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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2324

Senator MASON (Queensland) (18:19): This bill seeks to put into effect several changes to the Higher Education Support Act. The bill will increase the maximum amount a higher education provider may charge under the compulsory student services and amenities fee from $250 to $263 as a result of an indexation mistake in the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act 2011.

In October 2011, the government passed the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act 2011. This act allowed universities to charge students a maximum of $250 per year in compulsory student services fees. The government anticipated the bill would have passed by 1 January 2011—I think that was the government's anticipation—that is what they assumed. But the passage of the bill was delayed, I think because of the robust discussion and debate in this chamber that seemingly went on forever. But when the bill was passed it still contained the references to 1 January 2011, being the date on which the original $250 base amount was applied with indexation to take effect every year from 1 January 2012 onwards. So the assumption that the government, and indeed the act, were acting upon was incorrect. They thought the bill would pass before it did and, therefore, the date that the indexation was to apply from was incorrect.

The bill before the Senate this evening seeks to change the date on which the base figure is applied from 1 January 2011 to 1 January 2012. In a sense, it is a minor administrative amendment simply to change the dates from 1 January 2011 to 1 January 2012. It also seeks to change the maximum base amount from $250—which you may recall, Madam Acting Deputy President, was the amount discussed many times in debate—to $263, being the amount which would have been able to be levied had the Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act been passed by its original commencement date. That, in effect, is what the bill is doing. There are several other aspects of the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1). This bill also changes all references to the Melbourne College of Divinity to that organisation's new name, the MCD University of Divinity. It changes the rounding up of debts under HECS to a rounding down to the nearest dollar and clarifies the study rights for students studying veterinary science and dentistry through HECS. The change to the Melbourne College of Divinity is important. It sounds like a minor administrative matter but the use of the word 'university' is a very controversial one in higher education, because it clearly denotes research and, in terms of marketing, gives institutions a significant edge. In the case of the Melbourne College of Divinity, the word signifies a greater concentration of research, and it is a word that is being jealously guarded by Australia's existing universities. While it perhaps seems like a minor change to many listening this evening, within the university sector it is a marked change and it will certainly be a marked change for the Melbourne College of Divinity.

In terms of changing the rounding up of debts under HECS to rounding down to the nearest dollar, that is rather minor but it simply stops students being forever charged interest on very small amounts. The administration of those debts is not something that any responsible government would leave as is, so the opposition supports the proposal.

The situation in relation to dentistry and veterinary science students is quite interesting. Dentistry and veterinary science students' fees have a higher cap than most other university courses, and there is a reason for that: for dentistry and veterinary science students the cost of the courses, both to the students themselves and to the government, to the taxpayer, is much higher. Both dentistry and veterinary science students are expensive to train. What this act seeks to do is restrict the students' use of the HECS-HELP system to only those studies that result in a qualification recognised as the minimum qualification by the governing body, rather than the existing system which allows students to continue studying until they have specialised. What that means is this: it is important because, when dentistry students, for example, are studying, the minimum qualification for them to be able to qualify before they do professional years is a Bachelor of Dental Surgery. What this bill does is ensure that that qualification is covered by the HECS-HELP debt but, in future, any graduate studies post that qualification are no longer covered. So, again, this is a way of rationalising HECS-HELP study arrangements. Similarly, veterinary science students—and my friend Senator Back will say that we need more veterinary scientists in Australia, and that might be right—are very expensive to train. It is one of the most expensive courses in universities. Again, the idea is for the HECS-HELP debts to cover the initial training, the bachelor's degree, but not any postgraduate or specialist qualifications. We regard that as inappropriate. Again, the coalition supports those changes as we think they are rational administrative changes.

The coalition supports all the changes except the change in amount from $250 to $263. The Senate might ask why. The coalition, I think, has been very consistent on this. The coalition does not believe that students should be slugged extra because the government did not manage to pass its legislation on time and, when it did, it forgot to put the new dates in the act. When we go into committee I will be moving an amendment that seeks, therefore, to keep the base amount at $250. We do not believe that students should be paying for the government's mistake.

You might recall the long debate in this chamber about this issue. I will not go through the entire debate again but it is an issue that is important clearly to the youth wing of the Liberal Party, the Young Liberal Movement, and the Australian Liberal Students Federation. For them this is a totemic issue. I suspect my friend Senator Evans or Senator Carr would say, 'Well, Senator Mason, perhaps it's about time you got over what happened to you at university 30 years ago.' They may well argue that. But the point I would make is this: as a matter of principle this is extremely important to the coalition. You might recall that the debates we had stretched over hours and, even though finally the debate was guillotined, the government, to its partial credit at least, allowed the debate to go on longer than many thought it would. That is because many coalition senators in this place learnt some of our skills, some good and some bad, at university, either with the student federation or with the Young Liberal Movement. So for us it is an issue of high principle and certainly not one that we can compromise on. I suspect that the government would wish this simply to go through as a matter of administration—as a matter that should be passed, perhaps waved through with a quick admonishment—but, no, we see this as far more serious than that. For us this is a serious matter, a principle, and one on which we are not prepared to compromise. We never have and I suspect we never will.

I will not recapitulate all the arguments I used last time. Suffice to say that I and all my coalition colleagues have said many times both here and in the other place that the coalition does not believe its students should be forced to pay compulsory fees for services that most of them do not want or cannot access. We do that for several reasons. We argue that the changing demographics throughout our country and culture mean that most students today simply do not have the time, the inclination or the opportunity to use the services that are offered at university. Quite frankly university today is nothing like it was 30 years ago when I was attending. For that reason, with a changed demography, the fact that so many more students—

Sitting suspended from 18 : 30 to 19 : 30

Senator MASON: To briefly recap: the coalition supports all amendments except the change in the indexed amount from $250 to $263. The coalition does not believe that students should be slugged extra just because the government did not manage to pass its legislation on time—and, when it did so, it forgot to put the new dates in. Therefore I will be moving an amendment in committee—if we get to that stage—that seeks to keep the base amount at $250.

I have said many times in this chamber that the coalition opposed the original measure because we do not believe students should be forced to pay for services that they will not or cannot use. For us in the coalition it is an important matter of principle, and it is an important matter of principle for our youth movement. But it is not just a matter of principle for our youth movement; it also reflects something.

Senator Polley interjecting

Senator MASON: I am glad Senator Polley is interjecting. It is a matter also of changing demography and changing culture. One of the reasons the coalition opposes these measures, and always has done, is that universities today are much more mainstream than when I was at university 30 years ago and they are not elite. Students today are much older and more mature. Many more study part time and, indeed, many study in the evenings. Many more students now work than did when I was back at university, and they have to balance family commitments much more than they did a generation or two ago. So there has been an enormous demographic and cultural change throughout our 39 universities.

There are around 130,000 students now studying externally. These students will never have the opportunity to use the services they are being forced to pay for. That is why we oppose these measures. The 130,000 students studying externally are expected to pay for other students to use the services that they themselves cannot and will not use. According to the government and the Greens it is okay to ask those students, who are often balancing family life and jobs, to pay for school leavers and those studying full time. And the disadvantaged are subsidising the advantaged. But what is so unusual about that from this government? Nothing.

The government has never understood that, far more than 30 or 40 years ago, we live in a credentials culture, where young Australians go to university to gain a degree in the same way that we go to a job to work. It is far more about getting credentials than it is about receiving a broad liberal education. I do not necessarily like that change. I prefer the idea of a languid liberal education. However, very sadly, those days are long gone. What happens today is that many young Australians go to university to gain a professional or other credential. That is the fact. And they have neither the time nor the inclination to use certain student services. But this bill expects them to pay for services that they cannot or will not use. Again, the opposition opposes that.

Most of the staff in my office are studying part time. They are part of generation Y. I think it is fair to say that generation Y are much less collectivist, much less committed to institutionalised civil society than Senator Carr and I were back in our heyday—although perhaps Senator Carr's heyday is yet to come.

Senator Kim Carr: It certainly is; speak for yourself!

Senator MASON: Suffice it to say that generation Y sees institutionalised civil society quite differently than people of my vintage or Senator Carr's. That means they are more likely to join a Facebook or organise their own time in their own way than to join some group at university—far more so. This, coupled with the change in the demography of Australian universities, means far fewer students go straight from high school into university these days—about half as many, proportionally, as 30 years ago. And what does that mean? It means the nature of the services that need to be provided has changed enormously. The government does not quite understand that—and perhaps it never quite has.

I could talk about this for a long time—and I know my friend Senator Carr has heard me on this topic many times. Suffice it to say that most of the services and activities provided by student unions tend to be superfluous, in the sense that they already exist and are being provided by the universities themselves, by the government and by the non-government voluntary sector. Many of them are free, others are heavily subsidised, and all of them are available to university students without discrimination or prejudice. For those reasons, the coalition simply do not support the aspect of the bill relating to the indexed amount. Of course, the coalition opposed compulsory student unionism when the bill came before this place last year—and I suspect we will never change our opposition to that. It is a strange thing. Outside of university, students would never expect everyone in their suburb, for example, to pay a levy or a tax so that they could enjoy rugby union, but it seems that somehow people think that because someone goes to university they should be slugged a fee so someone else can play rugby union or rugby league or join the beer appreciation society. Why is that? Why do we change the nature of civil society, whether that is in a university or a community, all of a sudden? Again, the government never answers that. It says, 'Oh, this is an appropriate thing.' In fact, what it does is that it tends to bolster causes that some activist students become involved with. I know my good friend Senator Humphries would agree with that. That is what it tends to do.

I know it is early days yet and many of my good friends among the vice-chancellors tell me—as I am sure they tell Senator Kim Carr and, indeed, Senator Evans—'It doesn't matter; student radicalism has died, Senator Mason.' But my concern is that money that is appropriated by universities for so-called student activities will be appropriated by students who do not represent a majority of students but only those who are activist—in other words, not by the general majority who are out there working or raising a family but by full-time students who generally are younger and generally come straight from school, as indeed I did. The fact is, though, that the world has changed.

The government has done a good thing for the universities with the uncapping of student numbers. It has freed the aspirations for many more Australians to come to university, but most of those, as the government well knows again, will be part-time, external and often disadvantaged students. And do you know what will happen? In the end, they will be subsidising the more advantaged.