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Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Page: 1649

Mr SYMON (8:00 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This bill will right a significant wrong of the Howard government’s last term in office. As a result of the Howard government’s Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005, $170 million of support has been lost from the tertiary level of a nation’s education system. This legislation is needed—that is, our legislation—now to provide a desperately needed funding stream that was taken away by the Howard government. This legislation is needed to restore the sense of community to Australia’s universities. It is worth while remembering that opting to go to university or TAFE is different today for students than it was for previous generations. There are certainly costs involved with fees that might not have been there in previous times and there is certainly now a different view when you get to a university and you see that the services that used to be provided now are not.

Remember that most students now have to work to support themselves—often up to 25 or 30 hours a week. This puts added pressure on them to manage time between their contact hours, out-of-hours study and work time. Of course, there is also the rising cost of textbooks and other study materials. These costs have increased substantially. As I said, course fees have gone up and the resultant HECS contribution hang over the heads of students—although to be fair the increase in the income threshold before fees have to be repaid has eased that burden for many graduates. But this incremental shift over the years has led to a more expensive tertiary education system for the many Australians who opt to further their education. Compounding this, the removal of compulsory student fees has led most universities to draw funding away from other education services in order to supplement, often at a reduced level, the many student services formerly catered for by this revenue stream. Services such as child care, employment and health services, and welfare support have been reduced to almost nothing or in some cases even nothing. Even the cost of buying food on campus has increased substantially—a point the previous member touched on. I would say in response that if you are fortunate enough to go to university in Melbourne, you quite often find it is cheaper to go out on the street to purchase food than it is on campus. Many university campuses are a long way away from such services and you pretty much have to take what you get. On a student’s income, having to pay some of those prices for food is going to be a struggle.

Their will be opponents of this legislation who will proclaim that this is an additional impost on students—a maximum $250 annual fee for some of those in our community who can least afford to pay it. The Rudd government understands that, where it can, it should avoid needlessly creating an additional short-term burden on students. At the commencement of the school year students face their greatest burden financially as they deal with the associated costs of receiving their education—the parking permits, new and second-hand textbooks, class reading material, audiovisual and information technology equipment, scientific equipment, stationery and all the other associated costs that go with the big jump from leaving school and going to university.

This time normally coincides with a drop in income as many tertiary students who have worked extra hours during their holidays reduce their working hours as their tertiary contact hours increase. These are the reasons this government has sought to stop the introduction of the compulsory student services and amenities fee from being a barrier to tertiary education by creating a new higher education loan program component called SA-HELP. SA-HELP will allow eligible students to offset their costs in a similar fashion to the way in which the FEE-HELP system does now.

I also note that in many instances students paying the $250 student services and amenities fee or the $125 maximum fee for the second semester of 2009 will pay less than they did before the Howard government introduced voluntary student unionism. For example, a full-time student attending the La Trobe University Bundoora campus in 2006 would have paid a $356 general service fee. A student attending the same campus of the same university in 2010 will pay a minimum of $106 less should Latrobe University choose to implement a services fee. I highlight this to underline the fact that the government is not seeking to increase the financial burden on students; instead the government is seeking to bring services and amenities back to campuses. It is seeking to support students and rejuvenate campus culture and on-campus support and to do so in a way which impinges on students in the most minimal way possible.

It should be noted that this legislation does not force students to join a student union, much as the member for Casey may think otherwise. If we look at the explanatory memorandum for the Howard government’s 2005 bill bought by the then education minister, the member for Bradfield, we can see the following, and I quote:

The Bill will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003, to prohibit all higher education providers (public and private) from:

  • requiring a person to become a member of a student association (union or guild)

The Howard government could have stopped right there, safe in the knowledge that it had introduced voluntary student unionism but without having destroyed a vital funding stream for Australian universities. Instead it went on with a second point that prohibited, and again I quote:

  • requiring a student to pay fees for non-academic student services

If they had acted reasonably and not taken this step, they would not have presided over the removal and the reduction of student services in tertiary campuses right across the nation. Advocacy, advice, legal counsel, support for mature age and international students, on-campus child care, support for new mums returning to education, medical services and, importantly, student peer support and orientation for new students all went. There was no funding that came through after that.

In particular, students from rural and regional communities were disadvantaged by the removal of these services and the introduction of user pays models for the provision of services on campuses—and not always were they even there. More often than not, rural and regional students faced a greater financial burden in seeking a tertiary education, especially if they had relocated to attend university. Living away from home—from families, friends and a familiar environment—these students, more than most other students, depend on on-campus student services to support them throughout their tertiary education, especially in their first year.

Student advocacy, peer orientation and accommodation support services all play an important role in helping these rural and regional students adjust to and thrive in their new environment. Without those services, it can be a really hard slog. You may not have many friends when you first get to uni. I am sure you will get them over the years, but it is a new environment. If you come down from the country, you can be in a huge institution with not many people you have ever seen before and it can be a very challenging environment.

Living away from the family home increases the pressure placed on these students. There are additional food costs, transport costs and accommodation costs. Moving out of home brings all these costs to many people who have always lived in the city, but to change from a rural or regional environment to a city campus can be even more challenging. At the same time, user pays access to important services has harmed students who often needed the services most yet had a lesser capacity to pay for them.

As I said earlier, this legislation will help right a wrong of the Howard years—the ideological crusade against student unionism. With control of the numbers in the Senate in 2005, the Liberals were overjoyed that they could finally salve the frustrations of their years on campus back in the seventies and strike down student unionism once and for all. Of course, we knew then, as we know now, that vital student services on campus would be the innocent victim of this ideological crusade against student unionism. I and many others have often wondered if the legislative move against student unions was merely because of the moniker of that word ‘union’.

The previous speaker, the member for Casey, said in this debate that the opposition support freedom of association. That is fine—that is their principle—but what does freedom of association have to do with the provision of campus services? I still have not made that connection, and I do not think a lot of people can see where it is. Interestingly, back in 2005, some Liberals spoke out against the destruction of student services.

Mr Perrett —And Nats.

Mr SYMON —We will get to the National Party a bit later. Some Liberals spoke out against it. One was quite close to my home base. In fact, it was the member for Warrandyte, the Deputy Leader of the Victorian Liberals, Phil Honeywood. Mr Honeywood knew the legislative ambitions of the former education minister, the member for Bradfield, and his government would be the end of student services and vibrant school communities in our universities. In fact, in an open letter to his fellow Liberals in the pages of the Melbourne Age, Mr Honeywood wrote:

There is a very real danger, however, that our universities and TAFE institutes stand to lose a great deal more than just revenue if the legislation now before Federal Parliament is enacted.

And, getting back to the Nationals, the now leader of the Nationals in the other place knew it too. Senator Joyce knew that families from rural and regional areas were greatly disadvantaged by the removal of student services on campus. That is why he proclaimed he would tell the then education minister to ‘stick VSU up his jumper’.

In selling the legislation to the Australian people, and to university communities in particular, the Howard government used a series of user pays examples. These examples generally involved a hardworking university student who was aggrieved at paying a general service fee that would in turn support the university abseiling, rowing or even a toga club. This was unfair to the many students who depended on the provision of support services at their university campus.

The reintroduction and strengthening of the provision of services is important to university campuses, but student social activities, sporting organisations, sporting facilities, groups and clubs, and communications media are just as important. As an example, I draw the House’s attention to the Student Youth Network radio station—also known as SYN FM—which was granted a community radio licence in 2001. The station serves a diverse cross-section of young people and students across metropolitan Melbourne and could not have commenced broadcasting without the support of student unions.

The station received $500,000 in start-up funding from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology student union and $175,000 of recurrent funding plus in-kind support, which represented around 25 per cent of the cost of running the station. La Trobe, Deakin and Melbourne university student unions also provided recurrent funds to ensure their students could access airtime on the station. Following the introduction of the VSU legislation, these student unions were no longer able to contribute financially to this service nor were they able to guarantee access to this service for their students.

Students utilising SYN would often augment their studies in media, journalism, and communications by working shifts and compiling programs for broadcast on the station. SYN has made an outstanding contribution to young people across Melbourne, enabling thousands of students to develop a broad range of skills that improve their employability once they complete their studies. Being involved in an extra-curricular activity such as SYN provides students and young people with communication, research and production skills and, of course, helps develop their self esteem.

The loss of funding from the introduction of the VSU legislation would have significantly impacted on the operation of SYN, if the RMIT had not stepped in to provide some support to the station. However, this arrangement is now a year-to-year contract, which is often—and particularly now—in jeopardy due to the financial constraints faced by the university. Rather than focusing on assisting students in broadening their education in broadcast media, SYN management now need to devote time to sourcing funding—a problem also experienced by many community radio stations.

The work of SYN FM has been documented by Ellie Rennie, a Swinburne Research Fellow, who found that SYN is making a significant contribution to advancing digital literacy. Ms Rennie found that over 5,000 young people had been members of SYN in only a few years of broadcasting, with even higher numbers if short half-day trainee school groups or term-long radio announcers are also included; and that between 2003 and 2006 over 80 members of SYN found media and media-related paid work. Ms Rennie also found that volunteer meetings regularly attract in excess of 70 people, and SYN’s internal online discussion forum receives an average of 20 posts a day, with 50 individuals logging in over the course of a week. This forum covers work related activities, as well as broader issues in media and society.

In 2006 the radio station, according to McNair Research, had an audience of 124,000 weekly listeners, and their daily television program was, at times, attracting up to 30,000 viewers. The majority of SYN members are under the age of 21. SYN functions as a media workplace and training ground for young people with disciplines, schedules, and technical demands—as you would expect in a production environment. SYN is not just a radio station or a radio station supported by student unions but a creative outlet and important incubator of skills for its many volunteers. The support of student organisations such as SYN is vital to the enrichment of the social and learning fabric of our universities.

This bill assists universities in turning around the years of neglect under the Howard government. This important funding will help universities rebuild campus facilities, including student amenities like child care. These are the same childcare services this bill will help universities staff, equip, and encourage students to use. With the passage of this bill, the Rudd government will right a significant wrong that was done under the Howard government. We will restore the sense of community to Australian universities. The Rudd government will encourage the re-emergence of student services, and we will support and encourage the tertiary sector through this measure and, of course, through the many other measures already passed through this parliament. I commend this bill to the House.