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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Page: 95


Mr GARRETT (Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) (10:21 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill delivers on the government’s commitment to rebuild essential university student services and to also ensure that students have access to representation and advocacy on campus.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 outlines a robust and balanced solution that will not only help ensure the delivery of quality student services—it will also help, once and for all, to secure their future.

The government remains committed to ensuring that students have access to vital campus services and we make no apology for honouring this commitment here today by reintroducing this legislation. This commitment was recently reinforced as outlined in the Regional Australia Package announced in September 2010, and is particularly important for regional and outer metropolitan universities.

Consultations with the universities in 2008 found that $170 million had been stripped from funding for services and amenities, resulting in the decline and in some instances complete closure of health, counselling, employment, childcare and welfare support services.

The impact has been greatest on regional and smaller universities and campuses outside of the metropolitan centres. In regional areas with limited access to services, the university campus offers a focus, and services and amenities provided on regional campuses are accessed not only by university students but by the wider community.

These are fundamental services that help students to navigate university life, achieve success in their studies and enable them to participate in sport and the university community.

Students from regional areas are particularly affected by the loss of student services. Regional students studying at a metropolitan university leave behind the support of their family and local community. Campus services and amenities such as counselling, health services, study assistance and social activities are essential in supporting this group of students in making that transition.

It is students who are being forced to pay the price of the $170 million—both directly and indirectly.

Some universities indicated that they were forced to redirect funding out of research and teaching budgets to support services and amenities that would otherwise have been cut.

Others highlighted price hikes for parking, food and child care.

This demonstrated that students were paying the price for the removal of government support for services and amenities on campus.

Universities Australia, the peak body representing the university sector, painted the picture clearly in late 2008, stating:

Universities have struggled for years to prop up essential student services through cross-subsidisation from other parts of already stretched university budgets, to redress the damage that resulted from the coalition government’s disastrous Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.

In its submission to the review, the Australian Olympic Committee noted that there had also been a serious impact on sport:

… the introduction of the VSU legislation has had a direct negative impact on the number of students (particularly women) participating in sport and, for the longer term, the maintenance and upgrading of sporting infrastructure and facilities and the retention of world class coaches.

Since then, Universities Australia and other bodies that have the interests of the students at heart have repeatedly called on the parliament to pass this legislation.

The bill aims to support universities and students to help undo the damage.

The bill makes amendments to require higher education providers that receive Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding to comply with new Student Services, Amenities Representation and Advocacy Guidelines.

This means that for the first time universities will be required to implement national access to services benchmarks for all domestic Australian students—in line with the arrangements that already exist for our international students.

These important benchmarks will ensure that all Australian students are provided with information on how to access important health, welfare and financial services and are provided with access to advocacy services.

The bill also introduces for the first time national student representation protocols to ensure that students have an opportunity to participate in university governance structures.

Let me be clear—the bill is not a return to compulsory student unionism.

Section 19-37(1) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, which prohibits a provider from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation, is unchanged.

The new benchmarks will help ensure students have access to advocacy support services to support student appeals, and vital help for students who may need extra assistance on matters that can be overwhelming and unfamiliar.

They also ensure that universities provide opportunities for democratic student representation, so that student views are taken into account during the decision making process.

This is a value that is reflected in the democratic rights that underpin our nation and community.

Over and above these basic services, representation and advocacy rights, the bill will also provide universities with the option to implement a services fee capped at a maximum of $250 per year ($254 in 2011 due to indexation) to invest in quality services and amenities.

Universities that choose to levy a fee will be expected to consult with students on the nature of the services and amenities and enhanced advocacy that the fee would support.

To ensure that the fee is not a financial barrier, any university introducing the fee must also provide eligible students with the option of taking out a HECS-style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program—SA-HELP.

The bill specifically outlines what the fee can be used to fund. The content of these provisions has been developed in consultation with the higher education sector and other key stakeholders.

In addition the bill prohibits universities from allowing the expenditure of any funds raised from a compulsory student services and amenities fee to support political parties, or support the election of a person to the Commonwealth, state or territory legislatures or to a local government body.

We believe that this is a balanced, practical solution that enables universities, students and the government to work in partnership to rebuild important student supports and services and ensure independent student representation and advocacy.

We believe that these support services are of particular importance to the vibrancy of regional campuses and provide essential support for students from regional areas.

The government will continue to work in partnership with higher education providers and students, and take responsible action to ensure quality and sustainable student services and representation into the future.

The bill will help to secure the future of universities and the critical role they have in Australia’s education future. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Ms Gambaro) adjourned.