Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012; Second Reading

6:19 pm

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill seeks to put into effect several changes to the Higher Education Support Act. The bill will increase the maximum amount a higher education provider may charge under the compulsory student services and amenities fee from $250 to $263 as a result of an indexation mistake in the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act 2011.

In October 2011, the government passed the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act 2011. This act allowed universities to charge students a maximum of $250 per year in compulsory student services fees. The government anticipated the bill would have passed by 1 January 2011—I think that was the government's anticipation—that is what they assumed. But the passage of the bill was delayed, I think because of the robust discussion and debate in this chamber that seemingly went on forever. But when the bill was passed it still contained the references to 1 January 2011, being the date on which the original $250 base amount was applied with indexation to take effect every year from 1 January 2012 onwards. So the assumption that the government, and indeed the act, were acting upon was incorrect. They thought the bill would pass before it did and, therefore, the date that the indexation was to apply from was incorrect.

The bill before the Senate this evening seeks to change the date on which the base figure is applied from 1 January 2011 to 1 January 2012. In a sense, it is a minor administrative amendment simply to change the dates from 1 January 2011 to 1 January 2012. It also seeks to change the maximum base amount from $250—which you may recall, Madam Acting Deputy President, was the amount discussed many times in debate—to $263, being the amount which would have been able to be levied had the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act been passed by its original commencement date. That, in effect, is what the bill is doing. There are several other aspects of the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1). This bill also changes all references to the Melbourne College of Divinity to that organisation's new name, the MCD University of Divinity. It changes the rounding up of debts under HECS to a rounding down to the nearest dollar and clarifies the study rights for students studying veterinary science and dentistry through HECS. The change to the Melbourne College of Divinity is important. It sounds like a minor administrative matter but the use of the word 'university' is a very controversial one in higher education, because it clearly denotes research and, in terms of marketing, gives institutions a significant edge. In the case of the Melbourne College of Divinity, the word signifies a greater concentration of research, and it is a word that is being jealously guarded by Australia's existing universities. While it perhaps seems like a minor change to many listening this evening, within the university sector it is a marked change and it will certainly be a marked change for the Melbourne College of Divinity.

In terms of changing the rounding up of debts under HECS to rounding down to the nearest dollar, that is rather minor but it simply stops students being forever charged interest on very small amounts. The administration of those debts is not something that any responsible government would leave as is, so the opposition supports the proposal.

The situation in relation to dentistry and veterinary science students is quite interesting. Dentistry and veterinary science students' fees have a higher cap than most other university courses, and there is a reason for that: for dentistry and veterinary science students the cost of the courses, both to the students themselves and to the government, to the taxpayer, is much higher. Both dentistry and veterinary science students are expensive to train. What this act seeks to do is restrict the students' use of the HECS-HELP system to only those studies that result in a qualification recognised as the minimum qualification by the governing body, rather than the existing system which allows students to continue studying until they have specialised. What that means is this: it is important because, when dentistry students, for example, are studying, the minimum qualification for them to be able to qualify before they do professional years is a Bachelor of Dental Surgery. What this bill does is ensure that that qualification is covered by the HECS-HELP debt but, in future, any graduate studies post that qualification are no longer covered. So, again, this is a way of rationalising HECS-HELP study arrangements. Similarly, veterinary science students—and my friend Senator Back will say that we need more veterinary scientists in Australia, and that might be right—are very expensive to train. It is one of the most expensive courses in universities. Again, the idea is for the HECS-HELP debts to cover the initial training, the bachelor's degree, but not any postgraduate or specialist qualifications. We regard that as inappropriate. Again, the coalition supports those changes as we think they are rational administrative changes.

The coalition supports all the changes except the change in amount from $250 to $263. The Senate might ask why. The coalition, I think, has been very consistent on this. The coalition does not believe that students should be slugged extra because the government did not manage to pass its legislation on time and, when it did, it forgot to put the new dates in the act. When we go into committee I will be moving an amendment that seeks, therefore, to keep the base amount at $250. We do not believe that students should be paying for the government's mistake.

You might recall the long debate in this chamber about this issue. I will not go through the entire debate again but it is an issue that is important clearly to the youth wing of the Liberal Party, the Young Liberal Movement, and the Australian Liberal Students Federation. For them this is a totemic issue. I suspect my friend Senator Evans or Senator Carr would say, 'Well, Senator Mason, perhaps it's about time you got over what happened to you at university 30 years ago.' They may well argue that. But the point I would make is this: as a matter of principle this is extremely important to the coalition. You might recall that the debates we had stretched over hours and, even though finally the debate was guillotined, the government, to its partial credit at least, allowed the debate to go on longer than many thought it would. That is because many coalition senators in this place learnt some of our skills, some good and some bad, at university, either with the student federation or with the Young Liberal Movement. So for us it is an issue of high principle and certainly not one that we can compromise on. I suspect that the government would wish this simply to go through as a matter of administration—as a matter that should be passed, perhaps waved through with a quick admonishment—but, no, we see this as far more serious than that. For us this is a serious matter, a principle, and one on which we are not prepared to compromise. We never have and I suspect we never will.

I will not recapitulate all the arguments I used last time. Suffice to say that I and all my coalition colleagues have said many times both here and in the other place that the coalition does not believe its students should be forced to pay compulsory fees for services that most of them do not want or cannot access. We do that for several reasons. We argue that the changing demographics throughout our country and culture mean that most students today simply do not have the time, the inclination or the opportunity to use the services that are offered at university. Quite frankly university today is nothing like it was 30 years ago when I was attending. For that reason, with a changed demography, the fact that so many more students—

Sitting suspended from 18 : 30 to 19 : 30

To briefly recap: the coalition supports all amendments except the change in the indexed amount from $250 to $263. The coalition does not believe that students should be slugged extra just because the government did not manage to pass its legislation on time—and, when it did so, it forgot to put the new dates in. Therefore I will be moving an amendment in committee—if we get to that stage—that seeks to keep the base amount at $250.

I have said many times in this chamber that the coalition opposed the original measure because we do not believe students should be forced to pay for services that they will not or cannot use. For us in the coalition it is an important matter of principle, and it is an important matter of principle for our youth movement. But it is not just a matter of principle for our youth movement; it also reflects something.

Senator Polley interjecting

I am glad Senator Polley is interjecting. It is a matter also of changing demography and changing culture. One of the reasons the coalition opposes these measures, and always has done, is that universities today are much more mainstream than when I was at university 30 years ago and they are not elite. Students today are much older and more mature. Many more study part time and, indeed, many study in the evenings. Many more students now work than did when I was back at university, and they have to balance family commitments much more than they did a generation or two ago. So there has been an enormous demographic and cultural change throughout our 39 universities.

There are around 130,000 students now studying externally. These students will never have the opportunity to use the services they are being forced to pay for. That is why we oppose these measures. The 130,000 students studying externally are expected to pay for other students to use the services that they themselves cannot and will not use. According to the government and the Greens it is okay to ask those students, who are often balancing family life and jobs, to pay for school leavers and those studying full time. And the disadvantaged are subsidising the advantaged. But what is so unusual about that from this government? Nothing.

The government has never understood that, far more than 30 or 40 years ago, we live in a credentials culture, where young Australians go to university to gain a degree in the same way that we go to a job to work. It is far more about getting credentials than it is about receiving a broad liberal education. I do not necessarily like that change. I prefer the idea of a languid liberal education. However, very sadly, those days are long gone. What happens today is that many young Australians go to university to gain a professional or other credential. That is the fact. And they have neither the time nor the inclination to use certain student services. But this bill expects them to pay for services that they cannot or will not use. Again, the opposition opposes that.

Most of the staff in my office are studying part time. They are part of generation Y. I think it is fair to say that generation Y are much less collectivist, much less committed to institutionalised civil society than Senator Carr and I were back in our heyday—although perhaps Senator Carr's heyday is yet to come.

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

It certainly is; speak for yourself!

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

Suffice it to say that generation Y sees institutionalised civil society quite differently than people of my vintage or Senator Carr's. That means they are more likely to join a Facebook or organise their own time in their own way than to join some group at university—far more so. This, coupled with the change in the demography of Australian universities, means far fewer students go straight from high school into university these days—about half as many, proportionally, as 30 years ago. And what does that mean? It means the nature of the services that need to be provided has changed enormously. The government does not quite understand that—and perhaps it never quite has.

I could talk about this for a long time—and I know my friend Senator Carr has heard me on this topic many times. Suffice it to say that most of the services and activities provided by student unions tend to be superfluous, in the sense that they already exist and are being provided by the universities themselves, by the government and 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 discrimination or prejudice. For those reasons, the coalition simply do not support the aspect of the bill relating to the indexed amount. Of course, the coalition opposed compulsory student unionism when the bill came before this place last year—and I suspect we will never change our opposition to that. It is a strange thing. Outside of university, students would never expect everyone in their suburb, for example, to pay a levy or a tax so that they could enjoy rugby union, but it seems that somehow people think that because someone goes to university they should be slugged a fee so someone else can play rugby union or rugby league or join the beer appreciation society. Why is that? Why do we change the nature of civil society, whether that is in a university or a community, all of a sudden? Again, the government never answers that. It says, 'Oh, this is an appropriate thing.' In fact, what it does is that it tends to bolster causes that some activist students become involved with. I know my good friend Senator Humphries would agree with that. That is what it tends to do.

I know it is early days yet and many of my good friends among the vice-chancellors tell me—as I am sure they tell Senator Kim Carr and, indeed, Senator Evans—'It doesn't matter; student radicalism has died, Senator Mason.' But my concern is that money that is appropriated by universities for so-called student activities will be appropriated by students who do not represent a majority of students but only those who are activist—in other words, not by the general majority who are out there working or raising a family but by full-time students who generally are younger and generally come straight from school, as indeed I did. The fact is, though, that the world has changed.

The government has done a good thing for the universities with the uncapping of student numbers. It has freed the aspirations for many more Australians to come to university, but most of those, as the government well knows again, will be part-time, external and often disadvantaged students. And do you know what will happen? In the end, they will be subsidising the more advantaged.

7:39 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. This bill is a straightforward but necessary bill to clarify some aspects of the Higher Education Support Act, which, among other things, is the vehicle by which our universities are provided with Commonwealth government funding. The bill clarifies the application and operations of the indexation provisions of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Indexation) Act. The Commonwealth contribution amounts under the Common­wealth Grant Scheme include the maximum student contribution amounts, the FEE-HELP limit, the maximum OS-HELP amount and the maximum amount of the student services and amenities fee on 1 January 2011. The bill makes clear that the amounts that are indexed on 1 January 2012 are the 2011 indexed amounts.

The bill is technical in nature, but, nevertheless, the changes included in it will benefit the higher education sector in Australia. It will deliver to them. Mind you, that could be said about any bill that this government brings into the parliament relating to higher education. We have been determined as a government to undo the damage done to the higher education sector by the Howard government. I repeat: we are about undoing the damage that the Howard government did to higher education in this country. This damage started with the savage cuts in 1996 and continued as that government pursued a course of chronic underinvestment in universities, coupled with constant meddling in their internal administration. The Gillard Labor government, in contrast, sees universities as important partners in an agenda that recognises education in all its forms as core to achieving our objectives for economic prosperity and social equality in this country.

Following the advice of the Bradley review, the government has set ambitious targets for participation in higher education in the medium term. By 2025, we want 40 per cent of Australians between 25 and 34 years of age to have a bachelor level qualification or higher degree. The government's investment in our higher education sector of much fairer and more generous support for students has seen a 27 per cent increase in the number of student places at universities since 2007, or 150,000 extra university students in Australia. There are further targets for universities to meet in terms of the participation and graduation of people from traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Indigenous people and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds as well as those from rural areas. The targets are bold targets, but they have been matched by equally bold reforms to help the higher education sector to meet them.

Chief among those is the shift from 1 January this year to demand driven funding. No longer will the Commonwealth government decide how many students will study what course at which university, effectively setting caps on course numbers according to how many Commonwealth funded places go to each university. Instead, under the demand driven funding model, universities are free to make their own decisions about how many students they are prepared to enrol in particular courses. Students who meet those enrolment requirements set by a university will attract Commonwealth funding to match their enrolments. Such a big change has required universities to think about what they have to offer and what they need to do to meet the needs of students in the broader community. The government has made available structural adjustment funding and numerous rounds of grants to boost infrastructure and to reward quality teaching to help universities make this transition—a stark contrast to the dark days of the Howard government.

The bill before the Senate also amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to clarify the application and operation of indexation arrangements in the act. It updates the definitions for 'course of study in dentistry' and 'course of study in veterinary science' and updates the Melbourne College of Divinity's name in light of its approval to operate under the title 'MCD University of Divinity'. The bill also allows for technical amendments to the calculation of the voluntary repayment bonus to resolve rounding issues. The bill will amend the definitions for 'course of study in dentistry' and 'course of study in veterinary science' to clarify that only students undertaking courses of study in dentistry or veterinary science that satisfy the minimum academic require­ments for registration as a dentist, veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner are eligible for the higher FEE-HELP limit. The Melbourne College of Divinity has been approved by the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority to operate under the name MCD University of Divinity until 31 December 2016. Students can make a voluntary repayment towards their HELP debt to the tax office at any time. Voluntary repayments of $500 or more currently attract a five per cent bonus on the payment amount. When calculating the effect of a person making a voluntary repayment of his or her HELP debt, the act provides for a person to obtain a five per cent bonus and includes rounding rules in calculating whether a person has repaid their debt and the amount of debt repaid if it is only a partial repayment.

Currently, the effect of the rounding rules are that: (a) when making a full repayment, the person benefits from the rounding amount because the amount of payment required to pay off their debt in full is reduced because the cents are rounded down; and (b) when making a partial repayment, the person is disadvantaged because the value of the reduction to the outstanding debt due to a payment is rounded down. The bill amends the act to provide that when calculating the effect of a person making a partial repayment towards his or her HELP debt, the amount will be rounded up to the nearest dollar. The cents would continue to be rounded down to determine the amount required for the full repayment of a person's HELP debt amount. Effectively, the rounding rules will now always benefit a person making a voluntary repayment.

Senator Mason in his comments returned to the coalition's preoccupation with student organisations. Let us be very clear: the student services and amenities fee legislation does not require universities to give funds to student organisations, although we would hope that, where student organisations are best placed to provide needed services, universities will. The senator may also be unaware that universities, in setting the student services and amenities fee, have chosen a range of fees which reflect a range of enrolment patterns. Fees set so far range from $15 to the full amount of $263.

The passage of time meant that there were ambiguities in the act about the application of indexation provisions to the amount in the act on 1 January 2011. This made clear its intention regarding indexation of these matters in both the explanatory memor­andum and the debate in the parliament. These amendments do not change the intent of the parliament in passing this legislation but do add clarity to that indexation that should have been applied to the amount in the act on 1 January 2011, and that the amounts that are indexed on 1 January 2012 are the 2011 indexed amounts. The bill reflects the government's continued commitment to improving Australia's higher education sector and expanding opportunities for Australians to obtain high-quality higher education. As I mentioned at the start of this speech, the bill seeks to clarify the application of indexation provisions in the act for a range of amounts relevant to the higher education sector.

I have to say, I am sure not only that Senator Mason—as we heard in his contribution—has a fixation on the student services and amenities fee but also that the other contributors will dwell on the same narrow point. The fee of up to $263 per year can now be charged by the universities to offset the cost of providing student services and amenities. These fees go to things such as child care, food outlets, legal services and sporting facilities on our university campuses. We just heard from Senator Mason his evaluation of how the university campus has changed and how there are more people studying part time and so there are people trying to balance work and family. Surely these services such as child care and sporting facilities are necessary in having a well-balanced lifestyle.

But you can always guarantee that for those opposite anything that has the word 'unionism' in it is going to be opposed. They can change their position when it comes to things like supporting a tax cut to companies—they can change their philosophical point of view there—but, when it comes to student unionism, they will always be consistent. You can put your house on it.

The fee was reinstated with the passage last year of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2011. The battle over a student services fee has been a very long one. In fact it is a battle that most of those senators opposite have been fighting since their own days at university. Even now you only have to say the words 'student union' and you will have them in a lather. That evil word 'union', even in association with students, is like a red rag to a bull for those opposite.

I am proud to be part of a government that has emphasised the importance of education. If you are talking about BER funding and the success that has been in my home state of Tasmania, every single school—private, public, Catholic, independent—is thankful to this government for investing in education. This bill builds on top of that. We go from primary school to high school to college and now to university, and we are actually putting the runs on the board, unlike those who, when they were in government for 11½ very long years—and we know what they did—tried to pull down the universities as they did the health system. I commend the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012 as another plank in the Labor plan to return Australian universities to the once proud position they held in the world and to meet the future needs of Australians to enjoy the benefits that flow from the Gillard government's vision and policies for the future of this great country.

7:51 pm

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to follow that fevered contribution from Senator Polley with something a little more measured and relevant to the bill. I have to say, with great respect, that a great deal of what Senator Polley had to say in that contribution did not relate to what appears in the bill I have in front of me, the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. Extolling the various reforms the government is enacting with respect to funding of universities is a fine piece of debating rhetoric but unfortunately does not relate to what is in front of us at the moment. In fact, what is in front of us at the moment is the government correcting what I think is best described as a mistake or an oversight in the legislation that was passed only—

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

That is very kind!

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, that is very kind language. It was more like a shemozzle that the government enacted in passing the legislation in October last year. I think 'ambiguity' was the gentle word that Senator Polley used, but there is nothing ambiguous about this, Senator Polley. This needs to be fixed because it was a mess, a stuff-up, when it happened.

The guts of this legislation is about removing choice from university students. It is about saying to those students: 'You students, uniquely in the Australian community, do not have freedom to decide what you belong to and how much you pay to belong to that organisation. You do not have the freedom to make that decision and, most particularly, you do not have the freedom to decide whether your money goes to that particular exercise or it does not.' When I have heard in recent days members of the government in this place talk about the pressure on working families, I can only remember that some of the most pressured members of working families today in Australia are people studying at tertiary institutions.

When I was at university, when Senator Mason was at university and when other colleagues here such as Senator Back and perhaps Senator Payne were at university, we had the great privilege of not having to pay university fees. That happened to have been because of the era in which we passed through universities, when the pressure that students face today was not there. Today, students do pay fees, and quite steep fees. As a community we need to be aware of the pressure that they are under, as they engage in their studies, to both work and study in order to get through their degrees. Being aware of that pressure, what does this government decide to do? Wouldn't a government that was cognisant of the pressure on working families decide that it could do something to help them by removing or relieving fees they would otherwise have to pay? No, not this government. This government has decided that, uniquely among all Australians, university students need to pay a compulsory fee in order to engage in a particular activity in the community, which is to study at a tertiary institution. They have to pay that fee, whether they can afford it or not and whether they will use the services or not.

Senator Polley talked about the wonderful things that are available on campuses—the childcare facilities, the food services and so on. I quite agree that, compared with what was available in my time at university, some of those services are quite good. But let me make two points about that. First of all, there are many people who, even with the best will in the world, cannot access those sorts of services. To take a small example, a member of my staff lives in Canberra and is studying at the University of Western Australia. My member of staff will have to pay the fees that this bill will impose on him—$263. He has never been to Perth. He is most unlikely to get there or spend any time there during the course of his degree, but he has to put in $263 every year in order to be able to access the right to study at that university by virtue of legislation the government is reinforcing today to impose a compulsory student fee.

The second point is that we generally give people in our society the freedom to assess what is good value for money. We give them the freedom to say: 'This particular organisation, this club, this association, this professional body, this sporting group provides a service which I think is worthwhile, it would suit my needs and I choose to belong to it. I will put my dollars into that because I get something out of it.' People in all sorts of areas of society and at every socioeconomic level have that choice and they exercise it on a daily basis. But the one people we do not give that freedom to are those who study at universities. Patronisingly, we tell these future leaders of our nation, because that is what we hope people going through our universities will be: 'You can't decide for yourself whether paying a fee to this organisation is in your best interests. We know it is. We will require you to join and to pay the fee to that organisation, in effect.' That is just disgraceful.

So why is the government doing this? It is in the government's interests, and I am sure the Greens will rush forward to support this contention, that student organisations be well resourced. It is nothing to do with services. Don't give me this rubbish that you want people to have access to child care, that you want them to be able to go and get subsidised meals. If I want childcare or if I want subsidised meals I can choose to belong to organisations to get those services. But you want those organisations to be well funded and you have decided that, rather than put that money in from the universities or from the public purse, you want students to stump up that cost.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You're just totally opposed to it, just be upfront!

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

We will see with the passage of this legislation the reinforcement of this system where students are effectively required to make a choice, most of them involuntarily, to belong to organisations or to subsidise organisations that they do not believe are good value for money or they do not want to belong to or they actually disapprove of belonging to. This is most unfortunate. So, yes, Senator Polley, members on this side of the chamber have fought a very long battle about this because as a matter of principle we believe the choice ought to exist.

I belonged to student organisations when I was at university. I was active in student organisations. In fact, I was the president of the Australian National University Students Association because I believed in being involved. But I did not want to say to other people, 'You have to make the same choice I make.' You ought to have the right to decide whether you belong and whether you think it is good value for money, and you put your dollars there. That right is being denied with this legislation.

7:58 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The key performance indicator for the Gillard-Brown government is exactly the same as that for a pickpocket in Dickensian England, that being the extent to which this government can rip off its unsuspecting citizens firstly without them knowing it or, secondly, until it is too late for them to be able to take any action. Can't you just see how delighted the likes of Fagin, Bill Sikes, the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates would be if they reviewed what is now the latest of the taxes that are going to be inflicted upon the more vulnerable of our society, and that is our tertiary students. That is why we are opposing the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. We have seen the mining tax and the carbon tax being applied, the removal of the levy for private health insurance and now we see the imposition of no less than $263 million of tax. It will come to the stage soon where students will be going to Mr Bumble the beadle and saying, 'Please, sir, can I have more?' We all know that Mr Bumble will bellow back 'More!' because it has all been spent and there is none left.

The only reason, as has been outlined by my colleagues Senator Humphries and Senator Mason, that we are considering this at all has been a failure of the government to place its legislation before the Senate on a previous occasion. A very, very wise person said not so long ago in this place, 'It is not what a household or a business or a country or a government does; it is how well it does it.' It is not what it does; it is how well it does it. Do we not see evidence this evening of the failure of this Labor government in how well it has done it—in how poorly it has presented before this place the anomaly which we are now asked to try and address, and that is a discrepancy of $13, being $263 vis-a-vis $250?

We have a senator in this place whose parents came to this country as migrants. It did not matter what they did in their employment. What did matter was how well they did it. In a sense, the indicator for them as to how well they did it was to see their son come into this place. How well have that same man and his spouse done what they have done when only last weekend he had the opportunity to view his daughter receiving her doctorate? What an amazing story in three generations has played out this week in this Senate. That is the action of a household holding to that principle of not what they have done but how well they have done it. The Kodak company introduced digital photography and did not do it well. As we know, they are now in bankruptcy.

I turn to the performance of the Australian government. In this place in recent days, and in late November last year, we have seen the government, in combination with the Greens political party, fail to enable this Senate to do its work and allow senators to stand in their place in this chamber and represent the views of their constituents and their states in the very vigorous debates that have taken place. No doubt we will see more evidence of that this evening. A carbon dioxide tax—not a carbon tax but a harmless odourless gas tax—is going to be imposed on the citizens of this country that we are not yet contemplating. But, of course, it is another example of this government failing in the sense of how well it has done its task.

I now move to the question of university education. Let me outline in this same vein what my colleague Senator Mason espoused to Universities Australia the other day absolutely in concert with the principle of it is not what you do but how well you do it. Senator Mason made the observation to the vice-chancellors of Australia that the Liberal-National Party higher education policy is about quality and standards, not only about numbers. Time does not permit me this evening to reflect on the failures of Labor governments going back to Kim Beazley Sr and the Hon. John Dawkins in their failures in educational policy in this country. But I do look forward to the opportunity of spelling out those failures which have led to the very high incidence now of the need for 457 visa holders to prop up the necessary expansion in our country and in the state that you and I, Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop, represent. There is the fundamental difference. This side of the chamber wants to address itself to how well it does it. The other side is only interested in what it does. I suggest to you that it is outcomes in higher education that count. It is those who graduate from our institutions of higher learning, not the numbers that we put in.

If time permitted I would reflect more accurately on the fact that it is not low socioeconomic students historically in this country who have been the disadvantaged ones in attaining higher education. It has been those in rural and remote areas of the state who have not been able to get to universities in the cities to undertake university studies because we do not have a policy in this country which allows those who must travel away from their homes to receive financial support.

Reference was made here to dentistry and veterinary science. I thank Senator Polley for her comments on that, but I must correct my colleague Senator Mason. He made reference to his time at the University of Queensland as being a languid liberal education. Let me assure you, Senator Mason, across the campus in St Lucia, down where the vet school was, there was no languid education; it was a very, very serious and hardworking education. For what it is worth, for those who think costs these days are high, we from other states of Australia had the undeniable privilege of paying 150 per cent of the student fees. I am pleased to see Senator Sterle come into the chamber because—I am sure I will not embarrass him—it was about him and his family that I was referring earlier when I commented about the quality of a family that saw the principle in the criterion of how well that family has acted in the achievements of that family. That fact that you are here, Senator Sterle, pleases me from that point of view.

Going back, if I may, to this amendment: it says in the case of veterinary science that the amendments as proposed will restrict a student's use of the HECS HELP system to only those studies which result in a qualification recognised as the minimum by the governing body rather than the existing system, which allows students to continue studying until they have specialised. I think that is a ridiculous amendment. Already veterinary science students in their undergraduate programs study for six years. Surely, with the challenges we have in biosecurity, One Health issues, viral diseases and those others affecting this country and the region in which we exist, the last thing we should be doing is cutting off financial support at the end of their undergraduate years. It might be of interest to those in the chamber to know that veterinary science is the most expensive course at university; and, while it is not relevant to this discussion, it is lamentable that at the end of a six-year course of study—probably one of the hardest at universities—the average length of time for full-time members of the profession now is 3½ years. Three and a half years in a profession that took them six years to get their undergraduate degrees for. So I am not happy with an amendment which cuts off that financial support at the end of that period of time.

Let us reflect for a moment, if we may, on whether or not students actually want this compulsory student fee or unionism. A study undertaken at the time this matter was being reviewed indicated that 59 per cent—almost 60 per cent—of students polled opposed compulsory student fees. A second point: only five per cent—one in 20—bothers ever voting in student union elections. Senator Mason is quite right, as is Senator Humphries: the demographic has changed completely from a scenario where we all went from school to university and those from low-socioeconomic families, as indeed I was myself, either received Commonwealth scholarships or undertook cadetships in which departments paid for our education. Today, of course, we know that two-thirds of students are not full-time students straight from school. We know a very high proportion are now in the workplace. We know that their university study is not part of a languid liberal experience but in fact something they do to achieve a qualification so they can improve their status, their career opportunities and their earning ability. So they do not want the sorts of services which are now compulsorily going to be applied to them.

We know, for example, that there are some 200,000 external students who will never, ever use the services of this annual $263. We know that, whether a student is full time or part time, they will be paying the $263. In fact, I checked recently with a student who is enrolled at two universities in Perth undertaking different programs and will be called upon to pay, I understand, not $263 but double that sum of money: $516. So there are many anomalies in this particular activity.

We know that the generation Y students are averse to club membership. We need only have a look at sporting clubs. We need only have a look at service clubs in this country to know that the same young people who are very keen on a game of squash, tennis or cricket are not willing to join clubs; they would rather make private arrangements for that recreational pursuit. They are not akin and attuned, as we were in the postwar period, to actually joining clubs. They have no interest in these sorts of services and facilities. There is no good reason why they should be compulsorily paying these fees.

There is one other point that I think is important, and that is that the university students of today are the business and government agency leaders of tomorrow. They are the people who we expect to lead the Australian community, this nation and the region into the future. Do we want a scenario in which we are encouraging a level of compulsory payment for a service that they will not want by a group of people who when they go into the workplace must understand that those are not the sorts of offerings that will be made to them?

I conclude my contribution to this debate in this way. It is the case that we are discussing it in the first place simply because of a failure: a lack of discipline of this government. We originally were asked to look at a proposal involving $250 per annum. This side of the chamber opposes that anyhow. It was due to slackness and laziness. It was due, in fact, to an inability to manage the legislative process that caused us this evening even to be addressing this position. I say again that this simply is an example of adherence to the key performance indicator of this government: the extent to which it can rip off its unsuspecting citizens without them knowing it or until such time as it is too late for them to take any action. I recommend that this chamber rejects this amendment, as it should so richly do. There is no occasion at all in which we should commend this government for its failure to manage legislation, to bring it before the chamber and to have it dealt with in a way that is acceptable not only to the Senate but to the parliament and to the people of Australia.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for consideration of this bill has expired. The question is that this bill be now read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

The question now is that schedule 1, items 2 and 4 stand as printed.