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Thursday, 26 February 2009
Page: 1990

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (1:41 PM) —The member for Forrest talked about affordability of university education for young people, but this is an unfortunate example of crocodile tears. Certainly there are substantial difficulties being faced by university students today, but they are a direct consequence of the Howard government ripping out hundreds of millions of government support for universities and instead encouraging universities to charge higher fees and introduce full-fee degrees and higher HECS charges. It is these things, the legacy of the previous government, which have made university education less affordable for young people than it has been in the past.

A report released by the National Union of Students in 2007 on its findings concerning the Howard government’s voluntary student unionism, known as VSU, reported that:

  • VSU has failed to deliver what its proponents argued for—self sustaining student organisations just able to survive off voluntary memberships, investments and trading operations.

It reported that:

  • 25 out of 30 student organisations reported substantial or total job losses; much of these cuts have come in the area of professional support to student representatives;

And that:

  • 13 out of 18 organisations reported that they had made substantial or near total cuts to departmental or portfolio funding (ie campaigns, activities, support programmes).

The Australian University Sport and the Australian Campus Union Managers Association review of the impact of VSU was that:

  • Prices charged to students for use of services and facilities have in general increased materially since on-set of VSU outstripping, in most cases, consumer price index (CPI) and placing greater financial pressures on students.

In stark contrast, the Labor government acknowledges that it has a responsibility to allow universities to provide suitable student services and also to ensure that students have appropriate representation. This bill, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, honours that commitment to ensuring that students have access to vital campus services and our commitment to undo the damage inflicted by the previous government.

The government is taking a balanced and practical approach to ensure student amenities, services and access to independent and democratic representation and advocacy are secured now and into the future. Through these amendments the government will, for the first time, introduce national access to services benchmarks relating to the provision of information on and access to services such as welfare and counselling services in line with the current requirements for overseas students. The government will, for the first time, introduce national student representation and advocacy protocols to ensure that students have an independent voice on campus. These protocols will facilitate access for students to advocacy support services and ensure opportunities for democratic student representation and student input during the decision-making process.

To support quality services over and above these benchmarks and protocols we will provide universities with the option to set a compulsory fee capped at a maximum of $250 a year indexed annually. A set of guidelines is being developed outlining the range of services and amenities for which the fee can and cannot be used. This will include things like child care, health care and sports and fitness clubs. It will be a decision for each university—let me repeat: it will be a decision for each university—as to whether it wishes to implement a fee and the level of the fee up to $250. The fee will support student services and amenities over and above the new national access to services benchmarks and national student representation and advocacy protocols. The bill will also ensure that students wanting to study diploma and above qualifications in the vocational educational and training sector are able to access the training they choose without worrying about upfront fees.

To increase productivity, Australia needs to increase the skill levels of the Australian population. For the last four or five years, the number of students studying diplomas and advanced diplomas in the public VET system has decreased from 197,300 in 2002 to 165,000 in 2007. This bill includes amendments to allow for future expansion of the VET FEE-HELP scheme, which will provide the flexibility to reduce the loan fee for particular students and streamline credit transfer requirements for a range of students through the guidelines. In August last year, the government announced that VET FEE-HELP would be extended to state subsidised diploma and advanced diploma students in Victoria, with the loan fee being withdrawn for these students. Reducing the loan fee and relaxing credit transfer restrictions form part of this measure. The availability of VET FEE-HELP is expected to significantly contribute to the Council of Australian Governments’ target to double the number of diploma and advanced diploma completions by 2020. The Australian government is committed to building a highly skilled workforce that will deliver productivity growth in a low-inflation, modern economy. World-class universities are a crucial component of an effective economic strategy to deliver the growth that this nation requires as we come through uncertain times.

On the subject of world-class universities, this bill demonstrates that the Labor Party has a genuine feel for what campus life is really like. A university is a community. Universities can be large, cold, remote, impersonal places. You need to feel that you belong. Students who feel that they belong will have a much more rewarding and successful student life. My first university degree was from the University of Melbourne. I took advantage of its great facilities and its active student life. At the Rowden White library I listened to records—Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones—which I, as a poor student, could not afford to buy. I used the athletic track. I used the swimming pool. I went to the student union theatre and watched films at cheaper rates than at commercial cinemas. I went on bushwalking club walks and enjoyed from a distance the more far-out clubs and societies such as the chocolate appreciation society and the engineers society. I went in the Mr Commerce drinking competition and I was runner-up. I am not sure if I ever told my parents that. I hope they are not listening. All these student activities enhance campus life. They bring it richness and meaning: the sport, the arts, the journalism skills—forged writing, outrageous copy, for student publications. That is why when the Victorian Kennett government moved to introduce what it called voluntary student unionism it was opposed by a glittering array of artists and entertainers.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.