned in my previous contribution are out working. They are working in the pizza shops, they are working in the laundrettes, they are working in the car lots and they are driving the trucks, while the middle-class, left-of-centre activists are in the union court protesting about causes that most students do not agree with. The only place on earth that these people are popular is on university campuses.
And they are not that popular there. Of course, these people expect their interests, their obsessions and their fetishes to be subsidised by other students. Let us face it. And, no doubt, culturally the twin triumphs of the left in the late 20th century, both moral vanity and self-loathing of their own community, also are subsidised by those students who are not middle-class, left-of-centre student activists. Perhaps my friend Senator Hanson-Young thinks I am being a bit naughty in describing these students as left-wing activists, because the Greens would describe them as their base. That is where the Greens get their support from.
What has changed is this, and it is pretty simple: those that sponsor this bill, the government and the Greens, do not understand that the university world has changed almost beyond recognition within one generation, and that is the key point that I cannot stress enough to the Senate. It is no longer Brideshead Revisited or Chariots of Fire. Changing demography and changing culture mean that most students today simply do not have the time or the inclination, or even the opportunity, to use the services offered. Universities have changed enormously since the mid-1970s—more than 35 years ago—when this debate first took place. Universities today are mainstream; they are not elite. Today's students are older and many more of them study part time and in the evenings due to competing and family commitments. Many more take advantage of the greater flexibility and opportunities that new communications technologies bring to external study.
Despite all that, this lot says that this new type of student should foot the bill for the inner city, middle-class, left-wing activists. This lot says that the people out there—the mature age women raising families and studying part time—should pay for the interests of those activists. I do not accept that; I never have and I never will. The government still assumes that universities are filled with 18- to 22-year-olds who are studying full time on campus.
It is no longer like that. I have visited vice chancellors on the principal campus of every single university in this country—all 39. There are no echoes of Brideshead Revisited, not any more anyway. As the Bradley review makes clear, in 2007 more than two-thirds of Australia's students were mature age. That fundamentally changes who the potential beneficiaries of these services are. But those mature age students are expected to pay for the services that this lot are ensuring the left-wing, middle-class, inner city activists can and will use. Moreover, full-time students are now considerably less than half of the student population. This is an enormous change since I was at university 30 years ago. Yet the arguments that the Greens and the government raise are still the same—access. These people do not have the time or the inclination to use the services that you are forcing them to pay for.
I accept the government has pushed—and I have said before, about the Prime Minister when she was the Minister for Education, that I believe it was a noble push—to create greater access to and greater equity in tertiary education. I have always given the Prime Minister credit for that. I have given credit to Senator Evans and to my old friend and sparring partner Senator Carr—and they deserve credit for that. But then they expect, despite the enormous change in the demography and the make-up of the student population, all students—all of these new people coming into universities, all of these disadvantaged kids, the Aboriginal kids and the kids from rural and regional Australia—to pay for services that the government know those students cannot use. That is what we fundamentally object to.
As my colleagues have said, eloquently I think, today we live, sadly perhaps, in a credentials culture. Whether that is good or bad, let us face the fact that it is largely the case. Today's students see their higher education much more vocationally than I saw mine. I think that is a fair comment. When I was a student, I studied philosophy and political science because I wanted to enlarge my mind. Perhaps my lecturers failed, but today I think it is a fair point to say that most kids going to Australian universities do it with a vocational outcome much more in mind. Again, that means that those who can make use of the sorts of services available have changed enormously. Yet this lot—the government and the Greens—expect everyone to pay for services that most people, most young Australians, cannot or will not use.
In my own office, three members of my staff study part time. None of them has access to these services. Even if in theory they will have access to these services, they will not be able to use them because they are busy working for me. Again, they are expected to pay for services that they cannot or will not use. That is just not fair. But the government does not care. The government thinks it is okay to ask students who cannot or will not access these services to pay for them. The coalition resolutely says no and never. I again refer to the Bradley review commissioned by the government. On page 49 of her report, Professor Bradley concludes:
In 2006 nearly 71 per cent of full-time domestic undergraduate students reported working during semester
That is 71 per cent in 2006. Over the last five years that has increased to over three-quarters. Three-quarters of Australia's undergraduate population now work part time. Again, those students have much less access to the services this lot are saying those students should pay for. It is outrageous. Professor Bradley continues:
On average these students were working about 15 hours per week. One in six of the full-time undergraduate students who was working during the semester were working more than 20 hours per week.
I suppose they are supposed to pay for services which, again, they cannot or will not use.
This trend will only continue. More students will be working while they are studying and more will be older. Increasingly students do not have the time to access student services that they are expected by this government to pay for. That is a fundamental issue for the coalition. The government does not understand this. The culture and the demography of Australian universities has changed fundamentally in the last generation. Students at universities have changed. They are older, they are far more mature and they work. They cannot take advantage of these services which they are supposed to pay for. The proponents of this student tax like to use this analogy: they argue that universities or student unions are really akin to local government, that they provide valuable services at the local level and therefore need to tax everyone within their catchment area to pay for those services. That analogy is a farce. Universities are not another tier of government. We have only three tiers as I understand it: federal, state and local. But the government and the Greens seem to believe that it is appropriate for universities to tax the entire population, whether students will use those services or not.
Universities are the only entity outside government with a power to compulsorily extract money from Australians, even in cases where those students will not or cannot use the services provided. As my friend Senator Cormann and his committee that has been doing great work on taxes said, this is not a fee for service. The vast majority of students will not or cannot access these services. It is a tax. Labor and the Greens like the idea of allowing universities to tax students, just like a tier of government, because it is the only level of government where they can still be elected—that is, of course, outside Marrickville Council. That is about it.
To the coalition, the system remains open to political abuse and is devoid of effective enforcement mechanisms. I mentioned this before. The coalition is concerned at the effective enforcement of this legislation. While the bill prohibits universities or any third parties which 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. As my friend Senator Ryan said, political causes are not excluded, or quasi-political organisations per se, whether the students whose money is being spent agree with those purposes or not.
Indeed, while student funded stickers cannot say 'vote Labor' or 'vote Green', under the bill there seems no reason why they cannot say 'put the Liberals last' or 'don't vote Nationals', and so on it goes. Thus, despite repeated questions from the opposition regarding the meaning of the provisions of section 19-38(4)(f)—that is, the provision that will allow the use of money compulsorily extracted from students to promote the welfare of students—it might, for example, then be used to support the carbon tax or promote issues such as Your Rights at Work on the basis that they promote the welfare of students.
I know the minister did her best but there was still no direct answer to that fundamental question after days of debate. What about instances that Senator Williams spoke of where a student-subsidised business makes money and then uses that money for political purposes? In other words, the money is 'washed' first at the student bar and then is used to fund political activities. What about that? But even with a prohibition on direct support for political parties and candidates, one has to ask: how will the bill be policed? Neither the bill nor guidelines provide any credible enforcement and sanction mechanisms, none at all. 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 it. Make no mistake, the opposition will monitor the enforcement and the operation of this bill. Even if the government will not, we will protect the rights of the majority of students.
In the end it comes down to this: there are two groups at play here. First, those who have to pay the fee. Let's call them the unwilling, unhappy givers. There are about one million of them, so let us call them the 'reluctant one million'. Overwhelmingly, they do not want to pay the fee. The second group is the one that gets the money. The first group pays it; the second group gets it. Let's call them the happy and the self-righteous takers. These are the rent seekers. The government and the Greens believe it is just and appropriate that the unwilling, unhappy givers—the 'reluctant one million students'—have to pay the tax, because that is what it is, to the rent seekers. That, ultimately, is what the government and the Greens say.
Nothing has changed on that side of politics in 110 years of federal parliament and, certainly, nothing in the 35 years of this debate. This is a government, supported by its coalition colleagues the Greens, that believes it is okay that the unwilling and unhappy one million students—those who foot the bill—pay this money to the rent seekers. The government is always on the side of the rent seekers. It has been since Federation and it will be forever after. We now know that. It is always on the side of the rent seekers, always asking someone to pay for their issues, their concerns, their projects, their priorities and their fetishes. That is what that side has been doing for the last 110 years in this nation and it is increasingly pathetic.
Never in the history of Australian politics have so many paid so much to so few for so little. That alone is sufficient for the opposition to maintain the rage and emphatically oppose this bill. We opposed it yesterday; we opposed it 35 years ago; we oppose it today and we will oppose it tomorrow. We will never, ever support this bill.
Madam Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: I was clearly on my feet quite a while before the parliamentary secretary rose. I wonder why it is that you have called the person who rose second. This is a debate that I want to contribute to in respect of those universities in regional Australia.
I was observing the courtesies of the chamber, going from one side to the other. That is why I called the parliamentary secretary. The question is that the question be now put.
The Senate divided. [13:41]
(The President–Senator the Hon. JJ Hogg)
Senator Wong did not vote, to compensate for the vacancy caused by the resignation of Senator Coonan.
Question agreed to. Question put:
That this bill be now read a third time.
The Senate divided [13:45]
(The President—Senator Hogg)
Senator Wong did not vote, to compensate for the vacancy caused by the resignation of Senator Coonan.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a third time.