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Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee
- Committee front matter
- Committee witnesses
- Committee witnesses
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ACTING CHAIR (Senator Carr)
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ACTING CHAIR (Senator Carr)
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ACTING CHAIR (Senator Carr)
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Content WindowEmployment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee - 07/05/99 - Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill 1999
CHAIR —I welcome representatives of the Australasian Campus Union Managers Association. The committee has before it submission No. 159. Are there any changes you wish to make?
Mr O'Brien —No.
CHAIR —The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public but if at any time you wish to give any evidence or answers to any questions in camera, you may make the request and the committee will consider the request, and such evidence may subsequently be made public by order of the Senate. I now invite you to make an opening statement but, as we indicated previously, I would ask you to keep that brief.
Mr O'Brien —I will do my best to be brief. On behalf of the Australasian Campus Union Managers Association, I thank you for the opportunity to appear here today and present our views on this very important matter. We believe that much of our industry has been misunderstood for a long time and this is a welcome process to develop an understanding in the community and amongst the government of the real things that we do and the very positive impact that we believe we have on our society.
Our association represents professional staff who work in delivering services on campuses: some work for student unions, university unions and university departments; and some work for university companies and a range of other similar organisations. Our investigation has shown that we are an industry with a turnover of in excess of $260 million and that excludes the very large contribution made by the private sector which we subcontract with for the delivery of many services. We have over 10,000 very dedicated people. We have provided over $300 million in the past decade for development of buildings on university campuses and we believe that we make a significant contribution to both city and regional Australia. Quite clearly, we do not support the legislation. It is our understanding that conscientious objection clauses do exist and in those cases where they do not—and I am not in a position to be certain of that—we believe such clauses for membership should exist.
We have included in our submission some international perspectives with regard to the role of the university community. There are several hundred thousand people who have chosen student affairs and student development as their professional career, and developing community life at universities is the prime focus of our profession. Our submission outlines the range of services and I will not take time in addressing those. We have also included within our submission what we believe are some of the consequences of the legislation as currently drafted.
In finishing up, I would like to make one brief comment and that is to say that I am very proud to be here today speaking on behalf of what are a very hard working and dedicated group of people not, as we have some research to indicate, a group of politically motivated people, but just normal Australians with families and mortgages who work away helping students get through their courses. Most of us find that is a very important part of what we do and is a cause of great satisfaction.
There are many issues in the community. Our profession is keen to work with the government. We are not a political group; we are a group based around professional development. We are keen to work with government and move in that direction. Thank you.
CHAIR —I particularly thank the Australian Campus Union managers for actually taking some time to come along and talk to me privately and put their own view, unlike the vice[hyphen]chancellors who did not seem to care about this. I will ask you a question on the public record that I asked you at that time, so you have had some prior notice of this. Say we did not have a system of compulsory student unionism in terms of a fee, and say there was not any proposal to have voluntary student unionism. Let us assume that the universities were funded by an operating grant and HECS only, and the government of the day put forward that `What we will now do is bring in a fee of $350, on top of HECS, that all students have got to pay. This will fund student unions, sports facilities and a whole range of services and political activity.' What do you think the reaction to such a proposition would be?
Mr O'Brien —It is difficult for me to gauge but, in preparing our submission, we have looked at the funding of student support and student development type services around the world. Clearly funding is provided and seen as important for many reasons in many countries, particularly those that we compare ourselves with. A key plank of our position is that the broad range of student services need to be funded.
CHAIR —Putting the question that I originally put, don't you think that there would some outrage across the campuses if suddenly another $350 fee was lumped on top of students?
Mr O'Brien —Another fee? I don't quite follow that.
CHAIR —Going back to my scenario—where such a fee does not exist at the moment and all of a sudden we are now proposing to do it—don't you think the students would be marching on campus about that?
Mr O'Brien —I do not quite understand it. Are we taking away the $300 fee—
CHAIR —Exactly—take it all away.
Mr O'Brien —and putting another one back?
CHAIR —As I said, what we would have funding universities is the operating grant and HECS. Say the government of the day, in this hypothetical situation, suddenly decided to levy a fee on students of $350 to fund those things that I mentioned. Do you not think that students would object to that?
Mr O'Brien —You need to bear with me, Senator Tierney. This is a foreign environment for me and I am a little bit nervous and a bit slow. In any situation where there is an increase in costs people are not happy.
CHAIR —Exactly. But yet we do have that situation now. We are proposing to take that away and make it totally optional. Could I ask if your organisation has a direct financial interest in maintaining the current compulsory student fee system?
Mr O'Brien —The annual fees to our association are between $300 and $600 maximum. The average would be about $400 a campus. So, in that sense, potentially we do.
CHAIR —So because this secure income exists you have obviously got a vested interest in maintaining the current system?
Mr O'Brien —Our charter is to provide for the professional development of the people that work within the industry. The government has a policy of service excellence and that is something that the people that work in this industry are keen to do. It is fair and reasonable
that we fund those sorts of programs that enable people to become better qualified and more service focused in delivering services to our students.
Senator CARR —I would like to thank you as well for appearing, although I do not require private audiences before witnesses appear before Senate committees.
CHAIR —You do not have anyone come and lobby you, Senator?
Senator CARR —I just said that I do not require it.
CHAIR —What Alice in Wonderland school of politics did you come up through?
Senator CARR —We do not try to intimidate or impugn the motives of witnesses who are appearing.
CHAIR —People can put their case and no[hyphen]one did.
Senator CARR —I know this is the first time that you have appeared. I appreciate that. I would ask why you felt it necessary to enter the public debate in this way? I note in particular that your submission speaks of the numbers of jobs that you believe will be lost as a result of these proposals. You talk of 5,000 jobs being lost. I would be interested to know how you reached that conclusion. I also seek your advice on what you believe to have been the situation in Western Australia.
Mr O'Brien —First of all, in terms of jobs, in late January and early February we wrote to all campus service organisations and asked them to assume that a Western Australian model was to be implemented federally and to estimate the services which would close. We have had some subsequent research which shows that 75 per cent of the services that we provide are non[hyphen]income producing. As part of that assessment, people then worked through the areas where funding would not be available. That is how we calculated the number of jobs.
Senator CARR —Why do you feel it necessary to enter into the debate at this point? Why is it that you have not been seen earlier on this matter?
Mr O'Brien —As a general rule, as I think I stated in my opening, we are not a political group. I plead guilty to being particularly naive in such proceedings. Part of the professional development and the focus of our organisation is to look at the benefits of our programs and to gather research. Unfortunately, most of that research is not from within this country; it is something we have neglected. But every piece of evidence that we have been able to put together demonstrates that the range and the scope of the services we provide have a positive impact on educational outcomes. They are significant for the personal development and the growth of our students. For that reason, we believe they should be supported.
Senator CARR —In your submission you speak of overnight insolvency arising from the implementation of these proposals. I also note that you suggest there are some $295 million of investments in the construction of campus buildings over the last 10 years. Why do you say that insolvency is likely? What do you believe to be the legal status of those buildings? Are they owned solely by unions? Are they jointly owned by institutions? What would happen if these unions failed? What has been the experience in Western Australia?
Mr O'Brien —First of all, in terms of insolvency, there are some—I believe it is in the conclusions—$68 million of outstanding loans which have been used to fund some of those building projects. Without a form of fee income to meet some of those debts, either those loans will force those organisations to insolvency or the universities will pick up the tab. More importantly, the immediate insolvency arises from the need for many campus service organisations, which do not have a form of income from commercial services, to downsize. Small campuses and regional campuses without markets of a size to generate commercial
income have no other source of income. The cost of redundancies and downsizes will be considerable. For my own campus we are looking at about $1 million to get back to size, in terms of contracts and putting everybody off, to operate in a VSU environment.
Senator CARR —What is the legal status of these buildings? Who owns them at the moment?
Mr O'Sullivan —There are various arrangements in different campuses around the country, relating to both the age of the institution and the union or association buildings upon those campuses. There are also different arrangements in newer campuses. The statistic itself of that amount of money is a clear indication of what would need to be passed to some other responsible party, whether it is the universities immediately or the community in a broader sense. As a localised example at the University of Sydney, it is a very unfortunate position to be sitting on a hole in the ground, where Manning House has stood for the last 70[hyphen]odd years, purely due to a delay caused by the uncertainty of the proposed legislation.
Senator CARR —So that is already affecting construction on campuses, is it?
Mr O'Sullivan —As Mr O'Brien said in his opening statement, we regard ourselves as a professional association. In that clear example, we cannot move ahead on that scale of individual projects without understanding what the landscape of all our income and expenditure patterns would be into the medium term.
Senator CARR —What do you think would be the implications for these proposals for international students and our international education industry, which I understand is now running at $3.1 billion and is our fourth largest export earner? What sorts of implications do you think this measure has for international education?
Mr O'Sullivan —I am aware that there is another group appearing maybe more specifically on that issue. But taking it down to the local detailed level, not just looking at the export earnings, it is a dislocating experience. We would suggest that, similarly, the experience for regional students coming to metropolitan campuses, or moving between home and campus, is a dislocating experience. It is more exaggerated, obviously, for the international students. Consequently, the array of services that was referred to in the previous submission is an important underpinning for giving a sense of security, a sense of confidence, an introduction to social networks and an introduction to their peers already on site. We think it is going to have potentially disastrous effects for that personal experience of transferring to a new course in a new country.
Senator CARR —We have heard that the impact that this proposed legislation would have on regional universities is likely to be more severe. I noticed that in your submission you say, `The use of facilities provided by student unions has a significant regional impact.' In one submission I see, for instance, that a university in Canberra, the ANU, is suggesting that it has a significant contribution to the local economy. Do you have any quantitative data in regard to this matter? Are you able to provide us with advice as to the uses of the campuses and other matters by local government or by communities for, say, recreational facilities? Is there a broader community impact to these proposals that perhaps has not been considered?
Mr O'Brien —We do have some data on that. I do not have it with me, although I have a fair bit of information, and I would give an undertaking to provide that potentially later in the day. In terms of regional campuses, we have significant evidence in places such as Armidale, where the town and gown relationship between the university and the regional community is a model of world standing. The contribution there is significant.
We can move to a different example. One that I saw recently was at Charles Sturt University in Albury, where a new campus is being built at Thurgoona, some 10 or 12 kilometres from the city centre. The campus has opened. There is no student facility of any significance there, and the fee income is clearly the way that such a building would be constructed. To have a university campus without student facilities of that nature is a bit like building a house without a lounge room and a kitchen—it just does not work; there is no place to meet and congregate. So I think we have an important role in those areas.
Significantly, with those same communities, when those people must move to the city they use our housing, our employment and a lot of those services in many cases to assist them in the transition. It is not easy for a lot of people when moving areas. Sure, there are some people who can do that unassisted. But there is a very large number of people who need assistance in doing those sorts of things.
My last point on that is that, when we talk about regional areas, students make a significant choice in where they go to study. If a campus does not have those types of facilities they will go to a bigger city place where maybe there are some alternatives. That, again, has a significant impact on the ability of those regional areas both to attract people and to maintain people from the area in that community.
Senator CARR —Senator Crossin has questions to ask as well so I will ask a final one. You have talked about the amenities that will be lost, particularly the regional economic impact, you have talked about the job losses and about the construction impact in terms of the physical presentation and capacities of universities. What about what I call the `soft infrastructure' questions? What about the impact on welfare services? Are you concerned about that issue?
Mr O'Sullivan —Some of the international information that is within the ACUMA submission clearly indicates the negative impact of a withdrawal of funding of those sorts of services. We would see the provision of those services as a network or a web, if you like, of support for the student population. It goes much further than that. It is developmental. It generates, as I am sure some of the submissions identified, the leadership potential of people. Ultimately, the best defining word, which would be common in a number of our statements, is that sense of community. We believe that that is a very valid addition to the pure academic experience at university.
Senator CARR —Is that a critical part of the education experience?
Mr O'Sullivan —We believe so. I would take the view as an employer, and perhaps referring to previous submissions, that, yes, there are no direct assessments on these types of developmental qualities. But as an employer I can assure you that I very acutely assess those aspects of a person's history, record and achievements as being as important to me as their academic outcomes.
Senator SYNON —I was interested to hear you say in your opening statement that you welcomed the opportunity to be here because you felt that there had been some misunderstanding or that your organisation may have been misunderstood. Your comments and your responses to Senator Carr's questions have been interesting to me. I can only conclude that what you are primarily here to say is that you want to continue the regime of forcing students to fund your jobs and your members' jobs, whether they want to or not. Is that correct?
Mr O'Brien —What we want to do is provide the best possible higher education system for our country.
Senator SYNON —And you will make that decision, not students?
Mr O'Brien —I will never profess to be an academic or any mental giant. What I can do is collect evidence from around the world as to the impacts of our programs. I will give you one brief example from a study some five or six years ago that was completed at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where they looked at 2,500 students. They found that participation in things like campus based recreation enhanced self[hyphen]confidence, respect, problem solving, management of stress—those types of skills.
Senator SYNON —Mr O'Brien, I never accept the results of any survey until I have had a chance to look at the questions and the sample and the randomness of it. I would therefore like to ask you about the survey that you conducted. As I understand it, your own employees responded to that survey that you sent out—is that correct?—on their informed assessment of what services may be lost.
Mr O'Brien —Yes.
Senator SYNON —So your members, who stand to lose their jobs if the students decide not to pay the fee, filled in the survey, with a huge vested interest, and that is now a survey that you are flaunting around as one with some kind of authority?
Mr O'Sullivan —With respect, I think our opening statement pointed to our position as a professional association. I do not think it is that out of order for a professional association to go to its membership and say to them, `Would you provide some information on the localised impacts of this?'
Senator SYNON —Mr O'Sullivan, you must recognise that your membership has an enormous vested interest?
Mr O'Sullivan —That has been said in a number of ways. I can only speak for myself on this matter and I am here on the basis that Andrew just mentioned, that we feel we can make a contribution to the quality of higher education in this country.
Senator SYNON —You are both paid employees?
Mr O'Sullivan —I am paid by the University of Sydney Union—
Senator SYNON —Of whomever, yes.
Mr O'Sullivan —not by the Australasian Campus Union Managers Association, if that is the suggestion.
Senator SYNON —You are at Sydney Uni, are you?
Mr O'Sullivan —Yes, I am.
Senator SYNON —I think you were at the debate at Sydney University recently when, after the debate, one of the students got up and said—I thought very eloquently and succinctly—that what we are talking about with the compulsory services fee is in fact a welfare distribution agenda. There was some accolade and applause for that. In fact, I think that is very clear, because what we have in a large majority of cases is students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students who perhaps work two or three jobs to even be at university, paying a compulsory amenities fee that young rich kids, who do not need to work part[hyphen]time jobs, have the benefit of enjoying. I was very pleased to hear the person who I believe was an NUS person get up and state that for what it is.
Mr O'Sullivan —I am pleased you referred to debate. I enjoyed it and I hope you did that evening. I would like to describe it as a great example of what our organisations are about, regardless of the issue and the suggestion of sensitivity to us as employees within this industry.
We love to debate the issues at the University of Sydney. I cannot remember specifically the question you are referring to. What I can remember is that, across the whole debate of the night, there was probably a factor of—perhaps unsurprisingly to some people—80 to 10, 90 to 20, in terms of what sort of comments and questions were made that were clearly identifiable—
Senator SYNON —Oh yes, it was definitely a stacked audience. But, regardless of that—
Mr O'Sullivan —There may have been a stacking of one, Senator. I am not sure who that person was and how they got in there!
Senator SYNON —All right. The debate is a classic example—
Senator ABETZ —Do you profess you are not political and feel embarrassed in forums like this? That is what we were told this morning when Mr O'Brien was under a bit of pressure. I have got to say to you that you guys are performing very well.
Senator SYNON —Two quick things. You talk about 3,000 jobs and then you jump up to 5,000 jobs. I am interested in how you put that extra 2,000 in there. I believe that what we are talking about, in a worst case scenario, is actually a job transfer. It is not a job loss. That money is still going to be circulating in the community. Whether it is compulsorily acquired by organisations such as yours to sometimes fund ineffective, inefficient protected industries on campus, or whether that money is used in the general community, it will still be used. Therefore I think we should quit this nonsense of talking about job losses. Let us talk about job transfers to perhaps the private sector, which I think is a worst case scenario.
Mr O'Sullivan —There are two quick points I could make there. Professor McNicol referred to the fact that it is not automatically assumable, particularly in regional campus cases, that the transfer of that expenditure or money would go to the same community. I think that is a very valid point. Secondly, by implication the question suggests that you can simply remove the fee structure funding these services and the private sector will, by some automatic definition, replace those. That may have some truth where there are certain aspects of the services where trading and commercial activity occur, but at a much more limited and differently frameworked operational environment. When you come to the cost services, with no return on those services, no charges involved at the immediate level, there will be a substantial withdrawal of those services.
Senator SYNON —But that is a nonsense argument, because we are talking about a zero sum gain. We are talking about $163 million, as you quote in your statement. It does not matter where that money goes. If a disproportionate amount of it goes to one service or another, it is still money that is going to be saved.
Mr O'Sullivan —What that does not do is take into account whether there is any value in the services being provided. If you are purely talking about the money moving around, well, yes, I can understand where you are coming from but—
Senator SYNON —Thanks, Mr O'Sullivan. If we could just move on to another point—
Mr O'Brien —Could I just pick up the first part of that question?
Senator SYNON —I just want to move on because I have not got a lot of time.
Senator CARR —Give them a chance to answer your questions.
CHAIR —Order, Senator Carr!
Senator SYNON —Mr O'Sullivan answered the question.
CHAIR —We do not have to have both witnesses answering one question, and we are short of time.
Senator SYNON —In the conclusion to your report, point 9, you say, and it is your opening line:
For many students their time at University occurs during the formative years of their lives.
You use this as a justification for students needing that whole of life experience at university. Would you acknowledge therefore that part[hyphen]time students and mature age students returning to university should not have to pay the fee?
Mr O'Brien —No.
Senator SYNON —Because they are not in that formative stage of their life?
Mr O'Brien —We just ran a course—
Senator SYNON —Or do you think they should continue to subsidise the young rich kids who are at university?
Mr O'Brien —We just ran a student leadership course. It was quite fascinating that a significant number of the people who participated were—I did not ask and I am not good on estimating ages—50[hyphen]plus. Our part[hyphen]time students are participating. That is one point. We automatically assume that all part[hyphen]time students do not participate, and that is not the case. Secondly, the range of services and the hours that we operate in many cases are such that we are there at the times when part[hyphen]time, evening, distance and weekend students require us. That is part of the difficulty that we face, that we trade in times when it might not be profitable because of the need to deliver services to those part[hyphen]time and distance students.
On the point about the 3,000 to 5,000, it is 3,000 full[hyphen]time career people and the extra 2,000 are the casuals that work in cinemas and those types of programs.
Senator SYNON —If the AVCC is able to furnish Senator Abetz with the answer to his question, or if you are, on the numbers of people who are members of sporting organisations or clubs and societies, and perhaps an age distribution, I think you would find that a vast majority of them are young students who are in their first experience at university.
I have to conclude on one question because my time has run out. You finish your report by saying:
A service fee paid by all students appears to be the most appropriate and equitable funding mechanism for student services in our country.
Who are you referring to when you talk about this fee as equitable? Are they the artists you refer to on page 6, or perhaps the sports men and women who jaunt off to university games each year, or are you perhaps talking about the student who works in two or three part[hyphen]time jobs?
Mr O'Brien —I am talking about an international standard in terms of the way people for many years have researched and looked at this topic. That is the conclusion that they have drawn. I think there are opportunities for all of those people that you mentioned.
Senator SYNON —I know you were here for the AVCC's evidence. They were talking about disadvantaged groups and said:
Such groups include Indigenous Australians, people from low socio[hyphen]economic backgrounds, people living in rural and isolated locations, people with a disability, women in non[hyphen]traditional disciplines, and people from non[hyphen]English speaking backgrounds.
With specific reference to the compulsory union fee, the AVCC states:
It is highly likely that students from these groups are amongst the most disadvantaged by the up[hyphen]front payment of fees.
They are the same fees as you are describing, and I just leave you with this question: who am I to assume is correct, yourselves or the AVCC?
Mr O'Brien —How do we cope with a situation where a distance or a part[hyphen]time student is the victim of a clerical error in a bureaucratic sense, which can result in thousands of dollars of bills for HECS? Who is going to help those people, and what do we put in place to enable those individuals when those very important cases arise? For every one we lose, that is a sad thing. A big, important part of what we do is providing that support and—if I can use the word—that university family to pick up the people who trip along the way.
Senator SYNON —It has got the majority of your money, that is for sure.
Mr O'Brien —Quite clearly, somewhere between 95 per cent and 98 per cent of student fees is spent on services.
Senator SYNON —Sporting services.
Mr O'Brien —Sporting services are very small. I have a letter here from somebody who talks about the benefits of their Olympic dream by being given an opportunity which they otherwise would not have had. It is quite unique.
Senator SYNON —Who has funded that? At whose cost?
Mr O'Brien —We do that across all areas of our community. It is not just in the universities where we adopt that sort of value as a society.
Senator SYNON —We do it through taxes.
Senator CROSSIN —Mr O'Brien, you were just saying then that 98 per cent of the services provided are actually in the welfare area.
Mr O'Brien —Student services; student support, student development and facilities.
Senator CROSSIN —And only two per cent are related to sporting or recreational activities?
Mr O'Brien —Between two per cent and five per cent would be in the areas of student representation and student expression.
Senator CROSSIN —Senator Synon quoted figures in relation to disadvantaged groups and alluded to the fact that they are the people who can least afford to pay these fees. Do you have you any data about whether or not they are the people who in fact utilise these services more than anyone else?
Mr O'Brien —We have asked the question widely and asked for somebody to come forward where students have chosen not to go to universities because of paying that fee, and nobody has come forward. Secondly, many campuses have in place loan and deferred payment schemes to assist people that do struggle at that point.
My next comment on that would be that quite often it is the people that are financially disadvantaged that use our services to find that first job, find the accommodation and participate in some of the programs, which they otherwise would not have the opportunity to do. So rather than being a negative for those people, a lot of what we do is very much a positive.
Senator CROSSIN —Your submission also states that experience shows that the private sector would be reluctant to provide the level of services. Can you just expand on that for us?
Mr O'Brien —My understanding is that profit is a significant motive of the private sector. One of those questions earlier talked about the value added and the money we transfer. Quite clearly, our organisations include a large number of volunteers which the private sector would not have and opportunities which are created separately. Further to that, the dollar surpluses from any of those operations, which can be run on a positive basis, go straight back into developing facilities, enhancing the programs and doing all those sorts of things. That is one of the ways where the circle turns—and I wish I were an economist at the moment—to keep things ticking.
Senator CROSSIN —As for the student fees that are paid and the services that students access, for the yearly fee they can access any range of services for any amount of time. Is that correct? They can go to the student counsellor any number of times and they can go to the careers counsellor any number of times?
Mr O'Brien —There are a broad range of services—and it is different across campuses—that are available throughout the year and that people can use. Some are included within the fee; others require an additional fee. It is not true to suggest that everything that is provided is therefore open go. Quite often fee money is used as seeding money to provide the framework from which things can operate, and then the people that participate in those various activities make an additional contribution for those activities.
Senator CROSSIN —How much does each campus pay to affiliate with your association?
Mr O'Brien —For our association I think it is between $300 and $600. It is not a lot. We are basically voluntary and, at the grace of our employers, able to devote some time to this cause.
Senator CROSSIN —So, even if this legislation came into place and there were in fact a reduced number of students who opted to pay the fees, it is not beyond the bounds of the institutions or the student associations to still affiliate with you? It would still be a cost they could afford.
Mr O'Brien —I would think so, yes, in some cases.
Senator CROSSIN —Both you and Mr O'Sullivan do not personally appear here today in an attempt to—as my colleagues might have said—save your own jobs. Is that right?
Mr O'Brien —No. I must say that going through experiences like this, the thought of moving to a different industry is somewhat attractive.
Senator CROSSIN —Have hope, Mr O'Brien, it will not always be like this.
Mr O'Brien —I truly believe that the programs that we provide are of significant benefit.
Senator CROSSIN —That is all the questions I have.
Senator FERRIS —I have a couple of questions here. Just to clarify, membership of your body is voluntary, is it not?
Mr O'Brien —Our professional association, yes.
Senator FERRIS —How many campuses do you actually represent?
Mr O'Brien —I think all bar two or three in Australia.
Senator FERRIS —So competition and freedom of association have meant that you have a 98 per cent membership representation. There are only two or three left that are not. So what is it that makes it okay in principle to run a voluntary organisation such as yours at which almost all campuses are represented, but want coercion and compulsion among the students?
What is it that makes the principle right for you on the one hand and wrong for you on the other?
Mr O'Sullivan —I think you are talking about two very different organisations. It is ultimately an apples and oranges comparison.
Senator FERRIS —It should not be, because we are talking about universities.
Mr O'Sullivan —ACUMA's role is not to build buildings or to provide services at non[hyphen]profit times, or to do any of the things that localised unions do, and for those reasons require some form of contribution. ACUMA is a professional association of its membership that does things like appear at this committee. If in some way in the future it starts to build buildings, maybe the debate would change at that point.
Senator FERRIS —No, we are talking about the principle of coercion and compulsion. I am just saying that, when you run a very good, competitive association providing services of whatever kind, people want to join them. What makes you think that your association will not be called on to actually provide a greater range of services, if the opportunity is given for competition to be introduced on campus services?
Mr O'Sullivan —The approach professionally of the organisation is—as all local student organisations should be—that we are aware that the requirements of the membership in both cases are constantly changing. One of your roles, one of your responsibilities, is to ensure that you reflect those changing demands as best you can.
Senator FERRIS —I am interested that there is a note of optimism there that did not appear to be around at the beginning of your presentation. Can you also give me some idea of the percentage of your members' organisational revenue that you get from GSF income and what percentage comes from commercial trade revenue?
Mr O'Sullivan —Speaking only for New South Wales, locally none from GSF at the University of Sydney union and other student organisations on that campus. Broadly, the similar aged institutions in that state would be in similar circumstances, I would assume. I assume it is different in the states where legislation changes have been made.
Mr O'Brien —I think a significant point to note there is that there is a difference between turnover and income, and that in many cases a significant turnover in some of the commercial areas does not translate to big profits coming at the end because of the need to trade in them.
Senator FERRIS —What percentage would come from commercial trade revenue?
Mr O'Brien —Some campuses indicated that it is none, particularly those in smaller and regional areas.
Senator FERRIS —They do not need to, do they? They currently do not need to, because they get funded from the students.
Mr O'Brien —No. They do not have the opportunity. If you have 1,000 students and they are not on campus more than 26 weeks, it is very difficult to trade profitably so they do not have the opportunities. In order to attract the private sector, again the market is not there so they cannot get a tenant. You cannot get a bank to come and set up on campus when you have got only 1,000 students.
Senator FERRIS —What trade revenue would come in on average? You have said some get none.
Mr O'Sullivan —Wildly varying.
Senator FERRIS —Give us some idea.
Mr O'Sullivan —In my case the fees—which are membership fees as opposed to a GSF fee—at the University of Sydney union comprise 25 to 30 per cent of total turnover.
Senator FERRIS —So 75 per cent comes from commissions?
Mr O'Sullivan —Yes, and you would probably find as an average a reverse equation 70[hyphen]30 the other way with your average, small to medium sized regional campuses.
Mr O'Brien —The point is that, when you look at the whole of the Sydney university, that percentage flips right around. When you look at all of the activities that occur on campuses, the best performers would be looking at 20 to 25 per cent of their total income as coming out of the commercial areas. It is not significant in the overall scope of our operations.
Senator ABETZ —Can you run by me the principle that is associated with a subsidy just in general terms? Is it about redistribution of income, that is, the rich funding the poorer people so that there is a greater sense of equity within the community? What is the sense of a subsidy?
Mr O'Brien —I thank you for that question. It is one that I would have like to have asked myself. `Subsidy' is a much misunderstood word in our operations. When we trade through January, because there are five people on the campus and the university requires us to do so, that is the sort of thing which we talk of in terms of subsidy.
When we trade from 7 o'clock in the morning on weekends until 10 o'clock at night for evening students, again being open in those hours is reducing the commercial viability in providing a subsidy to those people. So it is in those sorts of areas. It happens, but it happens for a community good. We trade off in many cases a profit motive for a service dividend, and you may wish to refer to that as a subsidy.
Senator ABETZ —What you are saying is that every student, irrespective of wealth or capacity to pay, makes exactly the same contribution to certain facilities, irrespective of whether they use them and irrespective of whether they have the capacity to use them.
Mr O'Brien —What I am saying is that throughout the world people have addressed this problem and found that this system has been the best way of funding student services. That is all that I am qualified to say.
Senator ABETZ —I want to find where the social justice or, indeed, even the economic sense is in running what is in fact a poll tax, which was so harshly criticised by the left wing of politics, and a whole lot of other people as being completely unacceptable. Yet it seems to me that that is exactly what we have got on campus at the moment, a poll tax.
Irrespective of capacity to pay, irrespective of means, the richest student pays exactly the same student union fees as the poorest student. As Senator Synon was pointing out, the chances are that it is the richest student who can access certain sport facilities whereas the poorer student is out working to get more money in.
Mr O'Brien —That is probably a question best referred to those with an academic background. My background is in working with people and seeing the true benefits they get in getting through their programs. It is a unique experience to see that your work helps somebody get through when they might not have otherwise.
We have lots of examples where people have been assisted in graduating because of the direct contribution that we make. The issue of the way in which these things are funded is looked at internationally in a framework and, in this sort of initiative, I have to be guided by the experience of those that have looked at this for many years. A lot of work has been done on it.
Senator ABETZ —I can understand the buzz you get out of doing something that you think is good for the students. But shouldn't the basis of the buzz that you get out of that be on the foundation of whether the students actually want what you allege you are giving them, and wouldn't that be determined by voluntary student unionism?
Mr O'Brien —All the feedback that we get would indicate that we are providing what they want.
Senator ABETZ —Whether they want it or not.
Mr O'Brien —We need to understand quite clearly that we are not talking about 20 years ago. Market research, focus groups, customer feedback and continually interacting with—for want of a better term—our customers, is what we do all day, every day. We do hear from them about what they want.
Senator ABETZ —If it is that good, why are you scared of giving them the choice of joining? If you are that good, and I accept that you are, why are you scared of allowing them to make a choice? You don't believe it yourself, do you?
Mr O'Brien —I believe it very strongly.
Senator ABETZ —Then why won't they join?
Mr O'Brien —Why is this system used around the world? Sorry, I am not meant to be asking the questions.
CHAIR —We will have to finish there. We are running over time. Thank you for appearing today. I call Gary Humphries, MLA.
Senator CARR —Do you want to table some documents?
Mr O'Brien —Yes.
Senator CARR —Would you give them to us and we will make sure that they are tabled.
CHAIR —It is a matter for the committee, not for you, Senator Carr.
Senator CARR —They will be in our report.
CHAIR —Do you wish to table some documents?
Mr O'Brien —I do.
CHAIR —Is it the wish of the committee that these documents be tabled?
Senator FERRIS —Which documents are they?
Mr O'Brien —The documents are the International Standards for the Provision of Student Services which we believe is the direction in which our country should proceed. We chose not to put them in the submission because we did not want to make it too long.
Senator ABETZ —Is there an international standard that says you should deny a student an education and the right to an education if they do not want to pay the fee?
CHAIR —Senator Abetz, we have finished.
Senator ABETZ —A rhetorical question.
Senator CARR —Are the documents tabled?
CHAIR —Is it the wish of the committee that these documents be tabled? There being no objection, it is so ordered. Thank you for appearing today.