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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 2744

Dr STONE (1:22 PM) —I too rise to talk about the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. The bill is being introduced by Labor for a third time. The first bill was introduced in February 2009 and then again in September 2009. The point of course is that Labor promised during the 2007 election that it would not reintroduce a compulsory fee. This is another broken promise. I think we should remind the government of the day that Labor’s election promise was that in both principle and detail they would not reintroduce non-academic fees and as well they would not have any form of loans scheme to fund them. The then shadow education minister Stephen Smith was quite explicit about this. On 22 May 2007 he said:

I’m not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

So here we are today, November 2010, for the third time talking about a compulsory student services and amenities fee—some $250 per year and it is going to be indexed annually. If you have a three-year degree or a four-year course, those dollars accumulate.

I need to remind those opposite that, unfortunately, not all those pursuing a tertiary education come from comfortable families, or come from families in metropolitan areas where they can stay living at home and catch the tram to their college or university just up the road. A lot of tertiary students in Australia are rural students from rural Australia—although, sadly, increasingly fewer—who also aspire to a tertiary education, and $250 a year is a substantial financial burden, particularly for mature age students (for example, women) who are seeking to get some off-farm income through the development of a salaried position, or people who are looking for a mid-career change and who are looking to do their training close to their home in rural and regional Australia. Those families look at the fees and if on top they have a $250 compulsory student services and amenities fee, it all goes to make it more difficult for them to take this extra study.

I have been very closely associated with the tertiary education sector. I have been appalled to see in the past this compulsory student amenities fee buying all sorts of wonderful services in Parkfield, in Bundoora and on the Monash campus in Clayton where students enjoy dental services, childcare services, free parking and a range of drama, sporting and other cultural activities. Meanwhile, students on small campuses like Dookie College, for example, not far from Shepparton, who paid the same compulsory student amenities fee had no access to any of those sorts of amenities. That is quite unfair. I do not see why someone in a country campus should be contributing to the fabulous alternative activities of students based in metropolitan Australia.

I also think it is very unfair for students who, for various reasons, do not want to participate in those additional non-academic activities to have a compulsory fee put onto their entry requirements. Perhaps they do not have the time, the ability or the capacity to play one of these great sports or to attend drama or music activities, or even to access the child care or the car parking and so on. Why should those students have to pay the $250 per year indexed annually? I think that is a very serious issue. In relation to non-voluntary contributions, what we originally objected to as the coalition was based on the great liberal philosophy that no-one in Australia is required to belong to any organisation or association. And yet we were requiring university students in tertiary institutions to join, in effect, a union. We know that a substantial proportion of those funds were directed into party political activities on the campus. Whether they were Labor or Young Liberal Movement activities is irrelevant. None of these funds should be delivered towards party partisan or other political activities when not all students choose to participate. Indeed, even if they did, those sorts of activities should be funded from the students’ own means.

The establishment of a loan scheme, SA-HELP, to provide Commonwealth funded loans to help students pay the fee is an acknowledgment that lots of students will find this fee a financial burden, but it by no means helps. As Mr Smith originally said, it is something that Labor promised it would not do. Here we have a loans scheme put in place to help students raise this $250 a year. I am quite concerned that it will be an even bigger erosion of the capacity of lots of students to even attempt to gain tertiary entrance. Of course, student union taxes were abolished by the Howard government in 2005. The Higher Education Support Act then said that students did not have to be a member of an association, union or guild. It said you could not have a compulsory fee for facilities, amenities or services that were not of an academic nature. We believe that if the user pay principle is appropriate for others seeking to play sport or participate in some other cultural activity then that should also extend to the campuses of universities.

I am appalled, I have to say, that we are again debating this issue when there are other extremely serious problems now facing Australia’s university students in prospect—that is, the students who are just now completing their year 12 courses. Unfortunately, across rural and regional Australia, many students who have strived for 13 years of education, who have aspired, perhaps for years, to go to a university, are now not even applying because they are not going to be able to fulfil the criteria of the independent youth allowance. We have a new set of conditions and criteria which say that those students living in a so-called ‘inner region’—that might sound like suburbia, but an inner region includes places like Shepparton, Echuca and up to Deniliquin—are not able to use the criteria that were in play when the coalition was in government and therefore, with only one gap year of work, go on to university with sufficient financial support for them to pay the up to $20,000 it costs to live away from home.

This government has turned its back on the needs of rural and regional Australians. I think it is absolutely appalling that Labor have acknowledged that their new regime is going to discriminate against rural students. They have acknowledged that by saying that those living in outer regional Australia or remote Australia may still be eligible to apply for independent youth allowance under the John Howard coalition government criteria, but those living in the so-called inner regions—remember, I have said that those are still very far from a capital city—are going to be ineligible, mostly, because of the new criteria imposed.

We already have the consequences of that in my area, where the numbers attending or even applying for university have dropped dramatically. I am so sad to think of the students whose family farms are now being rendered non-viable because they have been forced to sell their water during the drought—their lenders have been leaning on them—and now face further reductions of water under the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s new guide proposals. For those farm families, their only hope for their children is for them to have an alternative non-farm career. That usually means tertiary education for those students as a key pathway to an alternative career. But no, in our rural and regional areas, so hard pressed—just having gone through nearly 10 years of drought in my area—they are now not able to contemplate a tertiary education for their sons and daughters because they simply cannot afford to pay. Their sons and daughters cannot undertake what is in effect a two-year gap and they cannot find the $20,000-plus per year to go and live away from home.

I would like to tell you some of the statistics that are now the fact in the Goulburn Murray Local Learning and Employment Network Area. The data is for 2007 and 2008 school leavers, but I am told anecdotally that it is now worse this year. Twenty-nine per cent of school leavers in the Goulburn Murray region went on to university. This compares with 44 per cent for the rest of the state, so less than half the number of graduating year 12 students from my biggest populated area, in the Goulburn Murray region, attended university compared to the state average. I think that that is an extraordinary indictment of this government. When we look at the number of school leavers looking for work, 6.8 per cent of school leavers in the Goulburn Murray area are looking for work after year 12. The average for school leavers looking for work after year 12 is 3.8 per cent for the rest of the state. So our students are out of year 12 and nearly seven per cent of them are looking for work. The school leavers from the Goulburn Murray area were not in training, they were not in an apprenticeship, they were not doing a VET course; they were simply looking for a job. I am afraid that when the parents and school leavers were asked why they were not in fact studying, why they were not putting up their hand to go to university, it is no surprise that 43.1 per cent said that financial pressures on the family were the reason that tertiary places offered were not taken up. That is nearly half. That is 43.1 per cent of those families in my electorate saying that they could not take up the offers, compared to only 26 per cent of families in the rest of Victoria saying that financial pressures had kept their sons and daughters out of university.

You might think that $250 is not a big amount of money. Well, it is to these families, who are working out every dollar and cent to see if they can afford to have their students go to Melbourne, Ballarat, Albury-Wodonga or Bendigo to study—in every case, away from home. I have to tell you that over half of the parents had to decline those places on behalf of their students because of the financial pressures. I think that is a shocking statistic in 21st century Australia. It means that we are going to lock into our region intergenerational skills shortages, because we know that if we do not have our sons and daughters go off and train as doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants, lawyers, teachers, surveyors—you name it—then we will be much less likely to see those numbers of students return in the future to be our skilled workforce. It is a reality in Australia that if you are not born and bred in the bush you are less likely to take up a job vacancy in the bush. So we are perpetuating the inequalities, the two-speed economy, of metropolitan Australia and rural Australia—and I am excluding the mining sector in Western Australia.

I am saying that it is a very serious problem when any further financial impost is compulsorily added to the cost of going to university in this country. This additional new fee that the Labor government is trying to introduce therefore does not stack up on a number of fronts. It does not stack up because it is another cost impost—over $1,000 during the course of a degree, for example. A lot of my families simply cannot afford that. It is not enough to say that there is a loans scheme, because you have to find that money upfront and families cannot do it.

I have to say too that it is not the Australian way to require people to compulsorily pay for services and amenities that are not available to them on their campuses or that they do not choose to use. And, of course, we have always been concerned should any of these student union taxes, in effect, be used for other than academic purposes, particularly if they find their way into the pockets of student political movements. We think that is a very wrong way for taxpayer dollars or student raised fees to be directed.

I think universities have to look harder at how they fund their campuses. Most certainly we cannot agree with a bill that goes back to a bad old situation from many years before, and we want to remind the government that they promised in 2007 that they would not reintroduce a compulsory fee. This is another broken promise, with very heartbreaking consequences for rural and regional students, particularly in the electorate of Murray.