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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2772

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —Is he asking for something? Like nearly all our legislation, this important bill, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, is the result of an election commitment, and I rise to speak in support of it. Like so many other pieces of legislation before the current parliament, it seeks to restore a balance, a balance between what was taken away during the Howard era and what existed before, but seeks to do this in a contemporary way. This time we are putting some balance back into the tertiary education system, and accompanying services, after it was hacked at by the previous government in what was really a poorly disguised attack on what they perceived as a political threat to their future on campuses around Australia. What made it doubly troublesome was that this was combined with attempts to stifle the ability of the young to vote in the last election, in the form of the electoral integrity legislation. Through their attack on student unions and the introduction of voluntary student unionism they threw the baby out with the bath water—as they so often did. We want to restore the balance.

Contrary to what the member for Canning said before me, the evidence suggests that the past legislation stripped nearly $170 million from university funding and left universities struggling to cover many valuable and vital services to the students whom the previous government claimed to represent. I would like to share some of those examples that were so conveniently omitted by the member for Canning. For instance, dental services at La Trobe University and Southern Cross University were closed down completely. The University of Technology, Sydney, La Trobe University and James Cook University had to close their legal services. In the case of the University of Technology, Sydney, this affected not only the students but also the local community, who were also able to access the service. The emergency loans scheme once offered at the University of Sydney has now closed, and at least three universities shut down their Centrelink advice services. Nine universities, I understand, shut down their student legal and/or taxation advice services, childcare fees at La Trobe University rose by $800 a year and direct funding for sporting clubs was cut by something like 40 per cent—and so on; the examples go on.

This is not about forcing the hand of students but about providing better services for them across the board in their student days. The ultimate aim is to allow them to complete their studies and become productive and valued members of our society with the knowledge they gain during that time.

But students are more than just in-class, in-lecture consumers. They require services to support and complement their studies, particularly those who come from regional areas. While it is a few years since I graced the halls as a full-time student—I must admit it was only two years ago that I was doing off-campus study for two years—I do have some more intimate knowledge, as I know those opposite have as well, of current student life, with my two sons both engaged in university studies. Through their experiences in recent years, it has become more evident to me just how vital support services are for the student of today, contrary to the claims of those opposite. We are not talking about glamorous and extravagant services but about crucial support such as health, counselling, employment, child care and welfare support. Due to the heavy-handed nature of the former government, some of these have been in decline or even closed, as I just mentioned.

Contrary to what the member for Canning said, this bill allows higher education providers to choose to implement a compulsory student services and amenities fee capped at $250 per student, indexed annually, to help provide student services and amenities. I reiterate: it allows higher education providers to choose to implement such a fee. It does not say they must do so—contrary to the mischievous comments by the member for Canning.

Contrary to the claims of those opposite, the changes introduced with voluntary student unionism have not reduced costs; they have merely shifted those costs at universities. Evidence demonstrates that students have been hit with increased costs for child care, parking, books, computer labs, sport, food and so on. They are also indirectly affecting academic achievements, with a number of universities forced to redirect, on their own account, funding out of research and teaching budgets to cross-subsidise and fund services and amenities that would otherwise have been cut.

The new fee, if introduced—and I reiterate ‘if introduced’—comes with some room to move. So as not to introduce a financial barrier, eligible students will have the option of a HECS style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, SA-HELP. The fee will be indexed along with other loan programs. As is currently the case, international full-fee-paying students will have to pay for services and amenities as part of accessing the courses they require, should that be introduced by the campus they are studying at.

Allowance will also be made for students who are not studying on a full-time basis. The bill will also help to address the skills crisis with the VET FEE-HELP scheme, which I have not heard mentioned by many opposite at all. It will help to turn around the sharp decline in students studying for diplomas and advanced diplomas in the public system. The number of students in these types of courses fell from 197,300 in 2002 to 165,900 in 2007. That is something we just cannot afford when skills shortages still prove to be, even in our declining economic circumstances, one of the biggest impediments to business in so many sectors. The system will help to assist students who may not be able to study at this level due to upfront fees, allowing them to defer the fees until they are able to pay. The amendment provides more flexibility to reduce the loan fee for particular students and streamline credit transfer requirements for a range of students.

Contrary to the comments from many opposite, and particularly the member for Canning, this bill is not about a return to compulsory student unionism. Section 19.37(1) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, which prohibits a provider from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation, is unchanged. I reiterate: it is unchanged. We knew that there would be scaremongering about support for political activities on campus, but the amendment is very clear on this point. I find this interesting, given that the member for Indi, not unsurprisingly, has carried out a scare campaign in relation to this legislation, mainly driven by ideological motivations. I do not know what happened to the member for Indi at university, but her campaign has been to the point of obsession, matched only by the member for Higgins.

I would like to reiterate that the new provisions prohibit the fee from being spent by a higher education provider on support for a political party or a candidate for election to the Commonwealth, state or territory parliaments or local government. This restriction also applies to any person or organisation which receives any of the fee revenue. So we are not harking back to the old days when, as the member for Canning reminded us, there was tremendous warfare on the campuses, with support for the PLO. I remember all that. They were my university days. Universities are very different today. I do not think that they are ideologically driven mad by causes like that. Nor do I expect to see these fees, if they are implemented, used for anything like that. That is prohibited under the legislation. So I do not know what this ideological madness is all about. I think that was the first speech made by the member for Higgins on legislation in this parliament since he was re-elected. I suppose if you were ideologically mad in the past something could stir that, and that is what drove him to his feet. None of us were any more edified when he had finished.

I note that the National Tertiary Education Union has welcomed the bill as the first step in the vital process of rebuilding student culture on university campuses. I notice the mumbling over on the other side. As soon as you mention a union they say, ‘Well, what do you expect? They’re going to get their hands on it and crush any right-wing movement that could occur at that campus, particularly the Liberals and the Nationals.’ But, anyway, back to common sense and reality, the National Tertiary Education Union, which actually does represent many thousands of students, has welcomed the bill as:

… the first step in the vital process of rebuilding student culture on university campuses, devastated by the effects of the former Coalition Government’s Voluntary Student Union (VSU) legislation.

The NTEU president, Dr Carolyn Allport, said recently:

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 almost every university in the country.

If we take that at face value, that is a pretty sad legacy from the former government’s legislation—a pretty sad legacy. Dr Allport also said:

It is a fact that the introduction of VSU has seen the demise of a number of elected student organisations, with many others only just surviving. As a result, many universities have been forced to redirect funding from their core duties of teaching and research to help support student services, often at a reduced level.

And she further stated:

We welcome measures that will not only guarantee the appropriate and equitable funding of these services, but also ensure university students have democratically elected representative bodies that participate in the governance and provision of student-oriented services and activities at our universities.

The protocols and guidelines that will accompany this legislation as a legislative instrument, which will be presented to this parliament soon, are an attempt to be more prescriptive about how student services and amenities fees are to be used and also more prescriptive about delivering national access and service benchmarks on services and information that is going to be presented to students. They will also outline a guideline or protocol for representation and advocacy by students. So this is not willy-nilly stuff, a carte blanche use of fees for whatever purposes. There is no compulsion for people to join a union, and the protocols will be clearly set out in the legislation to follow as a disallowable instrument.

The member for Canning again mischievously asked how one could take the government on face value or trust the government with this. Well, it is a disallowable instrument; it will be discussed in the parliament. Those opposite, as should be the case, will have the right to debate it and vote against it or for it—whatever the case may be. I have a feeling it may be against. I do not know why I have that feeling, because I am not a born cynic, but anyway, these things happen—I can see them having some ideological problem with it somewhere. Going back to Dr Allport, if I may, she said:

NTEU looks forward to working closely with Minister Ellis—

and I do congratulate her on this balanced legislation—

in her consultation with the sector over the important Guidelines and Protocols—

which I just mentioned—

that will ensure independent student representation, participation and student services are returned to all university campuses—

if they avail themselves of the opportunity to present to their students these fees.

Universities Australia, the peak body for the university sector, has also backed the move, and late last year was looking towards a positive future. I know that those opposite would like me to share some of those comments with them. Universities Australia chief executive, Dr Glenn Withers, said:

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

Dr Withers said:

Universities are facing an uncertain year, where many transition arrangements are in place or expected, and investment and international revenue sources are under challenge, so this announcement comes at a time when all Australian universities require greater certainty about how they plan expenditure for 2009. Knowing how student services and amenities can be funded will contribute to financial planning.

Dr Withers went on to say:

Universities Australia supports the move to allow Australian universities to make the choice—

and I reiterate ‘to make the choice’—

… to levy students for a service and amenities fee, and at what level within the indexed cap, and will seek in consultation with the Government to ensure that universities have the flexibility to tailor those services and amenities to best match individual missions, and the needs of their particular student profile.

So, if I may, I would like to reinforce a few points. This legislation is balanced legislation. It is something that we promised in the election campaign and, as with most of the legislation that we have introduced into this House, we are honouring that election commitment. This legislation gives the universities the opportunity to introduce a capped fee—not a willy-nilly fee, but a capped fee—to introduce important student amenities and services. It will be complemented by a legislative instrument which sets out protocols and guidelines in terms of advocacy, representation, student services and amenities and which also benchmarks those services and information services that universities will be required to give if they are receiving taxpayers’ funds for their students.

It is designed absolutely to support students, to make services available to them and to better service them at a very important time in their learning experiences. Contrary to the statements made by the member for Indi in her ideological diatribe against this very balanced legislation, this is not reimposing a compulsory fee, and her claim that the legislation will allow the funds to be used for student representation and thus for political activities of student unions, funded by all students whether they like it or not, is exactly the opposite not only of what this legislation intends but of what is clearly set out—and I find it disturbing that when trying to have a debate in this House you have absolute, deliberate distortion of the intention of a bill by the member for Indi in particular and, of course, by the member for Higgins.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 6.23 pm to 6.37 pm

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr S Sidebottom)—It being approximately 6.40 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.