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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2476


Mr SIMPKINS (11:08 PM) —I ask: how did it come to this? I thought we had seen an end to compulsory up-front fees at universities. I thought we had embraced a user-pays attitude where if you want to use a service then you pay for it. Yet the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 will see a return to those days when the many subsidised the few users of these offers on campus. I know that university students would recall that in 2005, when the legislation supporting voluntary student unionism was being considered here, Labor fought to make sure that every student had to be a member of a student union. They wanted students to pay for the political activities of unions and they wanted students to subsidise a lot of services that those same students would never use. That legislation was passed and the removal of up-front fees did occur. Since then Labor in its 2007 election campaign was very clear on the matter. In May 2007 the then shadow minister for education stated that he was ‘not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee’. I will say that again: not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee. Yet this bill before the House today has in its title ‘student services and amenities’. Perhaps the former shadow minister, now Minister for Foreign Affairs, would say that he never said anything about a student services and amenities fee. Nevertheless, it is clear that the current government took nothing to the election on this matter and therefore has no mandate for this legislation.

I go further to say that not only did the government deny that it had an agenda then but it misled the Australian people. In August 2008 a number of ministers were asked about this matter. The theme seemed to be that, in contrast to the pre-election position of no amenities fee, the post-election position was not to reintroduce compulsory student unionism. Some may say that there is a difference and that maybe the amenities and services fee is not the same as compulsory student unionism. But, as I will explain, you do not need a university education in animal husbandry to know that if it walks like a duck and it sounds like a duck then it is a duck. I will say this right at the start: this matter is about choice. On this side of the chamber it is about struggling students choosing whether or not to take up the option of using various amenities or services and paying for those services. On the government side it is about forcing struggling students to pay an up-front fee. It is about the government forcing tertiary students to subsidise services, a range of options that they will not use and do not wish to use. This is the difference between us: choice on our side, no choice on the other side; a Liberal Party on this side that took a burden away from students, and over there a Labor Party that will reimpose another tax on students at tertiary institutions.

While it was a long time ago, I do recall my time at university and I remember the compulsory student union fee that I never had a choice in paying. I never had anything to do with the union representatives and in fact did not know anyone who knew even a single student union representative. I never had anything to do with them. That being said, I did participate in intervarsity rowing. I remember paying a fee and costs for a very quick season of around four weeks. It was similar to my annual fees at my normal rowing club, so I do not recall any great subsidisation by the student union. I also say that the boats within the university rowing club were not as good as those of the outside rowing club. The point is that I really wonder where the money we used to pay then went and what it was actually spent on.


Mr Randall —Political campaigns.


Mr SIMPKINS —Political campaigns, I hear the interjection, and I am sure that was the case. I would also say that I have no objection to any student representative body. What I do think is worth remembering is that the voter turnout in student representative elections would demonstrate the true depth of interest and therefore the level of representation that actually exists.

There have also been suggestions that the priorities of some student unions have been misplaced, with funds being channelled away from services that have some validity and towards pet projects of the elites of the student unions. An example is the student union of RMIT, which favours funding its anticapitalist radio show Blazing Textbooks over an advocacy service. That student union would prefer to broadcast shows about teacher strikes in Puerto Rico and anarchist approaches to education rather than fund services that might actually have some value to the vast majority of students. It is little wonder that such a small proportion of students have any involvement in voting for these so-called representatives.

I turn to the issue of services that have apparently collapsed as a result of VSU. I found out on the 3CR radio station website that there are apparently only two student unions in the country that are self-funded: the University of Western Australia and Murdoch University, both in Western Australia. It should be remembered that students were supported with VSU by the former Liberal government in Western Australia, the Court government. That created an environment of self-sufficiency that appears to have endured. One can ask why the membership of the student union at UWA is one of the highest in the country at around 60 per cent and why it is also self-funded. Perhaps it is about relevancy and efficiency. When an inefficient organisation with questionable relevance struggles to exist without subsidy, they should firstly look to themselves for the fault. As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.’

Maybe the student unions should be a little self critical before they look for others to blame. It is no wonder that the national union of socialists, or rather the National Union of Students, has such trouble with the user-pays principle. ‘Accountability’ seems to be a bit of a foreign term in some spheres. But this is not about ideology, at least not on this side; this is about value for money and, as I said before, choice. We should also consider information that appeared in the Monash University Annual Report of 2004. That report showed how the $428 amenity fee was disbursed. Maybe we should consider a picture of the average sort of university student: 19 or 20 years old, male or female, single and with no dependants. I think we can probably say that that is still the descriptor for the vast majority of our university students.

We know that students use the cafeteria or equivalent. I would say that there would not be a university student who has not gone into the university cafeteria at some point. It is important to look at that annual report from Monash University and at how much of the $428 went to food service and subsidies: 28c out of $428. Moving on, most students probably would not need child care, yet of that $428 $10.80 went to child care or childcare subsidies. That is not a whole lot of money there; it does not exactly have broad appeal, but it is not a huge slice of the overall $428 cake. I know that most of my university friends would have undertaken some form of sport. Of that $428, the annual report attributes just $22 to sport and $13.28 to clubs—again, not a big amount. But what is clearly of concern is the fact that well over half of that $428 compulsory amenity fee was for administration costs—$238. That represents a substantial amount of money for which there is no real explanation of how it was used and for which, certainly, any form of justification is not apparent.

I reiterate the point: of all the uses of a struggling student’s limited resources, why is the Rudd government imposing $250, to be indexed, rather than adopting a user-pays system? There is, of course, no consideration of a student’s capacity to pay or whether a student can even use the services, which is an issue for students such as distance education students or those who work during the day and attend evening classes. Of course, the Rudd government is willing to loan the struggling students the money, but, unlike course fees, the use of amenities does not help generate a capacity to achieve a higher income. It is possible to estimate that some $250 million could be generated by this tax imposition. While $250 per student may not seem a lot of money to the members opposite, it is significant for those struggling students. Again I say: if a student chooses to use a service, why not let the user pay? Let the service providers be competitive. Let them try to attract interest and users rather than just being given money under the legislation without basic competitive and effective operations.

I say again that this argument is not about ideology. If student unions or student representatives wish to protest about political matters, they should not be funded by struggling students to do so. They can attempt to raise funds themselves, but not with an imposed fee upon other students to help them. The reality is that there is nothing in this legislation that prevents the fees being diverted to a student union political activity. Yes, the government may say that it cannot be used to promote a candidate or party, but there is nothing about using money to promote causes which can be political in their nature. We all know that, for instance, left-wing, socialist groups pursue their agendas on campuses. Anyone who has been to a university knows that. Sometimes some of those agendas, unfortunately, even include anti-Semitic activity. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts may even find protests about his promise to take the Japanese whalers to court or perhaps about AFP raids on Sea Shepherd being funded by these amenity funds. I would like to see the rules which say that amenities fee money cannot be siphoned off for political campaigns, and I would like to see evidence of a robust regime that can guarantee that it does not happen or that, if it does, judicial action will be pursued.

I will conclude by saying that this bill should not have been brought before the House. It would not be here if we were to believe the member for Perth, who said in 2007 that there would be no amenities fee. Yet this bill now seeks to amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to provide for just such a compulsory student services and amenities fee. These are fees that will be imposed regardless of a student’s ability to pay. It does not seem to matter how you are studying—distance education, correspondence, part time or full time. Whether they are from a low socioeconomic background or otherwise, students will have no choice. It should be pay as you go for the services you want, require and do not mind paying for, rather than paying for everyone else’s use of services you do not require and for causes you do not support. Many students belong to various associations or organisations that are off campus, and they exercise a choice by paying a fee to belong to those clubs or groups. The fees that are going to be imposed as a result of this bill are supported by the Prime Minister, who once called the level of student debt in this country a ‘national disgrace’. Funny how things have changed now!

This $250 fee is an additional burden on students at this time, and they cannot afford it. Many students are already working multiple part-time jobs in order to meet their costs, and the answer is not to defer this fee and add to their HECS debt. Put quite simply, if students do not wish to provide their own time or money in support of a service or activity then it is wrong to compel them to do so. This removes choice on where students spend their money for the services that they are entitled to. I believe that this is $250 that could be better spent in other areas that have a direct benefit to students’ education itself rather than paying for someone else’s priorities. This bill signifies a broken promise by the Labor Party, this bill rejects the right of choice, this bill rejects our belief in freedom of association and this bill I reject.