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Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Page: 3011


Mr NEUMANN (7:40 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. The Minister for Education, in her second reading speech, said:

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 outlines a robust and balanced solution that will not only help ensure the delivery of quality student services—it will also help, once and for all, to secure their future.

I concur. Regrettably, the Howard government remained committed to the past in this area. Students at university talk many times about ideas, philosophies, world views and the way of life, but those opposite seem to be fixated and obsessed about the battles that they engaged in in the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s. They are still committed to abolishing student unions, still committed to attacking lecturers and tutors who they do not agree with and still committed to propagandising extreme conservative positions. This is a new and balanced way forward. Those opposite remain fixated on ideologically extreme positions in this regard.

I had a conversation with Professor Alan Rix, who is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the Ipswich campus at the University of Queensland, in relation to this legislation—I thought it was important to go to someone who knows about these types of things—to see what he had to say about the reforms. I did not want to rely upon what we are told. I wanted to get someone who I respected and who is a well-known academic, so I spoke to him in relation to the guidelines, the protocols and the benchmarks. Professor Rix’s position was that they would consult the student bodies, the University of Queensland senate, in relation to these matters. His words to me were, ‘The benchmarks are fine.’ His view was that $250 is approximately what the compulsory student services charge was anyway. In an email to me, his words were:

As I said on the phone—

referring to a conversation he had with me—

my personal view is that the guidelines in the areas identified for support, including infrastructure, seem appropriate and would enable an institution to provide services accordingly.

That is the view of Professor Alan Rix, a well-known academic in Queensland, a well-respected person in the Ipswich community. He is someone who I listen to in the circumstances.

Our solution to the way forward is to introduce a national access to services benchmark 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, and for the first time we are going to introduce national student representation and advocacy protocols to ensure that students have an independent voice on campus. To support the kinds of services which we hope to be quality, over and above these benchmarks we are going to provide that universities have the option to set a compulsory fee, capped at a maximum of $250 per year. We will index that annually. It is up to each university to see whether they are going to charge a fee or implement the amount, but it cannot be above $250. That fee will support student services and amenities. It will support sporting clubs, the kinds of services that students need, many of them living away from home, many from rural and regional areas away from their parents, away from the kinds of support structures that they need.

So this is particularly important to students from rural and regional areas in Queensland, because they have to travel long distances. If a student comes from outback Queensland or regional Queensland and they go to university in Rockhampton, Townsville, Cairns, Ipswich or other places like that, they have to travel a long way. So getting access to information, health assistance, legal advice, physiotherapy, sporting clubs for recreation and clubs for cultural groups are important to university life and they are important to students from rural and regional areas.

It really is a great shame that in the past, under the Howard coalition government, students were forced to pay about $170 million both directly and indirectly, as the minister said in her speech. Universities were effectively forced to redirect funding out of research and teaching budgets to ensure that students, the kinds of students I was talking about, were not disadvantaged. The minister and the government have consulted with universities, and they are supportive of what we are doing. Universities Australia, the peak body representing the university sector, said it very clearly last year. They talked about the fact that universities struggled for a long time to provide the kinds of essential services that they did in the past.

Like many people in the House of Representatives I went to university—the University of Queensland at St Lucia, where I did arts and law. I found the union there to be very helpful in terms of advice and assistance, as did many other students.

Helping university students to achieve and attain educational qualifications is an important social justice goal but it is also important for the productivity levels of our economy and for profitable businesses in the future. Education is not a matter of Left or Right; it is both socially just and equitable. But, if we want to increase our prosperity and economic security, we need to invest in higher education.

Universities in Queensland certainly suffered under the Howard government’s draconian legislation in this regard. I have spoken to many academics in Queensland who were forced to comply with Work Choices, which was difficult. Work Choices even penetrated university funding: you had to comply with individual contracts and other Work Choices requirements for funding to continue. There was always that sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the universities that their funding would be cut if they did not comply. So much for the previous government’s commitment to higher education and to ensuring the future prosperity of our country. To be so ideologically obsessed that they needed to impose Work Choices on the higher education sector is a disgrace. So universities in Queensland suffered as a result of the Howard government’s so-called reforms. I have listened carefully to the speeches from those opposite, and they drip with ideological obsession on this matter.

Let us have a look at the University of Queensland as an example of what I am talking about. At the University of Queensland, there were two main organisations which were funded from the old student services charge—the university union and UQ Sport. Both organisations continued with reduced funding after the Howard government brought in its voluntary student unionism changes. Prior to that, the annual combined grant to the university union and UQ Sport was $7.5 million, and the university kept some of the student services charge to run its own student support services. This amount was reduced by 50 per cent in 2006, and now the university provides a recurrent annual grant of about $2 million to the two organisations, effectively cross-subsidising the organisations because they cannot run their services properly with such reduced funding. As part of the deal, the university union relinquished ownership of its buildings to the university. So much for those people trying to create and support jobs. Guess what happened as a direct result of the Howard government’s changes? There were extensive job losses across the board for the university union and UQ Sport, with a visible impact on students.

There were large cuts to support for students on welfare, legal, tenancy and academic advocacy matters; large cuts to professional policy and portfolio support for student representatives; and costs for students to use UQ Sport facilities increased from 50 per cent to 90 per cent of the cost of outside providers. There was a substantial increase in prices for catering in retail outlets, making food more expensive for students. Those were direct consequences, in one university, my alma mater—where both of my daughters happen to be attending—of the Howard government’s changes. That is one perfect example.

You could look at what happened at the other universities in Queensland, and the same story could be said of Griffith University, the University of Southern Queensland and Queensland University of Technology. They all had the same experience. Because so many regional students go to the universities in Brisbane and on the coast, the universities in Queensland particularly suffered because the pattern of settlement in Queensland is very different from other states. Queensland is very decentralised, and so regional and rural students were particularly disadvantaged by the Howard government’s provisions.

The changes in this legislation are particularly important, and I am very happy to support it. It will help the University of Queensland, which has two campuses in my electorate—at Gatton and at Ipswich. I commend the bill to the House.