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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2467


Ms BURKE (10:31 AM) —I rise to support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I am disappointed that the member for Higgins has left the chamber. I note with some amusement that, having chosen not to speak on too many pieces of legislation, he chose to speak on this bill. He was quite noteworthy in previous times. He was a student at Monash University and served on the student association. Clearly on numerous occasions—including in print in the august journal Lot’s Wife—he has put forward the view that compulsory student unionism should be kept for the future. I am disappointed he is not here, so that we cannot ascertain why he has had this change of heart since he was a student—which, I admit, was a long time ago—and now sees compulsory student unionism as an issue.

Mind you, we are not arguing that this is about compulsory student unionism; this is about student services on campus. If we called student unions ‘Student Corporations Inc.’, the Liberal Party and the Nationals would never have an objection to it. A union is a group of people—how bad is that? There is overwhelming evidence that the former government’s voluntary student unionism legislation has resulted in serious cultural and academic damage to Australia’s higher education sector. That is very evident in my electorate of Chisholm, which is home to two of the leading universities in Melbourne and in Australia—the Melbourne campus of Deakin University and the largest campus of Monash University, at Clayton. We also have one of Australia’s leading TAFEs, at Box Hill.

The VSU legislation was introduced by a government that was on an extreme ideological crusade. The VSU legislation was met with heavy criticism and opposition from universities and the ALP at the time of its introduction in 2005. You need only listen to the speeches of those opposite to know that they have an ideological bent on this. I sat through the speech by the member for Mayo. He indicated that student unionism is all about ‘Labor Party Inc’. I think they are just sore because the Liberal Party never succeeded on campus—but actually, when I was at Monash, the Liberal Party controlled the student union. So I think it is just sour grapes from the member for Mayo that he never managed to outdo the Labor Party on campus.

But that is not what student services are about. That completely and utterly misses the point of what these services provide. The student associations and staff at both Monash University and Deakin University in my electorate were involved in the national demonstrations against the introduction of VSU. These institutions are magnificent institutions that provide their students with first-class educational outcomes underpinned by strong student services. Only too aware of the dangers posed by VSU, both institutions opposed its introduction. The reasons for opposing this legislation have been played out on a practical level in the years since VSU became law.

A 2008 review of the impact of VSU found that the legislation has had a detrimental effect on essential student services at all Australian universities. VSU swiped $170 billion from universities, leading to a decline in—and, in some instances, the loss of—essential services such as child care, health care, employment and welfare services and independent advocacy in relation to academic matters. What has rubbed salt into the wounds of students is that, in an attempt to soften the impact of the legislation, universities have had to redirect funds from their research and teaching budgets to fund services and amenities that would otherwise have been cut. So, at the time the previous Howard government was slashing away funding from essential services at universities, the universities were again having to redirect much-needed funds from teaching and research into the provision of student services.

The quality of educational outcomes for students attending universities has suffered directly as a result of VSU. Speaking about the impact of VSU, the President of the National Tertiary Education Union, Dr Carolyn Allport, said:

The loss of student services in the university sector has been endemic, with essential health, welfare and academic advocacy services being reduced or abandoned in every university in the country. It is a fact that the introduction of VSU has seen the demise of a number of elected student organisations, with many only just surviving.

Dr Glenn Withers, the Chief Executive of Universities Australia, the peak body representing the Australian universities sector, is even more blunt in his assessment of VSU:

Universities have struggled for years to prop up essential student services through cross-subsidisation from other parts of already stretched university budgets, to reduce the damage that resulted from the Coalition Government’s disastrous Voluntary Student Unionism legislation.

The negative impact of the government’s anti-student organisation legislation has been felt severely across universities in Victoria, particularly in my electorate. Deakin University is a relatively young university, having been established in the seventies, and its Melbourne campus is located at Burwood in my electorate. Deakin has one consolidated student association, the Deakin University Student Association, which will continue to operate as an independent student-controlled entity in the post-VSU environment. DUSA is a unique entity. It does not belong to the National Union of Students. It is proud of its independence and has struggled through this time to maintain it. Although it has managed to retain some of its independence, DUSA has become reliant on direct funding from the university to supplement its commercial revenue and the small income from voluntary contributions from students.

The NUS has found that Deakin University has been hit hard by VSU. Prior to VSU, Deakin was collecting $5.8 million from general service fees, with $4.8 million going to DUSA and $1 million kept by the university administration to run some core student services directly. After the passage of the VSU legislation, a voluntary fee of $40 per semester was collected in 2007 from 17 per cent of students, for a premium membership discount scheme. The university used its own revenue to provide in excess of $2 million of funding in 2006 and a further $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008.

DUSA has been forced to substantially reduce staffing levels as a result of the lost revenue since VSU. Staffing levels have been cut. This has led to a significant reduction in the professional support available to DUSA and its volunteer student representatives. Opportunities for students to obtain casual employment on campus with DUSA have also diminished.

DUSA’s academic rights advocacy services are now only available to the minority of students who have paid the voluntary membership fee. In all this debate, it has been overlooked that one of the vital services provided by these associations is assisting students through some of these academic processes. I was never involved in the student union when I was on campus, but I was the student representative on the arts faculty board for many years. This was the august institution that decided whether or not you were going to be expelled from the university. We sat through some horrible cases of students terrified and not knowing what to do or how to go about things. They would not let mum and dad come to their hearing because that would just be too embarrassing, but they did not know that they could get support and services. Often we would start the hearing and then find out that they had not had any support or services. We would then direct them to the wonderful assistance they could get through the student union to explain what academic process meant or to explain what plagiarism was. There were some kids who had got to uni and did not actually know what that was.

The support and services were really important. There were some kids who were going through some horrendous things in their personal lives and they needed that support and those services. A lot of times, if they got the support and services, it ensured that they were not excluded from university, they could resit subjects and they could continue with their academic life. I know of one case—and I will not mention the person’s name—where, if it had not been for these services, we might have missed out on having a fantastic researcher in this country because of a slip of the tongue. I think people overlook those vital services that are needed.

Funds have been allocated for basic maintenance of sporting and recreation facilities, but no major maintenance, upgrades or expansions have been possible since 2005, other than through grants won as part of the VSU Transition Fund. Most of those went to regional campuses, which was fair enough. So the Burwood campus severely lost out. Their sporting facilities were terrific and their sporting prowess was great. A lot of that has been lost.

Services and activities such as multicultural days or cultural events, legal advice, book subsidies, emergency loans, printing and binding services, tenancy advice, the international student family network program, the student leadership program, free or subsidised sporting equipment, elite athlete funding and the distance student support hotline have been terminated under VSU. Other services have been reduced, including student social and networking events, student magazines and newsletters, and financial and administrative support to clubs and societies.

Deakin has indicated that it perceives that the effectiveness of student representation under VSU has eroded to the extent that it is looking to hold its own elections among the student body to fill vacancies on some university committees rather than relying on DUSA representatives. The university knows it needs student reps on these things and it has actually said, ‘We will facilitate it because we want the voice of students heard.’

Monash University is one of Australia’s most respected tertiary education institutions. As a former student, I have spoken about it many times. I attended Monash University as an undergraduate and the University of Melbourne as a postgraduate. The member for Casey, when he gave his speech and I was in the chair, abused my position and verballed me on a couple of occasions about what I would perceive, as a former student at Monash. Then he talked about his wonderful experience at Melbourne. What he forgot to mention was that Monash University at Clayton is in the middle of nowhere. It is in a great big paddock in the middle of nowhere. It is not like Melbourne university or Sydney university—there are no shops down the road. There is nothing down the road but a great big freeway. Once you arrive at campus, you are there; you are hostage to the campus and hostage to the services on the campus. You cannot wander off to get a sausage roll down the road because you would have to catch two buses and a train or you would have to have a car and you would have to give up your car spot and maybe not get it back again. Not all campuses, even ones in metropolitan areas, are actually in the middle of services. You rely on what is available on campus. Most of you have probably been out to Clayton in various capacities. If you have not, you should go out there. The university is a huge edifice in the middle of nowhere. It does great things and provides great services, but it has to because there is literally nowhere else to go.

The structure of Monash is very complex, reflecting the original Clayton campus merger with several other major campuses in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The NUS has indicated that Monash, like Deakin, has had its student services and amenities deteriorate since the introduction of VSU. The pre-VSU revenue from the amenities fee was $13.5 million. Following VSU, the university set aside $4.55 million from its teaching and research funding to support core activities and amenities that its student services are now unable to support due to a lack of resources.

The university also increased many of its user-pays charges, such as those for parking permits, shuttle buses and academic record transcripts, in order to provide further subsidies for student services. The increase in parking fees at the Monash campus in Clayton caused uncontrolled anxiety. It is almost impossible to get to Monash by public transport. There is no major train service in and out. I have spoken on that on numerous occasions in this place. You are reliant on the bus service or driving. So it was a huge impost, not only on the students but also on the staff. The staff had to pay for parking permits too, and it became a huge impost upon everybody. It is ridiculous in this day and age that, by these means, we are actually taking away opportunities for higher education in this country. We are righting that wrong today, hopefully.

Students could opt to purchase a Monash community card to obtain a 20 per cent discount on these user-pays charges and other commercial services. These user-pays charges and the community card generated a further $2.1 million in 2007. The community card was discontinued in 2008. VSU has had a visible impact on students through the general reduction in services and representative activities. There has been a substantial increase in user-pays charges for parking permits and academic transcripts and the introduction of a fee for previously free intercampus shuttle bus services. This has actually seen people drop out of courses and discontinue.

Many full-time jobs have been reduced to part time, which has reduced the hours that some services are available to students. Orientation weeks in 2007 and 2008 were noticeably underresourced because student organisations simply lacked the financial capacity to offer new students the orientation experience of previous years. O weeks are vital to ensuring that first-years, who are coming onto a big campus where they might know no-one, are able to hook in with people. There is a big dropout rate from first year in university due to loneliness, because people just do not know anyone. The O weeks and those services and those support organisations ensured that students, coming from very different backgrounds, might meet somebody and actually have a friend. There is nothing worse than wandering round a place thinking, ‘Who am I going to have lunch with?’ O weeks provided a terrific service in that regard.

There have been serious shortfalls in the capital development and maintenance needed for Monash sport facilities and there has been a loss of staffing for the Transport Office, the Indigenous office and research and policy support at Monash-Clayton. The examples of Deakin and Monash are reflective of the wider impact VSU has had upon all universities right across Australia. They demonstrate that it has been students who have been forced to pay the price for the removal of government support for services and amenities on university campuses. That is why this government is committed to this amendment that is before the House today.

We are delivering on an election commitment to rebuild vital university student services and to ensure students have access to independent, democratic student representation. Since being elected in late 2007, the government has proven it is committed to introducing significant reform to the Australian education sector. This legislation signifies another important step towards the government commitment to revolutionising the Australian education system. This bill represents a government moving on from the past and advocating a balanced, practical and substantial solution to rebuilding student support services.

We will introduce national access to service benchmarks, which will relate to the provision of information on, and access to, services such as welfare and counselling services in line with current requirements for overseas students. Overseas students have been hit hard by the loss through VSU. There has been almost nothing to replace what was lost. Again, this is a group of students who are often isolated, do not have support and need that vital support that they got through the university sector—particularly in the area of housing but also in the areas of counselling, welfare and just emotional support.

These benchmarks and protocols will be supplemented by the provision of universities having the option of setting a compulsory fee, capped at a maximum of $250. A rigorous set of guidelines will ensure that this fee can only be used on a specific set of services and amenities. Individual universities will decide whether they implement a fee and, if so, they will also determine the level of that fee up to $250. That is, universities themselves will have the final say as to whether there is a compulsory fee.

It is not a return to compulsory student unionism whereby a student must be a member of a student organisation. Instead, the focus of this bill is to allow universities to provide an adequate level of service and amenities to students—allowing access to student representatives that is independent of the university’s administration. Some may try to argue that this fee imposes an unfair burden on students—that those universities which choose to set a compulsory fee are being inconsiderate of the fact that those students have little disposable income. This is an illogical argument and is simply erroneous.

Included in this bill is a provision whereby eligible students have the option of taking out a loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program. This allows students to pay off their student amenities fees in a gradual fashion upon finding full-time employment at the completion of their studies. Aside from this, the introduction of VSU by the previous government has resulted in universities around Australia losing close to $170 million in funding. As I have stated, this means that students have already paid the cost of VSU with many university services and amenities being substantially reduced or cut.

Students have also been hit with increased prices for child care, parking, books, computer labs, sports and food. They have also suffered from indirect costs, with the universities redirecting funding of research and teaching budgets to fund services that otherwise would have been cut. The student amenities fee will therefore help to rebuild important student services and amenities.

An important component of this bill is the fact that it encompasses new provisions that prohibit the fee being spent on supporting a political party or candidate for election to a Commonwealth, state or territory parliament or to local government. I have actually been critical of student unions in this place before for inappropriately using their funds towards campaigns that were not supported by the student body at their universities. I have gone on the record and said that use of those funds in some of those cases was inappropriate. This legislation actually puts in place that that cannot happen. So, with respect to the hypocrisy coming from the other side about ‘Labor Inc.’ and our training ground, this is not the case. This is about vital support services on campus so that university is more than just an educational experience; it is a life experience. You want to go to university to actually experience everything it can have to offer. The reduction in these services means that you do not have that experience at all.

A higher education provider must also impose this prohibition on any person or organisation to which it pays any of the fee revenue. Under this strict provision, universities will have responsibility for ensuring these guidelines are adhered to. Any breaches result in serious consequences, including the option to revoke a university’s approval as a higher education provider.

The government has received an overwhelming positive response to this new legislation from those closely involved in the higher education sector. Tertiary institutions were significantly burdened by the imposition they faced as a result of VSU. This legislation seeks to address these problems by providing universities with greater choice in terms of how student organisations are resourced. The coalition of leading Australian universities, the Group of Eight, stated:

The Federal Government’s decision to allow universities to support essential student services through the collection of a modest fee is a sensible compromise that will enhance the quality of Australia’s higher education system.

The reforms I have spoken of today are part of the government’s commitment to ensuring that higher education is central to the development of Australia’s best and brightest. The government will continue to work with universities and student associations to foster a mutually beneficial relationship, resulting in better outcomes for all involved.

This bill takes a sensible and pragmatic approach to the issues of student representatives and services and amenities. It redresses the devastating effect of VSU on the cultural underpinnings of Australia’s higher education providers. It receives my full support and that of many within my community and my electorate, and I commend the bill to the House.