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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2488

Ms KING (11:56 AM) —I rise in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, and I thank the member for Cowper as we do not get too many laughs in this place. I have to say that this sort of parody that we have just seen—of communist values and reds under the beds, and student services and politics about to take over the whole of the nation—was somewhat amusing. This debate, to some extent, has been a bit of a parody of the different values held by different political parties. Listening to the speeches by the member for Higgins and also the member for Mayo, it seems to me that there are some battles from their student union days that those members are still fighting. I regret that they feel that they need to bring those battles into this place. The issue that we are facing here is a lot more complex than what happened in the 1970s or even what happened more recently in student politics. It is about what is happening to the life of regional campuses—in my own instance—and what is happening to student life across this country. It is a really important debate.

I also note with some irony that the very issues that are raised by the member for Higgins, which are about his student days when he had these huge fights within the student union movement at Monash University and how terrible they were, are the very things that probably have made him the person that he is today. The fact that he is here in this place able to debate, excited and interested in politics and passionate about ideas, is one of the very things he got from participating in a student union on the Monash campus. I find it ironic that those members who oppose Left ideas see that that is the very reason to be opposing student unionism.

Student unionism’s history comes very much from Oxford debating societies. They were about the contest of ideas. That is what student unionism is about across campuses in Australia. It is about the contest of ideas, providing people the opportunities in student life to debate, to think, to challenge, to be able to come up with their own solutions to problems, to participate in all sorts of things that they may never get the opportunity to do once they have finished university and they have happen to them what happens to many of us. We have mortgages and jobs that do not allow us to participate in the richness of those sorts of ideas as much as we would like to because unfortunately real life takes over. It is really disappointing that this debate to some extent has come down to a parody of Left versus Right ideals, because that is not what this debate is actually about. It is about the richness of student life, the provision of student services on university campuses and how we best go about doing that.

I have been a university student at a number of different campuses across the state of Victoria and also here in the ACT. Obviously the student union received part of the fee that I paid, although I was not part of the union. However, I never begrudged paying a fee, which I had to at all of the university campuses I was on, because, whilst I did not necessarily need to use all those services, I did acknowledge that there were students who did need access to advocacy, child care, legal services, accommodation services, assistance to work and welfare and counselling services. Whilst I may not have needed to access those particular services, I did not begrudge the many students in very different circumstances to me who did need to access those services. I did not at all begrudge paying for them.

This bill recognises the detrimental effect that the Howard government’s voluntary student unionism bill has had on university campuses across this country. The current bill reflects a balanced approach to delivering vital amenities and services to university students. During the 2007 election campaign, I committed to those in my electorate to being part of a government that recognised the importance of having access to vital services on university campuses. Through this bill, the government is delivering on that commitment.

I would like to acknowledge the work of the member for Adelaide for acting on this issue quickly and on the basis of broad consultation across the country. The Minister for Youth met with higher education stakeholder groups in my electorate back in February 2008 and she listened to views about how to fix the problem caused by the Howard government’s abolition of funding for student services. In my electorate, there was representation from the University of Ballarat, the Australian Catholic University, Aquinas Student Association, the Committee for Ballarat—a group of businesspeople in my electorate—the University of Ballarat Student Association and our local government, the City of Ballarat. The consultation with stakeholders found that both locally and nationally student services and amenities were eroding from campus to campus.

The review found that this impact was no more evident than in regional and rural Australia. People and communities from rural and regional Australia are of equal importance to our nation’s future and yet this current situation has depleted services on campuses in my own electorate to unsatisfactory levels. As part of the review, the University of Ballarat, which is home to the majority of higher education students in my electorate, stated in their submission:

While the current services appear to be at least marginally sustainable, the ongoing maintenance of these services is subject to a significant overhead subsidy from the University. If this position is continued—

which it has been—

the university community will suffer from an inability to provide new or enhanced services.

The Australian Catholic University, which has a regional campus in Ballarat, stated in their submission:

Student Association reserves and University funding have been used to maintain essential services in the short term. This model is not sustainable past 2008.

The Committee for Ballarat in their submission stated:

We are concerned that the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) has had a marked effect already on the provision of services, representation and amenities at the University of Ballarat’s regional campuses and the local regional campuses of ACU and UM—

the University of Melbourne. I reiterate that the Committee for Ballarat is a group of businesspeople in my community. The submission went on to say:

We are convinced that unless the present, early, damaging trends are arrested and reversed very soon, then longer lasting and deeper damage will be done. We urge that remedial action be taken as a priority, in consultation with these universities.

We have heard from many universities, student bodies and other stakeholders over the course of the minister’s consultation, and one thing is evident: student life and related communities are suffering from the Howard government’s determination to shut down student services. They are suffering because students today do not have the same basic services and amenities that they did in the past.

I spoke in this House in 2005 against the Howard government’s attack on vital student services. My position has not changed. I am glad to be part of a government that is making a commitment to reinvigorating university life in this country. Those members opposite did not listen to our warnings back in 2005 about what would happen to universities and university campuses across this country. Now universities across Australia have suffered for their ignorance. The previous government’s approach was to rip away those basic services that are of most importance to students. It is extremely apparent that they have achieved their expected outcome.

Students who attend regional universities predominantly come from regional and rural areas. These students have been hit hard. Regional universities and their broader communities have also been hit hard. At the University of Ballarat since the introduction of VSU these are some of the things that have happened. As of this year, the student association no longer provide legal services to students on campus. Instead, they have students who sacrifice time away from studying to support other students because this is the only support that exists. Independent student advocacy has gravely diminished due to the lack of funding and resources that were delivered to the student body. Advocacy and leadership at ACU is unfortunately heading in much the same direction. In their submission to the review, ACU stated:

Students have lost the capacity to fund staff to support their leadership, planning and management of student affairs. It is no longer possible to pay an allowance to student office bearers who frequently forgo part time work to make the contribution to student affairs. This has made the recruitment of office bearers more difficult.

Without adequate funding the voices of students are not being heard and they are not being represented on university bodies.

The majority of university students across my electorate are the first generation in their families to go to university. Many of them come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in rural areas and the big jump from secondary education to university life can be very daunting. In the past, student bodies have acted as the main point of contact, a friend to speak to, a support network and an overall body of representation for these students. At the University of Ballarat, the student body has closed the campus shop that assisted students by subsidising the cost of food, drinks and other essentials such as toiletries, stationery and other grocery items. Now students who are already on restricted budgets are spending an increased percentage of their weekly budget at the now university-run cafe. On-campus child care is no longer subsidised, which has forced prices to come into line with those commercial operators across the region. Financial services, such as emergency funding for students doing it tough, have also been stopped. Clubs and societies on campus have had funding dramatically restricted and they now receive only minimal administrative support.

In the past two years alone, the number of students involved in volunteering with clubs and societies at Ballarat campuses has more than halved and is continuing to disappear because they are not provided with the support they need. Even the number of volunteers participating in the student body as a whole has dramatically decreased. This is shifting university campuses into ghost towns. The student interaction is diminishing as students race off university campuses between lectures as the social community is almost nonexistent on campus.

Without clubs and societies, students find it increasingly difficult to network, find lifelong friends and, as a result, many become isolated during their studies. This is particularly the case with regional campuses, where a large number of students are attending university away from homes, often some distance away. To quote the University of Ballarat Student Association president, ‘It is now just a bare bones operation and it is only going to get worse under these circumstances.’ It is the intention of this bill to change this. This government wants to start the turnaround by rebuilding the spirit of university community and by having students involved in clubs and societies again. We want student bodies like the University of Ballarat Student Association to have the financial support they need to run services on campus. As I have signalled to the university’s vice-chancellor, it is certainly my hope and my expectation that the University of Ballarat Student Association be able to continue to operate on the campus.

The Rudd government is committed to ensuring students at university have access to vital amenities and services. As part of this government’s plan we seek to implement National Access to Services Benchmarks relating to the provision of information on and access to student support services such as health and welfare services. As part of our plan we also have moved to introduce national student representation and advocacy protocols, which I will touch on a little bit later. This bill also allows for higher education providers, from 1 July this year, to choose to implement the compulsory student services and amenities fee. This fee will go a long way to providing further quality services on top of the benchmarks and protocols. This fee, capped at $250 per student per annum, will go a long way to assisting in the provision of amenities and services. There are a number of things I would like to discuss in relation to this fee.

The first point I would like to make is that we on this side of the House understand that many higher education students are doing it tough. We do understand that the direct impact of the Howard government’s removal of funding of vital student services is that many costs for students on university campuses have actually risen. I think that is something that members of the opposition appear not to have taken into account in their opposition to this bill. Childcare costs are no longer subsidised and they have gone up. Textbooks are also putting pressure on students’ pockets. Getting involved in on-campus events and sporting activities is always assessed by students on the basis of how much money they have for any given week, and many of those clubs and societies are now no longer able to provide free entertainment or free services. Paying for food is also at the forefront of students’ minds on a daily basis. Let me not forget the indirect costs that have arisen from the Howard government’s VSU. Universities are taking money away from various operational budgets to fund the gap that exists because of VSU for vital services on campuses. We do recognise that many students are doing it tough. That is also why we provided in this legislation for eligible students to have the option to receive a loan for this fee. If students cannot afford to pay the student amenities fee they can choose to receive a loan, and this bill establishes a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program.

Secondly, we have announced the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines to give all stakeholders a very clear understanding about how this fee would be spent. The government wants this money spent on vital campus student services. We want to see the return of basic student services and amenities. Let me quickly go through those. They include food and drinks, sport and recreation, clubs and societies, child care, legal services, health care and welfare, employment and career advice, financial services, and several others. Every one on this list is as important as the next. What are not on this list are political activities. They are not something that can be funded via the student amenities fee. I do note with some irony, however, that in its ham-fisted attempt to shut down anti-Howard government activity on student campuses—because that is what VSU really was about—the previous government managed to get many regional student associations in regional areas such as my own, not known for their radicalism, politically active for the first time. The student association at the University of Ballarat does not have a history of being politically active at all and now the former president is actually a member of my staff. He has never been involved in the Labor Party ever before. I am very grateful, because he is a terrific member of staff.

There has been talk from those opposite that this bill introduces compulsory student unionism, and that is simply not the case. Students still have the option of being a member of the campus student body. If students choose not to sign up then that is absolutely fine. That is something that they choose either to do or not to do. The government believes students should be given choice about membership of on-campus student bodies and this bill delivers on that belief. Section 19.37(1) of the Higher Education Support Act forbids universities from requiring students to become a member of student bodies. Through this bill there are no changes to this section of the act. We do not want students forced to join student bodies but we do want students to have adequate services and amenities. That is why with this bill universities that choose to implement the fee will be able to start charging $125 for the second half of 2009. This will deliver sustainability and structure to universities before campus services and amenities deteriorate any further. Now is the time for action and now is the opportunity for members of parliament to promote positive change and to reinvigorate the life of our universities.

Many of the members opposite seem to be stuck in the past and seem to be fighting some old student political debates. The proposal in this bill is not a return to the past; what it is is a balanced approach to try to make sure that university campuses are reinvigorated and that university life and university services are provided to students. I certainly invite those members in the other place who are going to be voting on this bill to think long and hard about what they intend to do.

As I mentioned earlier, without adequate funding, student voices are not being heard across university campuses. In this bill we have announced National Student Representation and Advocacy Protocols to provide a solution to this problem. Having independent advocacy in our society is part of the Australian way of life, yet only now do we have protocols that outline how higher education providers are to provide independent advocacy for students throughout our higher education system. I want to see a process to democratically elect student representatives on university campuses across Australia and I want to see a system that allows the elected representatives to establish advocacy services for all enrolled students.

There are also two other measures in this bill I want to briefly touch on. They include amendments to the act to ensure that tertiary admission centres conform to current legislative and privacy requirements. At present TACs do not have the same status and duty of care as other offices of higher education providers when handling students’ personal information. We have sought in this bill to ensure students’ privacy is maintained under the Higher Education Support Act by acknowledging the role of TACs and recognising their responsibilities in this legislation.

The final measure that I want to support in this bill is our proposal to support students wanting to study in the vocational education and training sector. In her second reading speech Minister Ellis outlined that student numbers in publicly funded diploma and advanced diploma courses have declined steadily across Australia since 2002. I would also like to note that, in my own state of Victoria, the number of students in publicly funded diploma and advanced diploma courses has declined from 64,800 to 58,900 in 2007—a drop of over nine per cent. Our measure removes a significant barrier to students wanting to study diploma and above qualifications in the VET sector. Prospective students can now access training for diploma and above qualifications without worrying about upfront fees.

If we are to move forward as a nation into the future, we need to invest in our human capital, and education is at the forefront of this investment. This bill will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to expand the VET FEE-HELP scheme and to subsequently significantly increase the number of Australians completing diploma and advanced diploma degrees. In supporting this bill, I am supporting a balanced approach to reinvigorating universities and to securing vital services and amenities. The bill supports students having access to independent and democratic representation and advocacy. I would like to reiterate the importance of the bill in assisting universities and students in regional university campuses like those in my electorate.

Finally, I want to reflect on a comment by the Committee for Ballarat. In their submission they say:

The more distance one is from a capital city, the less likely is completion of a degree or higher qualification. This is a major lost opportunity for regional and national development. VSU adds a serious other dimension to this issue. If there are already core issues damaging rural and regional students’ participation, then adding another damaging effect—the minimisation of amenities, services and representation—then participation and success rates for this group is even more vulnerable.

That is what the previous government did and we are reversing that trend. (Time expired)