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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 166

Mr PYNE (6:26 PM) —In this address-in-reply debate, I intend to compare the alternatives to compulsory student unionism in Australia and propose the introduction of voluntary student representation.

Mr Melham interjecting

Mr PYNE —This will not come as any surprise to the member for Banks. Western democracies have witnessed two powerful forces at work in recent decades. An ideological struggle has been waged in parliaments around the globe between forces who passionately advocate Ronald Reagan's small government mantra that `government is not the solution but the problem', and those who argue that government has a social responsibility to regulate the conduct of its citizens and industries at the expense of individual liberty.

It is time to retire the zealous pursuit of outdated ideologies. A 21st century Australia must break free from the manacles of yesterday's thinking. A 21st century Australia cannot be built on 20th century ideals. Governments throughout the world must be responsive and make a legitimate attempt to embrace the concept of citizenship as a duty as well as a right.

The coalition government in its first term has laid the foundations for the next century with responsible fiscal policies to repair the economic vandalism of the former Labor government. Fiscal achievements aside, the coalition government has introduced important and enduring social policy initiatives. The government's progressive immigration policy is a case in point.

In this parliament, the coalition can turn its attention to further non-economic reform. Tertiary education is one such area, in particular the reinvigoration of student unions. The coalition government has taken difficult but necessary steps to ensure the long-term viability and competitiveness of our universities while building on the present level of academic excellence. Under the government's tertiary education reforms implemented in our first term, the 30 per cent of Australia's young people wishing to pursue academic studies now have the opportunity to take their first preference of study, except in the medicine course, if they can afford to pay the up-front fee for the 25 per cent of places over and above the Commonwealth funded places.

For most students, up-front fees are not a viable or preferred option. Accordingly, there are more Commonwealth funded undergraduate or HECS places now available than there were under the former Labor government. Consequently, many of our young people now have greater opportunities including, firstly, those students who get their first preference course for their university education and, secondly, the students who would have lost their opportunity to do their first preference course because another student had accepted that HECS funded place. These reforms have been achieved by the coalition government while maintaining funding per capita per student at $11,200 for university undergraduates.

The results speak for themselves. In the 1997 academic year, there were 17,000 new places at universities and undergraduate HECS funded places. At the same time, 55,000 new TAFE enrolments were recorded. The accomplishments of a nation's higher education system are measured by many factors. It is essential for Australia's future that Australia's tertiary institutions not only continue to maintain world-class standards but continue to set higher standards to remain competitive in the world market.

The introduction of fee-paying students, both overseas and Australian, will lend itself to continuing our competitiveness in the international higher education market. The regulated fee paying student system means that Australian universities have a strong financial incentive to deliver a high quality product to Australian and overseas students. These measures will also produce spin-off benefits for non-fee paying students.

If Australia is to continue to remain an economic power of significance in the Asian region, it is essential to maintain world best practice in our universities and centres of higher learning. Maintaining world best practice in our tertiary institutions should not be confused with supporting the status quo. Like most industries, tertiary education is an evolutionary process with little need for sentimentality. Campus life for university students extends beyond academic parameters. Institutions of further education throughout Australia are the cradle of our nation's leadership.

Universities throughout Australia have had a notable role in fostering and developing individual creativity and the expression of ideas in extracurricular activities. Many of these extracurricular activities and services are as a result of, or are provided by, student unions. As a university student only a decade ago, some of the most important lessons I learnt were during my tenure as President of the Adelaide University Liberal Club, Vice-President of the Students Association and a member of the University Union Board. Indeed, the Minister for Financial Services and Regulation, who is at the table, was the president of a student union—

Mr Hockey —SRC.

Mr PYNE —or an SRC, and many other members of this chamber developed their political skills and instincts on the political battlegrounds of university campuses throughout Australia.

The provision by student unions of extracurricular activities and services on university campuses cater to a great variety of student needs and interests. Of course, these services come at a considerable cost. To provide these services, student unions throughout Australia collectively acquire, through compulsory means, over $30 million every academic year from students. But student unions also take an interest in causes and politics beyond the extracurricular activities that add to the culture of student life. Too often, these causes are manifested in partisan political activity. Not all students would support these partisan activities but they are forced to fund them through compulsory fees.

There exists a substantial body of evidence which raises serious concerns about the conduct and operation of some student unions. In 1992, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Student Representative Council spent $250 on library and parking fines for its women's officer. The Northern Territory University Student Union suffered losses of over $44,000 promoting a Bob Geldof concert. The Australian Union of Students collapsed in 1984 after a string of business failures. The most monumental was the collapse of AUS Student Travel in August 1977. When its creditors seized control of the company, they were met with debts in the vicinity of $2½ million. Not to be outdone, the AUS Friendly Society folded with debts of over $157,000 against assets of $7½ thousand dollars.

Of course, the National Union of Students rose some years later, out of the ashes of the AUS. The NUS is an unabashed partisan political player. It is infamous for its total failure to successfully represent the interests of students. Many will regard the NUS as an arm of the Labor Party. In 1989, the University of Queensland Student Union closed the student radio station 4ZZZ. This enterprise had amassed debts in excess of $100,000. It was estimated at the time that the closure of the station would save University of Queensland students over $70,000 a year.

In the 1996 federal election, the Queensland University of Technology Student Guild spent $34,000 of students' money in a partisan campaign against the Liberal candidate for the seat of Moreton. Many students and their families were distressed at the fact that a portion of compulsorily acquired student fees was used to campaign against an excellent representative, my friend Mr Gary Hardgrave.

I think it is a fair comment to suggest that most university students resent these types of unnecessary, unjustifiable and unethical expenses which are incurred by their respective student unions. Student union fees for full-time students at most universities range between $170 and $300 a year, which can equate to approximately $1,000 over the course of a typical four-year degree.

For most university students, this is a very significant cost at a time when a student is often least equipped to absorb these fees in competition with the costs of textbooks and other expenses associated with the start of the academic year. Unlike the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, student union fees cannot be deferred until such time as the student is in a financially secure position.

Like all consumers, university students can justify these fees if they feel they are getting value for their money. The monopolistic characteristics and uncompetitive practices of student unions in general ensure that most university students seldom experience the satisfaction of money well spent when it comes to student union fees.

For other students, the issue is not the cost of the compulsorily acquired fees but the right to freedom of association. The right to freedom of association is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is a fundamental principle of the Liberal Party. The doctrine of compulsory unionism strikes at the heart of every liberal.

In response to the failings of the compulsory student union system, the Western Australian government enacted voluntary student unionism legislation to take effect in the 1995 academic year. Student guild membership in Western Australian universities fell to about 20 to 30 per cent of the total student body within 12 months of the enactment of the legislation. I have read one report which claims that at one university student guild membership fell to just eight per cent of the student body.

The cause for this fall in membership following the enactment of voluntary student unionism is threefold. Firstly, there is the obvious problem of student apathy. Increasing commitments at work or at home mean that people want to enjoy the flexibility of not belonging. Secondly, anecdotal evidence collected in Western Australia suggests that students value their right to freedom of association. Thirdly, students have voted with their feet on the issue of value for money when it comes to student union fees.

Clearly, student unions throughout Australia need to be more competitive and more responsive to the needs of the students they purport to represent. Ultimately, the success of unions depends on whether or not they can provide services that their members and customers want. There needs to be a better attitude from student unions towards the provision of services.

The Victorian government has introduced legislation prohibiting compulsory student unionism. Voluntary student representation is an alternative to the Western Australian non-compulsory student union model. The Tertiary Education (Amendment) Bill 1994, which is the Victorian bill, allows for a list of items of direct benefit that compulsorily acquired student fees can be applied to which the Victorian government believes are important to students on a tertiary campus.

Section 12F(3) of the Victorian act provides that revenue raised from compulsory and non-academic fees may be spent on the following activities: food and beverages, meeting rooms, sport and physical recreation, child care, counselling, legal advice, health care, housing, employment, visual arts, performing arts and audiovisual media, debating, libraries and reading rooms, academic support, personal support, personal accident insurance for students, orientation information and support for overseas students. This list is made subject to regulations and there is power to add to the list following proposals from vice-chancellors or directors of TAFE colleges.

The legislation also provides that upon enrolment for the academic year students are required to contribute a compulsory non-academic fee which goes towards the costs involved in the provision of important student services. Furthermore, the Victorian legislation curtails the agenda-driven and non-essential activities which some student unions have participated in over the years.

A corollary of the primary proposition in support of non-compulsory student unionism is that a student should not be compelled to contribute, by way of a compulsory levy, to political causes to which that individual does not subscribe or which does not benefit the general student body. The now defunct Australian Union of Students' notorious decision to support the Palestine Liberation Organisation is a case in point.

It is difficult to objectively assess the effectiveness of the models of non-compulsory student unionism operating in Western Australia and Victoria. Although the respective pieces of legislation were enacted for the 1995 academic year, the former federal Labor government interfered via the Higher Education Funding (Student Organisations) Amendment Bill in September 1994, which I remember because I spoke on that bill in this House at that time. This bill became colloquially known as `the SOS legislation' and was among the more scandalous abuses of taxpayers' money by the former Labor government. Before this bill was amended by the coalition government on coming to office in 1996, approximately $14.5 million of taxpayers' money was funnelled or channelled into student unions in Western Australia and Victoria to make up for the shortfall in student union fees as a result of non-compulsory student unionism. What did taxpayers get for their money?

In 1995, the La Trobe University student newspaper Rabelais published an article instructing its readership on the art of shoplifting, for example. Because of the former Labor government's interference, this publication was essentially paid for by the taxpayer.

Senator Natasha Stott Despoja has been very vocal in her support for compulsory student unionism. A hallmark of Senator Stott Despoja's political career has been her ability to create a dislocation between appearance and reality. Senator Stott Despoja argues that reforming compulsory student unionism will contribute to a psychological disincentive for young people to participate in tertiary education. Is there any wonder that the public are treating Senator Stott Despoja with increasing cynicism?

In considering where to study, students are far more likely to consider factors such as the reputation of the particular faculty and the university, the curriculum of the particular course of study, the possibility of postgraduate study and perhaps even the geographical location of the institution. The status of the university's student union is important only from the perspective of the culture that it contributes to. The compulsory nature of the union fee has no bearing on that culture. Indeed, Senator Stott Despoja's views on compulsory student unionism are at odds with the views of the founder of the Democrats, Don Chipp, who is a passionate supporter of non-compulsory student unionism.

Student unions often provide useful and sometimes essential student services which contribute to the variety and quality of life on the campuses of our colleges and universities. But should students be compelled to join them? The freedom to choose whether or not to be a union member and to be free to make that decision without the risk of discrimination, threats, coercion, duress or victimisation is an integral part of our social fabric. A 21st century Australia cannot accept the student union mantra of `no fee, no degree' and a continuation of their closed-shop practices.

In the 38th Parliament, the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs made it clear that we were looking at what kind of voluntary student unionism or voluntary student representation we may seek to introduce. In the 39th Parliament, we must act to introduce voluntary student representation.

Voluntary student representation has the advantage of ensuring that the cultural pursuits of a university that add so much to a student's experience of tertiary education are able to be maintained. It also ensures that an individual can choose whether or not they wish to financially support a student union that is often engaged in partisan and sometimes esoteric political action. Only then will student unions have to be responsive to the demands of the student body for real representation.

The coalition has acknowledged that compulsory student unionism is a policy area which requires reform. The challenge for the Labor Party is to abandon yesterday's ideologies and make constructive contributions to this policy development. In a recent edition of the Daily Telegraph, the ever-popular Labor Party member for Werriwa, Mr Latham, said:

The Labor Party must once again start to take policy seriously, not just as a campaign convenience, not just as something to be picked up and thrown away with all the gravity of a KFC wrapper.

If the Labor Party wish to participate in genuine policy development, it cannot attempt to continue to hoodwink Australians into believing that employees and students are incapable of understanding and protecting their own interests without the compulsory involvement of unions.

On 25 November, many liberals will celebrate the 21st anniversary of the judgment in the landmark case of Clark v. University of Melbourne & Ors. In his judgment, Justice Kaye found that the University of Melbourne did not have the legal right to levy a compulsory union fee on students. His Honour's judgment also found that a significant number of payments authorised by the Student Representative Council were illegal and improper. In the following 21 years, the issue of compulsory student unionism has remained largely unresolved due to the desperate acts of the Labor Party. The celebration of this anniversary is a timely occasion to reform compulsory student unionism.