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Monday, 19 September 2011
Page: 6447

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (20:55): One of the first bills introduced by the Gillard government was to get rid of student choice, to get rid of voluntary student unionism. It seems that the greatest moral challenge of our time, climate change, could take second place in relation to this vitally important issue of forcing students back into compulsion! This bill seeks to reimpose compulsory student unionism. They say that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. Compulsory student unionism by any other name still stinks.

There is no doubt that there has been and there will be a huge financial impost for students in relation to this compulsory student unionism. The reason I can say that is that the government, in lockstep with introducing compulsion, has introduced a loan program so that students can actually borrow money to pay this compulsory fee and then pay it off once they are working. Guess who advocates for this besides the financial beneficiaries of the Greens and the Labor Party? Surprisingly, it is the Australasian Campus Union Managers' Association! What Ms Ellis did in a consultation period was consult all sorts of people other than individual students. They are the ones who will be affected by this but, no, the government consulted the managers because they are the ones who will grow their empires and as a result be able to command higher wages.

The simple fact is that, once it was made voluntary, students were the masters of their own destinies. Students determined that which was saleable on campus and that which was not. It was a pretty simple proposition. If it was a value-for-money product, students joined. If it was not, they did not join and they withdrew.

As I said, Ms Ellis undertook a review in 2008. Here we are some three years later. It is interesting that we will not have the opportunity of a three-year review in relation to the carbon tax. But the review allegedly found fewer services and—horror!—forced rationalisation. How on earth could we allow rationalisation of student amenities and services and ensuring that there was some cost benefit in relation to those services?

But also in this review, with respect to Senator Xenophon and other commentators in this area, we have this arrogant and patronising approach which unfortunately gives expression to the collectivist dogma—'We are talking about the lessening vibrancy and diversity and attractiveness of university life.'

Senator Fifield: What rubbish!

Senator ABETZ: Absolute rubbish, Senator Fifield? How is it that these outside people can determine the attractiveness of university life? You make university more attractive by charging them a compulsory student fee! Let us ask ourselves some fundamental questions. Did the number of enrolments in university go down as a result of voluntary student unionism? We know the answer to that is no, it did not. So how on earth can you assert that it detracted from the attractiveness of university life? Indeed, more students went to university during this era than ever before.

Government senators interjecting

Senator ABETZ: You cannot assert that that is the case. We can have a look at the value of the degrees. Are we saying that university degrees that have been awarded over the last six years are somehow of less value?

Senator Carol Brown interjecting

Senator ABETZ: I could just imagine Senator Carol Brown facing a surgeon, saying, 'I am not sure if I want you to operate on me. Can you please tell me whether you got your degree during the voluntary student unionism era, because your university degree was not quite as robust as it otherwise might be.' Or facing a legal challenge and going to a barrister saying, 'I want to make sure that you only got your degree during an era of compulsory student unionism, because I'm not sure your education would be quite as robust as others.

Senator Carol Brown interjecting

Senator ABETZ: Of course, even Senator Carol Brown has to laugh at that, because that shows the ludicrousness of the situation. We are told that democracy is somehow impeded by giving people a choice. My goodness, that is really politburo stuff, that you have to have compulsion to enjoy democracy. Then we go on to be told that we need these societies and clubs. I remember, back in my day there was the chocolate fanciers club and the aardvark club. Why did they have all these clubs?

Senator Conroy: The Chocolate Appreciation Society!

Senator ABETZ: Exactly, the Chocolate Appreciation Society. The only reason they existed was to tap into the compulsory student union fee and rip out as much as they possibly could. One of the worst features of compulsory student unionism is that it is like a poll tax: every single student has to pay an equal amount, irrespective of their capacity to pay. The poorest student will pay exactly the same student union fee as the richest student. That is the Labor Party and the Greens view of social justice when it comes to coming to campus.

I remember that, when the coalition first promoted the idea of voluntary student unionism, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Association came before a Senate committee. We were told about all the important things that compulsory student unionism did—in fact, some of the matters raised by Senator Xenophon—it prepared them for leadership, it made them better citizens and so the vice-chancellors' representative waxed lyrical. My colleagues were kind enough to let me ask the first few questions. I asked the representative: if all these matters are so vitally important, could he advise the committee whether to get a university degree it was compulsory to play sport? Answer: no. Was it compulsory to join a society? Answer: no. Was it compulsory to vote at student union elections? Answer: no. Was it compulsory to read the student newspaper? Answer: no. Was it compulsory to go to the student dances, to the uni bar or to the refectory? No, no, no. So, in the end, I asked the vice-chancellors' representative: what is the only thing that you therefore require of a student to get their degree if you do not require them to partake in all these things that you said were so vitally important to a student's education? Do you know that the only thing that was required was the payment of the fee? All the rest is window dressing. The students of Australia know that. They know the bunkum of this.

Government senators interjecting

Senator ABETZ: They know the bunkum of this because they have decided, by their own choice, not to join in these circumstances where they do not believe they are getting value for money. One place where they are getting value for money, as Senator Mason would know, is at the University of Queensland. The University of Queensland union is one of the few student unions willing to say to the student public: 'We are so confident in that which we provide to our students, that they will join.' What is more, they have proven that they can exist without a compulsory fee and they do so exceptionally well. Why is it that some universities can and some universities cannot? The reason is the product that they provide to the students. That of course is the very big difference.

Government senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Crossin ): Senator Abetz, I am sorry to interrupt you, but I remind senators in the chamber that, while they are allowed, interjections need to be orderly and measured.

Senator ABETZ: Madam Acting Deputy President, I thank you for your intervention. I can understand that the Labor Party feels sensitive about this, because it is desperate for this legislation to get through, because it will also, without doubt, be the financial beneficiary of some of the money that will be compulsorily acquired from students.

I remember, and students have told me, that the ski club at the University of Tasmania got heavy subsidies from the student union. What is more, which were the students that were able to afford to go skiing during the holidays? Those from a wealthy background. It was the wealthy students who could milk the extra money out of the poorer students to get a subsidy for their skiing holiday, whilst the poorer students had to work holiday jobs so the richer ones could go skiing. That is the sort of social injustice that the Labor Party, the Greens and others will be foisting upon the student population of our country. As somebody who drove taxis and who worked as a farm hand during university holidays, I have some sympathy for those students who feel the pain of having to pay a student union fee for services that they do not want. I can understand the pain of those part-time students. Senator Xenophon referred to the fact that students nowadays go to university for lectures and tutorials and then leave campus. The old days when you had to be on campus for all your activities—educational and social—are well and truly gone. We now have students who do university degrees online. They do not even set foot on campus, but you can bet your bottom dollar they will be paying the compulsory student union fee.

We have had a number of submissions about this issue. A number of people comment on these matters, such as—just at random—Sheradyn Holderhead from the Adelaide Advertiser, who starts off her article:

Campus culture … could be back in South Australia's universities as early as next year.

To these people I say: what arrogance and what nonsense. Is there no culture today in South Australian universities? Does anybody actually believe that there is no culture? But we are told recklessly, 'Campus culture could be back in South Australia as early as next year.' That is the sort of nonsense they have to dress compulsion up with because they do not have a rational or proper argument to put forward. Why does the payment of a compulsory fee automatically mean that somehow a culture is reinstituted? The only culture that will come to the campuses of South Australia is the culture of compulsion—a culture to which we on this side of the chamber object to very strongly.

In same article, the University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor said:

Under the present arrangements, the University has diverted funds from other core business areas to ensure services are available to support students.

A lot of people have made that argument. What they never tell us is from where those funds are being diverted. What would they actually be spending the money on if they were not allegedly paying extra money to support students? That is always a blank. They never advise that they would be holding another course in Japanese if they were not doing this. Would they? Of course not. Once again it is all hyperbole that is never backed up by any substance.

We had the same from the Vice-Chancellor of UniSA, not to be confused with the University of South Australia, who said:

Improved student services will result in a higher quality of student engagement and experience in the short term.

Can he explain to the people of Australia how the payment by students of a $250 compulsory fee will result in a 'higher quality of student engagement'? Once again, they are just words thrown out. It sounds good, but when you ask them, 'What does it actually mean?' there is no substance behind the empty rhetoric. There are no arguments being put forward other than that, somehow, campus culture and campus life has suffered. Where is the study, where is the evidence to suggest that the university degrees of the past five or so years are of any less value than those that were obtained during the compulsory era?

Senator Xenophon told us in his speech that higher education was more than just text books and lectures. If that is the case, and he actually believes it, then there should be a compulsory element to university degrees which says you cannot get your arts degree or your medical degree unless you have played a sport, or unless you can shown that you have attended at least 20 student union meetings in your day, or that you have read the student newspaper cover to cover, or that you have drunk half-a-dozen beers every week at the uni bar. But until such time as that becomes an integral part of obtaining your degree, the only thing that remains an integral part of one's degree is the payment of the compulsory fee.

Then we were told by Senator Xenophon that it is a pity that O-Day, as in orientation day activities, no longer exists. I do not know in what universe Senator Xenophon exists in relation to this matter, but I know that at the University of Tasmania, at the ANU and at universities all over the country there are orientation days and the various university Liberal clubs around the country busily sign up new members. I am sure Senator Rhiannon will be able to tell us that the Greens also sign up members on O-Day or during O-Week—the orientation period. To suggest that that has gone from campus is an absolute nonsense, because self-interest of all the clubs will of necessity demand that they be present there at the beginning of the year to sign up as many members as possible. The only difference is that it will be voluntary money, voluntary fees, and those who want to be part of the Greens will contribute and those who want to be part of the Liberal movement will join and pay for it; they will not use the subsidised moneys from other students who only want to get a university degree.

The culture of university life has changed dramatically over the years, and the concept of a compulsory fee, a compulsory levy, is anathema to the students. Universities have shown they can operate very successfully without the need for a compulsory fee. We can have vice-chancellors and we can have all sorts of other people saying why they want compulsory fees, but they never tell us why any of the activities which are funded by these compulsory fees are compulsory for obtaining your university degree, and that is where it falls down. I was never in the league for a Rhodes Scholarship, but I understand that for a Rhodes Scholarship you actually have to show not only academic prowess but also sporting and other prowess. If that becomes part of the university culture, so be it. But of course if it were to become part of the culture then all the universities that are now promoting online studying—the fact that you do not have to go to campus, that you can simply do it on line, attend virtual lectures et cetera—will of course be doing themselves out of business and I think doing a great disservice to future student generations.

The coalition has had a very strong, firm position in relation to this. I conclude on this. Mr Smith, when he was minister for education, promised that there would never be a loans scheme in relation to compulsory student unionism. Another promise, like the no carbon tax promise, has been broken and discarded like a soiled tissue by this government. The coalition remains comĀ­mitted to student choice.