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Thursday, 26 February 2009
Page: 1987


Ms MARINO (1:25 PM) —I rise to voice my opposition to the proposed amendments in the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. Schedule 1 of the bill will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to provide for a compulsory fee to be imposed by higher education providers from 1 July 2009 for student services and amenities. The fee is to be capped at $250 per student each year but will be indexed annually. The bill provides for a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, HELP—the Services and Amenities Higher Education Loan Program, SA-HELP—that will provide eligible students with an option to borrow the fee through SA-HELP. But we have no clear idea what the eligibility criteria will be. The Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines will be tabled as a disallowable instrument after the bill has been passed. The bill requires higher education providers to comply with the new Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines. This is clearly funding for student elections, union officers and salaries and, like the fee guidelines, will be tabled after the bill has been passed.

Historically, Labor’s student amenities fees were clearly compulsory upfront union fees. The Higher Education Support Amend-ment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005 prevented a higher education provider from requiring a student to be a member of a student association, union or guild and prevented a compulsory fee for facilities, amenities or services that are not of an academic nature. However, to deal with concerns regarding the impact of voluntary student unionism on regional campuses and on recreational and sporting activities, the Howard government provided transition funding to universities. Forty-four projects funded by $85 million assisted universities with the construction and maintenance of infrastructure for sporting and recreational facilities. Other projects were funded through the Support for Small Businesses on Regional University Campuses fund to establish operations for small businesses on regional campuses and provide services for students. The regional university sport program provided $10 million over four years to support regional universities in maintaining their sporting programs.

The minister claims that she does not intend this bill to reintroduce compulsory student union fees, but the only political activities expressly prohibited by the legislation are support to political parties and support for election to a Commonwealth, state, territory or local government body. The legislation does not prohibit funding campaigns against legislation and policies or for direct support of trade unions or any other organisation not registered as a political party. I am sure we will see some very creative student union activities and cross-subsidisation.

The legislation does allow the funds to be used for student representations—in other words, compulsory student unionism by stealth. Students will have no choice but to fund the political agendas of student unions whether they want to or not. How will these funds be audited? Where is the departmental monitoring to ensure compliance with the guidelines? At the end of the day, it will be at the minister’s discretion as to whether any penalty is imposed.

Many students believe that the government is attempting to reintroduce compulsory student union fees via the back door, with student unions set to be the beneficiaries of at least part of the revenue raised by the compulsory charge, aided by the lack of compliance requirements. I am told that the University of WA has a $120 fee for students to join the guild. If this fee is compulsory, will universities simply increase their fees immediately to the proposed $250? And on what basis will the universities’ fees be evaluated?

Many students also believe that they should have the freedom to decide how and on what they spend their money, if in fact they have some to spare. They do not want to be forced to pay for services or amenities—many of which are already offered by universities—that they do not use. Specifically, over 130,000 external students may never have the opportunity to use any of those facilities, but they will have to pay. What impact will this compulsory fee have on the businesses currently patronised by the students? Students will not be able to afford both the compulsory fee and the fees of community and regional sporting clubs and associations or those of the private support and community services that are provided off campus—services they are currently paying for.

Coming from the regional electorate of Forrest, I know too well the financial and emotional stresses students have to deal with when they leave the security of their south-west family homes and move to Perth—or any other capital city, for that matter—to continue with their education and take up tertiary courses only available at metropolitan universities. There are extensive additional costs they and their families have to meet compared with their fellow metropolitan based students. Students from regional areas are already financially and socially disadvantaged when they have to move from their home base to that metro area. They are disadvantaged due to the high costs they incur but also due to the extra emotional stress of simply being away from home and their families, and some students handle this better than others.

For young students this can sometimes be the worst time in their lives to be away from their support base, which is their family. They are basically on their own. In their first year, university is a whole new world and, unlike their city based counterparts, they cannot continue to live at home with meals prepared and, often, the washing done and with the comfort and support of just being with their family. Regional students’ lives take on a very busy schedule. They have to find a place to live and a vehicle to get around in. They have to work to pay the rent and buy food and clothing. These are the very things that they used to take for granted in the family home. Cooking for themselves is just another hurdle and challenge. If you are a first year student, there is the challenge of managing the social and relationship issues in a major city, as well as finding money for parking at some universities and for fuel, if you can afford it, for the odd trip home to the country. And then the student has to find time to study.

Rent prices in Perth have increased dramatically over the past year. Rents for units have jumped 25 per cent and house rentals have jumped 17 per cent. Houses to share with fellow students are definitely in short supply. It is often extremely difficult to find a landlord or real estate office willing to rent to students. Students and their families have to find two weeks rent in advance and four weeks bond, as well as connection fees for electricity, gas and telephones. Accommodation at residential colleges can cost approximately $300 a week per student. Often regional students see themselves as poor students, and those from regional areas often are poor students—and for more than just financial reasons—compared to metropolitan based students because their families have such a battle to get them to university in the first place.

This bill will simply add to the cost of education for students and their families at a time when the economy is in decline. Many first year students from Forrest have told me they will not use the amenities that will supposedly be funded by this charge. They have said they cannot afford the fee and, in many instances, simply will be unable to use the services that the fees are supposed to provide. This is a Labor government $250 tax to fund compulsory student unionism by stealth, imposed irrespective of a student’s income, actual use of services and where they are doing the course. Students, as I said, studying by correspondence will also pay the $250 tax. What services and facilities will those students actually use?

I also know of students in music performance studies who provide entertainment for the campus at various concerts during the day and in their own time at night as an extension of their studies. Universities already have their clubs, sports and recreation facilities but not every student uses them, particularly those doing, as I said before, correspondence courses. Those who can afford or want to use the facilities now pay a fee. This is as it should be—a free choice made by the individual student depending on their circumstances and willingness to use the facility. Under the Howard government’s legislation, students on average saved $246 a year. Those who chose not to become members of a student union saved $318 a year. But with the government’s current spending sprees and $200 billion borrowings, our students, youth and future generations will inherit massive Labor debt—and here we have another tax on university students to fund compulsory student union fees.

In February, the Minister for Youth took submissions from stakeholders on the impact of the current VSU policy. The findings were reported in The impact of voluntary student unionism on services, amenities and representation for Australian university students: summary report. Some of the benefits were listed as:

… streamlining and more efficient delivery of services to suit student needs, the opening up of the provision of services to a commercial model, and consultation with students to determine what could be defined as essential services.

At a number of universities there was no longer a student union. In other instances, a number of student groups had merged into one body. Some institutions commented that there had been benefits from voluntary student unionism in terms of student representation and, in particular, that representation was now from a much broader base. Yet the government is intent on forcing this policy onto all students. I note that the Greens are also calling for more effective student advocacy. There is a campaign online called ‘Hey Government, Leave My Wallet Alone!’, where numerous blogs can be found in opposition to the reintroduction of student services fees. One says:

No fees, no new tax on students, deferred or otherwise, said pre-election Labor.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs said in interviews that an elected Labor government would not reverse the introduction of voluntary student unionism. The member for Perth said:

No, we won’t. We’ve made it clear we will allow students to voluntarily organise themselves.

When asked if an elected Labor government would contemplate some sort of loan or deferred payment, the member for Perth said:

No, absolutely not. One thing I can absolutely rule out is that I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, particularly a compulsory HECS style arrangement.

An excerpt from the comments on the website I referred to earlier—Hey Government, Leave My Wallet Alone!—includes:

I could barely support myself through-out the year and I don’t get a cent from centrelink and eventually I had to skip lectures to pick up extra shifts at work and now I’m expected to pay for services that I won’t use.

As I mentioned earlier, I am very concerned about the disproportionate disadvantage students from regional areas face, those students whose parents have to work to provide their children with tertiary education. Many students from regional areas also do not qualify for youth allowance from Centrelink. Growing numbers of students have to take a gap year, deferring their university studies to qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance; otherwise, they are unable to afford to go to university.

An article in the Courier Mail by Amanda Horswill on 7 November 2008 explained why generation Y students are opting for a gap year before going to university. She writes that many gappers are being forced to take a year off to work and save up cash for their future studies. A survey of the class of 2007 year 12s undertaken by the state government found that university deferrals rose from 7.1 per cent in 2006 to 8.4 per cent in 2008, with 52.4 per cent of students working full time and 38 per cent working part time. A quarter of deferrers blamed monetary reasons for their deferrals. Most of this group said they needed to work to finance further study. A further 8.5 per cent said they were working so they could qualify for the youth allowance to help pay for part of their study and living allowances. What is not known is how many of these actually never return to take up their places and do not follow through on their tertiary education ambitions.

Many in my electorate of Forrest struggle to send their children to university, even with students taking that gap year, working to qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance. Mrs Collins of West Busselton, John Thompson and Denis Frost are just three of my constituents who have contacted me recently because their children do not qualify for youth allowance. Mrs Collins’ daughter lives in Perth and studies at TAFE. She is trying to qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance but there are simply no jobs available for her at the moment. Mr Frost’s son spent seven months in Cambodia last year undertaking volunteer work. He now wants to study but cannot afford to move to Perth and therefore his studies are on hold while he tries to find work. The problem is that he will have to start from the beginning again and work the 18-month period and his university studies will be deferred for a lot longer than he would have liked. Consideration should be given to waiving the qualification for independent youth allowance for those students who participate in an exchange program and who are often out of Australia for a full year.

However, the key issues on this bill remain, and they concern the following. Should the fees be compulsory? No. Will the fees be increased? This may be the starting point because the fees, capped at a maximum of $250, are indexed. Where is the guarantee that the money will be spent by universities on services? What administration will be applied?

This bill has been scheduled for debate today, but the bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations reporting on 10 March. I remain opposed to the introduction of what will lead to compulsory student union fees.