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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3151

Dr SOUTHCOTT (6:59 PM) —In speaking to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, I want to talk about schedule 2, which I think most speakers have not touched on. This schedule deals with the extension of VET FEE-HELP. In terms of the costing impact, it is presently based on an application of extending VET FEE-HELP to Victoria. The opposition certainly has no opposition to VET FEE-HELP. In fact, we introduced VET FEE-HELP. In the 2007 budget, the former Howard government and the then Minister for Vocational and Further Education, the member for Goldstein, announced that they would extend FEE-HELP to the VET sector. That bill was introduced in June 2007. Until the introduction of that bill, the VET sector was the only sector offering post-secondary qualifications without an income-contingent loan scheme. We recognised that students seeking an education in the VET sector did not receive the same level of financial support as those seeking an education at university. We believed that students wishing to undertake a VET course should not be deterred from doing so because of the financial pressures associated with upfront fees.

Under the coalition government, the view that pursuing a VET qualification was just as important as pursuing a university qualification was not just empty rhetoric. Under the bill we introduced, FEE-HELP was available to those undertaking a TAFE diploma or an associate diploma, where full fees were charged and where arrangements had been made for credit transfer to a higher education award and to VET providers that were corporate bodies only. This was the first introduction of a student loan scheme in the VET sector at the national level. The former Minister for Vocational and Further Education, the member for Goldstein, said when he introduced this bill that the operation of the scheme would be monitored carefully and he was of the general view that if this introduction were successful, VET FEE-HELP could be extended further in the future.

When the Victorian government announced that it was going to move to a more demand-driven system in the area of skills and vocational education and training, the federal government announced that it would extend the introduction of income-contingent loans into the Victorian VET sector. I, as the shadow minister for apprenticeships and training, and the then shadow minister for education, the member for Casey, indicated that we supported the federal government’s decision to extend the introduction of income-contingent loans into the Victorian VET sector. It is schedule 2 of this bill that has this intent. Unfortunately, the government have put a schedule in this bill that the opposition is not opposed to but they have put it in a bill that also slugs every university student with a $250 compulsory tax, which we cannot support.

In touching on schedule 1, which deals with the legislation to introduce a $250 compulsory fee on university students, I strongly oppose this legislation. This $250 compulsory tax slug on all Australian university students would be indexed to rise with the CPI and it is a clear broken election promise. In May 2007, prior to the federal election, the then shadow education minister, the member for Perth, said:

I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, I’m not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

How wrong can you be? Wrong on the first, wrong on the second and wrong on the third. What we see is that the whole pattern of university students has changed. We now have more external students than ever before, more international students than ever before, and more people studying part-time at universities. We have large campuses where many students at outlying facilities will never even visit the main union building. There are 130,000 external university students who will be forced to pay for services and amenities that they may never actually see let alone use. Mature age students who attend night classes will have to pay for services that are closed when they are on campus.

When we introduced the legislation in 2005 which introduced voluntary student unionism, I said that students who cannot possibly use the services should not have to pay for them. Students who do not want, do not use or cannot use services or amenities at a university campus should not be forced to pay for them. University students often work several jobs and operate on a shoestring budget. Savings from the introduction of voluntary student unionism enabled students to divert their limited financial resources to goods and services that they decided were what they would like to spend their limited budget on—things like textbooks, social activities and transport. This new fee will put an extra burden on these students’ budgets.

My other concern is that there is nothing in this bill to stop the funds raised from this compulsory fee being spent on political campaigns. The only political activity that this legislation prohibits is the support of political parties and the support of a person seeking election to a Commonwealth, state, territory or local government body. This still leaves a large range of political activities, including funding campaigns against legislation and policies and potentially against political parties. I would like to give members a real example. In 2004, I received a leaked memo which showed that the union board of Flinders University, in June 2004, resolved that the union, jointly with the students association of Flinders University, request the student organisation committee to use its small projects fund to contribute $8,000 to a cross-campus 2004 federal election material fund, which included information on the importance of preferencing the coalition last. That resolution was moved by a staff member of a South Australian Labor senator. In 2004, the National Union of Students South Australian executive, also in their minutes, showed that they had established a federal election committee, and the then President of the South Australian union, Ms Meagan Hackett, said:

I am asking each campus student union and/or association to donate money to this campaign, to ensure that education remains one of the most topical election issues …

According to Ms Hackett:

The Flinders University Union has so far committed $6000 while UniSA will donate between $3000-6000 as well.

What actually happened was that the National Union of Students put out a letter, using students’ money taken without their knowledge, consent or support. In the seat of Hindmarsh, for example, a letter from the National Union of Students, rather than talking about making education ‘one of the most topical election issues’, urged voters: ‘Don’t let Simon Birmingham and John Howard take away our future.’ That seat was won by 108 votes, and student funds diverted to that campaign may have made a difference in that seat.

In fact, during the six-week period of the 2004 federal election campaign, the National Union of Students spent over $75,000 on broadcasting electoral advertisements, over $40,000 on publishing these electoral advertisements, nearly $50,000 on producing campaign material like how-to-vote cards, posters or pamphlets, and just under $90,000 on direct mailing—that is, over a quarter of a million dollars of students’ money used in a federal election. It was not core business for students and it was not core business for student unions. It was not delivering services to their members; it was assisting the federal Labor campaign. To emphasise the point, the mailing address for the electoral return for the National Union of Students was care of Trades Hall, Victoria.

My concern with this legislation is that there is nothing in it to prevent the money again being diverted from student services into political campaigns. There is nothing in this legislation to protect students from rogue student unions. This legislation allows this compulsory fee to be used for student representation, which means that political activities of student unions will be funded by all students whether they like it or not. What is worse is that there will be no departmental monitoring to ensure compliance with the guidelines on how the money should be spent. It will be up to individual students to be whistleblowers. Even then, the minister will have the discretion to determine whether to take any action.

In this parliament it has been the Labor Party, not university students, who have long been the beneficiaries of compulsory student unionism. As I said before, in 2004 the National Union of Students spent $250,000 of students’ money campaigning against the Howard government. I support the right of students to have their say on any issue by protesting or handing out flyers, but such activity should not be funded by students through a compulsory fee. It should not be funded by slugging university students with a $250 fee. This activity should be conducted on a voluntary basis and should be paid for by people who support it. Freedom of association is a fundamental tenet of the Liberal Party. It is for these reasons that I cannot support this bill. My fear is that we will see a return of the rorts that characterised compulsory student unionism in the past.