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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 12467

Ms KING (6:37 PM) —I rise today in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009. It is somewhat ironic that the member for Forrest’s contribution in this debate centred around her concerns that the bill that Labor is introducing here will impose a financial cost or burden on students, not recognising the important services that will be offered to students, at the same time as the opposition, and clearly herself, are opposing the very scholarships that the government is proposing, particularly for regional and rural students, and also its measures to ensure that more low- and middle-income students, the majority of whom in fact live in regional areas, will be able to access income support. It is somewhat ironic that she is concerned about student unionism and what that will potentially do in relation to her perceived concerns about the costs that it might impose on students, yet she is not that concerned about the fact that the opposition’s proposals to block the income support measures for students will in fact see many, many students far worse off.

With the introduction of this bill Labor are seeking to, again, revitalise those near terminal student services right across Australia. I use the word ‘terminal’ because, without the support of members opposite, the future cultural and social life of our universities will die. It is nine months since I spoke in support of these measures and I do so with as much conviction now as I did then. I speak on these bills because I know the grim situation that is facing our peak education bodies across the country—not only our universities, our student bodies and our student services and amenities bodies but also, most of all, the students who are facing the challenge of a loss of services on campus. That challenge is the real possibility that, by members opposite letting down students with their opposition to this bill, they will have to begin closing doors on student services and amenities. Unfortunately, in many universities, this process has already begun.

Let us reflect a little bit on how we got here today. The former government, in a somewhat older style of thinking, believed that the sole objective of student bodies around this nation was to lobby against the Howard government—playing, again, old student politics and reliving the glory days of battles fought and lost when they themselves were at university, deciding that the way in which you crush student opposition to not only the Howard government but also conservative governments was to get rid of student unions. The same objectors to the bill today fail to realise the impact that their decision to introduce voluntary student unionism has had on university campuses, particularly in regional and rural Australia.

When this government came to office we made a commitment to current and future students that we would restore services at universities, and I made a commitment to universities within my own electorate to show support for those student services. We on this side of the House know that the importance of these services not only for students but also for parents who are supporting them in going to university cannot be underestimated.

In our first year, since being elected, the government held discussions around Australia to talk about the real needs of university students. The minister for youth travelled from region to region to seek feedback on the impact of the Howard government’s devastating changes and on what the Rudd government should now do to combat these effects. One of these consultation sessions was conducted in my own electorate in February 2008. There was a strong attendance by the major stakeholders across my electorate. They attended because they knew all too well the importance of getting the right system in place. We had strong involvement from the University of Ballarat, the University of Ballarat Student Association, the Australian Catholic University and the Aquinas Student Association. The Committee for Ballarat also attended, an industry peak body in the city, the City of Ballarat and also representatives from Deakin University Student Association, which many of my constituents in my electorate attend. They are all local stakeholders who put hard work and effort into working with the government to fix the problem created by the previous government.

Following this review we found that student services and amenities were eroding across campuses around Australia. We also found that the former government’s changes were having a serious impact on, in particular, regional and rural Australia. And I know this to be true in my own electorate. I would like to quote some of the stakeholders. In 2008 the University of Ballarat, in their submission, stated:

While the current services appear to be at least marginally sustainable, the ongoing maintenance of these services is subject to a significant overhead subsidy from the University. If this position is continued—

which it has been—

the University community will suffer from an inability to provide new or enhanced services.

I am sure that if the university were to put in a new submission today it would not only say that it is suffering an inability to provide new or enhanced services but it would also tell you that, in reality, it is even struggling to maintain those services that continue to exist. The Australian Catholic University, whose regional Aquinas campus is in my electorate—in fact, across the road from my home—stated:

Student Association reserves and University funding have been used to maintain essential services in the short term.

It went on to say:

This model is not sustainable past 2008.

If only it had known then what we now know: that this battle would drag on much beyond 2008! And to those opposite who find this news compelling, I assure them that this information is not new. These quotes were part of the Aquinas university’s submission to the original review and were also part of my speech on the second reading in support of the previous bill.

I know that members opposite are stuck in their archaic views and are pretty quick to begrudge the position of universities and their student bodies, but you would think that, of all the stakeholders across my electorate, they would listen to the Committee for Ballarat—a group of business people across the Ballarat region. Yet their voices were not heard. The Committee for Ballarat, like others, know how important student services and amenities are. In their submission, they stated:

We are concerned that the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism … has had a marked effect already on the provision of services, representation and amenities at the University of Ballarat’s regional campuses and the local regional campuses of ACU—

the Australian Catholic University—

and UM—

the University of Melbourne. And, as I noted in my speech on the second reading on the previous bill, the Committee for Ballarat stated:

We are convinced that unless the present, early, damaging trends are arrested and reversed very soon, then longer lasting and deeper damage will be done. We urge that remedial action be taken as a priority, in consultation with these universities.

Amazingly, in 2005 I spoke against the Howard government’s changes when introducing voluntary student unionism. Earlier this year I spoke in support of our reforms and today, in November 2009, at the tail end of the parliamentary session, here we are again still arguing a point that the opposition fails to understand: the importance of providing student services and supporting regional university students.

In this bill the government has recognised the importance of student services at universities. The bill is not some radical plan to invest in political activities on campus. Despite the conspiracy theorists on the other side, it is not some radical plan to make student associations suddenly become a political wing of the Labor Party. In these amendments we have provided for higher education providers to support student services that are of a non-academic nature. The history of the University of Ballarat provides a great example. Whilst there have been some members of its student association who have gone on to political life—former Premier Steve Bracks is one, and there have been a number from the conservative side as well—the student association has never been known to engage in political activity. It has been a very traditional regional campus student association that has focused on the provision of services such as food, child care and sporting services and it has also added to the cultural and social life of the university. I have been the member for Ballarat for almost 10 years, and the only time that the student association became political was with the introduction of voluntary student unionism. As I said both in my contribution to the second reading debate and when I opposed the bill in 2005, whilst I opposed the bill, to some extent I want to thank the opposition, who were then in government, for introducing voluntary student unionism, because it in fact activated the then president of the student association so much that he actually joined the Labor Party, having had no interest in doing so before, and he is now a long-term staff member in my office. I am very grateful for the fact that his political activism started because of this. But the student association at the University of Ballarat was not a political organisation by any means prior to that and would have had no interest in political debate unless it had a direct impact on them.

In this bill we also have measures in place to ensure that higher education providers give students access to representation and advocacy. This bill also allows for higher education providers to introduce a compulsory student services and amenities fee, capped at $250 per student a year, if they choose to. Let me make two things about that fee very clear. Firstly, students who find it difficult to pay the fee will now, under our provisions, have the option of a loan, similar to what currently exists under the Higher Education Loan Program. Therefore, we will not place students, especially those in regional and rural Australia, in a position of further financial hardship. Secondly, this fee will be used to provide student services and amenities within the guidelines—food and beverages, sport and recreation, clubs and societies, child care, legal services, health care and housing. We want this fee to be spent on vital student services. Under our provisions we have prohibited the fee from being spent on supporting local political parties or supporting candidates for political office. Let me reiterate: our plan is that no money will be invested in political activities at universities.

Let me talk a little bit about some of the services as they relate to universities in my electorate and what has actually happened. The University of Ballarat Student Association previously had a campus shop that assisted students by subsidising the cost of food, drinks, toiletries, stationery and much more. What has happened to that campus shop since voluntary student unionism has been introduced and the opposition opposed our amendments? That campus shop has now gone. Not only have students lost two great facilities, the campus shop and also the student cafe, but also the staff at the cafe and the shop have lost their jobs. There is no such thing as competitive pricing at the University of Ballarat, because students have only one choice when buying food and drink. Students struggling to make ends meet, already on tight budgets, are now paying an increased proportion of their week-to-week budgets on much needed supplies. Students are telling me that they have experienced considerable price hikes and there is nothing that they can do about it.

Clubs and societies have also taken a big hit at the University of Ballarat. The number of students involved in clubs and societies has diminished dramatically, with fewer than half the numbers of volunteers today compared to three years ago. Clubs and societies are disappearing because the support they need to run is also disappearing. The importance of the universities’ clubs and societies should not be underestimated. Without this element, university campuses lose their sense of individuality. The communities that exist within the university stop. Many students rely on this social experience to develop friendships and to combat isolation, particularly regional students who have had to move a long way to go to the University of Ballarat. We also know that the rate of student retention at university is strongly supported by positive learning environments and that universities are not about just the quality of lectures and the quality of the campuses on which people are teaching. They are also about the social and cultural experiences that young people have at university.

On-campus childcare facilities are no longer subsidised since voluntary student unionism came in. If it were not already hard enough for parents to study at uni as it is, the former government has made it even tougher. In terms of other services, certainly there has been a lot of concern about student advocacy. Much as I would love to think that universities and university boards always get it right, they often do not. Disputes often arise because students find themselves in difficult circumstances—they feel that they do not have their marks assessed properly or administrative errors occur. Student associations have provided a very important role in advocating with university boards, university councils and heads of units to negotiate their way through sometimes very difficult issues for students.

We do not have to look too far to see that there are actually some supporters other than the government for this bill in the parliament. But there are many outside as well: Australian University Sport, Universities Australia, the Australasian Campus Union Managers Association and, more recently, the Australian Olympic Committee. These groups all know that the former government’s policy decisions have been a huge blow to higher education students. These groups all support the bill because they, like us, have the best interests of students at heart. Yet there is one group who opposes the bill: the Young Liberals students’ groups. It seems to me that a somewhat old-fashioned, ‘battles past’ argument is appearing again with this bill. Frankly, I think it is time. The world has moved on a bit from student politics and they really need to get over losing those battles. They do not need to continue to fight them within this parliament.

But there may be a ray of hope in this debate. Whispers around National Party circles indicate that they are a bit divided from the Liberals on this bill. It is not often that I see the National Party as a ray of hope, particularly in relation to regional university students, but on this bill maybe they might be. Maybe National Party members have started getting out on the ground and seeing firsthand the devastating impact that the Liberal Party’s obsession has had on students. Maybe the National Party members have seen that it is students who in fact have been paying the price for the former government’s ideological obsession with this bill.

I welcome the news that National Party members support a compulsory fee for university students for student services and amenities. Even more relevant to the university campuses across my electorate, the National Party have recognised that rural and regional campuses are being hardest hit. While the National Party may be saying one thing at conferences and to constituents in local electorates, we have seen in the past that in Canberra they will do the complete opposite. The last time these measures were introduced into the House the National Party voted against our amendments. But this time they have an opportunity to change their vote. We are now almost a year down the track from when our amendments were first introduced, and a lot has happened on university campuses. A lot of services closed and a lot of universities came under substantial pressure to cross-subsidise services that were previously funded out of student association coffers. So just maybe the National Party has seen the light and will actually follow their national conference position and support these bills. They should certainly follow this position as laid out in their own National Party conference and vote in support of the bill.

Members opposite have refused to accept our position on this matter. We, along with a long list of stakeholders, have delivered them warning after warning about the impacts their changes have made to student life and university campuses. They know they got it wrong, yet their obsession and their stubbornness have meant that they have refused to change their view on this issue. They have successfully ripped away basic services from students in higher education.

When voting on this bill, members opposite have to take into account the realities at hand. Firstly, students across Australia are doing it tough, and the changes those opposite have made mean that students are doing it even tougher. Secondly, the position we find ourselves in with this bill is a result of consultation across a broad range of stakeholders, and that is why there is strong support for the Rudd government’s amendments. Thirdly, the education and wellbeing of our nation’s current and future university students is a top priority. Without immediate certainty, services in my electorate will rapidly fold—if they have not done so already. The student association has limped along through this year in the hope that these amendments will be passed. The university has attempted to negotiate with the student association to continue, but that position is clearly not tenable in the long term. I am concerned that there will now be further job losses at the University of Ballarat Student Association. That is something I hope can be avoided. But if the amendments in this bill are not passed, then certainly the cultural and social life and the services provided to students at the University of Ballarat, the Australian Catholic University and the University of Melbourne campus in Creswick, and the services for those students who commute the long distance from Ballarat to Geelong, to Deakin University campuses, will cease to exist or cease to exist in the form that we know them. I commend this bill to the House.