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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3177

Mr PERRETT (10:16 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. Thankfully, this bill is about breathing life back into Australia’s higher education sector. It comes as no surprise to members on this side of the House that the coalition’s approach to voluntary student unionism ripped the heart out of Australia’s universities.

Dr Jensen interjecting

Mr PERRETT —It is ironic when we hear from people with PhDs obtained at these universities. These were the very beneficiaries of Labor’s commitment to education, yet one of the first things they did when they were in power was to attack universities.

Mr Hayes —No gratitude.

Mr PERRETT —No gratitude at all. The government’s review of the impacts of VSU found that universities had been left $170 million out of pocket and, as a result, vital student services such as health, counselling, child care and welfare support services were reduced or cut.

Dr Jensen interjecting

Mr PERRETT —Those opposite talk about newspapers and the like. But the reality for those who really know what goes on at universities is that health, counselling, child care and welfare services are about saving lives. So many people have troubled times when they go from school to university and they need someone to reach out to them via a counselling service. Ripping $170 million out of the universities has impacted on so many lives and, unfortunately, in terms of the economic analysis, so many people have not gone on to productive careers because it was not possible to offer them a helping hand because of the Howard government’s cruel approach to university students. The Howard approach was to treat universities like sausage factories. But university students are human and need to be treated accordingly. Thousands of employment opportunities for students were also abolished. This also impacted on academic services as universities have been forced to direct funds out of research and teaching to fund services and amenities. That is really the biggest crime. Universities understand that they serve human beings—not widgets or economic units, but people who need to be supported. Because they have to support people, they have to take funds away from research and teaching—those core services that those opposite talk about.

Universities are already under significant financial pressure after nearly 12 long years of neglect where we saw funding ripped out of the higher education sector. The OECD’s Education at a glance 2007 report found that public investment by the Howard-Costello government in tertiary education between 1995 and 2004 declined by four per cent, while in all other OECD countries it increased by an average of 49 per cent. That is shameful, especially when, as the member for Tangney pointed out, so many of the people opposite benefited from the university system. The Howard government has many shameful things on its copybook, but to decrease university funding by four per cent is surely one of the most significant.

Unlike the Howard government, the Rudd Labor government has a long-term, enduring commitment to the importance of higher education and our universities. We have a plan for the future. We believe that education is the way to go. It is not a temporary thing. Education and technology are the way forward for this government. So blinded were the Liberal Party by their ideological opposition to student unions—and we certainly saw how deep that feeling was in the previous presentation by the member for Tangney—that they refused to explore credible alternatives and even ignored the calls from the National Party to allow universities to implement a compulsory student services fee. Barnaby Joyce lives in my home town.

Mr Lindsay —Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek to make an intervention.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Does the member for Moreton accept the question?

Mr PERRETT —No. The Liberal Party even ignored the calls of the Nationals to allow universities to implement a compulsory student services fee. Senator Barnaby Joyce understands. He understands how important regional universities are, and I thought the member opposite would as well.

Mr Hayes —He must have cared.

Mr PERRETT —He cares. He has a heart. He is a decent guy. He lives in rural Queensland and understands what it is like and how important it is to support people, especially from the bush, which is my experience as well. But the Liberal Party rejected the advice not only of Barnaby Joyce but also of experts like the University of Sydney’s vice-chancellor, Professor Gavin Brown. Following the passing of the VSU legislation back in 2005, Professor Brown said:

I’m afraid that it’s a temporary victory for the redneck Philistines …

Mr Hayes interjecting

Mr PERRETT —Do you want me to repeat that, Member for Werriwa? He said:

I’m afraid that it’s a temporary victory for the redneck Philistines …

He went on:

It will be seriously damaging to Australia’s international reputation. The fact that no compromise was reached on providing an amenities fee and the emphasis was placed on the idea that the only valid thing that you learn in a university is inside the classroom.

It was very short sighted and very cold hearted. I would have expected more from educated people, but obviously that was not the case. The Liberal Party ignored Barnaby Joyce and ignored Sydney university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Gavin Brown. They thought they knew better than university leaders and staff about how to run their institutions.

We saw it today in the comments of the member for Tangney, and I have heard it in parliament: all of those slights from their younger days, those grudges that they bear from when they were juveniles—all of those things were carried on into the cabinet room. All of those slights from campuses from their youth were carried into the cabinet room in the Howard-Costello government. You see it when you see the member for Higgins, Peter Costello, and Mrs Mirabella—so many things are all about slights from when they were upset at university. I say: let it go; move on.

Mr Hayes —Grow up.

Mr PERRETT —Grow up, yes. Have a slightly different approach. But, no, they carried it on into the cabinet room, and so we have that shameful legacy where, compared to other OECD countries that went ahead by, say, 50 per cent, we declined by four per cent.

The Rudd government is about restoring fairness and balance to ensure that student amenities and services are sustainable into the future. This bill gives universities the option—there is that word: ‘option’—to collect a compulsory student services fee of up to $250 per year from 1 July this year, just in time for next semester. Importantly, this fee will be channelled directly into student services, and universities will be able to decide whether to charge the fee at all—as I said, up to $250—and, if they do charge it, how much it will be. So we do understand the word ‘choice’ well and truly but we also understand that university students are humans and need to be cared for.

Guidelines will be developed to give universities a clear outline of the range of services and amenities the fee can and cannot be used for. So ignore the rants of those opposite, who are revisiting the slights and grudges from their university days—this is all about fairness and making sure the fees are used for proper purposes. I understand consultation is underway on these guidelines. We expect to see the money go towards services like child care, health care, sports and student advocacy services. So ignore the list put forward by those opposite; this is fair dinkum and will look after university students.

This bill will also introduce national student representation and advocacy protocols to ensure that university students have representation on university boards, giving students a voice on campus. If you talk to anyone at Griffith University, in my electorate, they will tell you the previous government’s stance had a negative impact on student services. Even the student union was forced to shut down, putting an end to some crucial student services. As I said earlier, unfortunately such an event can seriously damage people’s lives.

Thinking back to my university days, I do say, without any grudge or anything like, that I was not involved in student unions at all. But I think of the people that, but for a helping hand, would have dropped out of university altogether—people that but for a bit of child care would not have been able to access university at all. Over the last couple of weeks, in the light of this pending legislation, I have spoken to a number of students at Griffith University. Even when they were busy with orientation week, they were only too keen to talk about this bill because they know that any fee imposed by the university will go directly to student services. One student told me:

It is going to mean that all students will again have access to counselling services, health services, and academic advocacy.

And under the guidelines, students will have say in the running of their university at the highest levels.

This bill will inject a bit of heart back into campus life by reinvigorating sports and special interest clubs and other services. It is basically about ensuring that there is learning with soul. The previous speaker, the member for Tangney, Dr Jensen, seems to think that learning is just about the empirical acquisition of content. Those days are long gone—the days of just flipping back the head and pouring in the content, and saying that is all you need to get by in the world, are long gone. The information age is now here. We need to be able to process things, and we realise that sports and special interest clubs and all those other activities make for much better students. The days of the sage on the stage are gone. It is now, like teaching, about the guide on the side.

This bill before the House requires higher education providers funded through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme to ensure that students have access to student support services. So you could not put all the money into, say, a rugby union club or something like that; you actually have to provide a range of services to ensure that everyone is supported.

I also welcome the measures in this bill to ensure that the fee is not an added burden to struggling students. Eligible students will be able to take out a loan, similar to HECS, that will enable them to pay their fee. Obviously, the fee will be payable later, once their income improves, as so often happens when people go to university—it does tend to give people the ability to access a higher income bracket.

Part-time students will also be taken into account. Under the guidelines, part-time students will be charged less than the maximum fee, and some will have no charge at all. I would imagine that for some of the external students that will be the case. I should declare an interest here in that my wife is in her last year of law as an external and part-time student at Queensland University of Technology. I should have declared that upfront, I guess. Either way, I am very supportive of this legislation.

I understand that there are some, certainly in the student community, who do not think that this bill goes far enough. I have certainly had representations along those lines in my office, both here and in Brisbane. I am sorry that this legislation is not all things to all people but, like so much of the Rudd government legislation, it is about balance. It is about doing the right thing for the majority of people and it is about restoring common sense to our interactions with people rather than treating them as mere economic units.

As I said, this is a balanced approach and is not a return to compulsory student unionism. This bill makes no change to proposed section 19-37 (1) of the act, which prohibits universities from requiring a student to join a student organisation. The Rudd government believes that students should not be forced to pay over-the-top, upfront fees but is committed to ensuring that university students have access to vital services on campus. I remind those opposite, again, that this will mean that lives can be saved. The pressures of moving from school to university, from the bush to the city, can sometimes be too much, especially for country kids, I would suggest. So they do need a helping hand. They are vital services. I strongly support the approach taken by the Deputy Prime Minister in this bill and I believe that a reasonable contribution will be good for students and for universities.

We should not forget that last year the Rudd government announced funding of $500 million for the Better Universities Renewal Fund to support IT, science labs and other laboratories, libraries and other student amenities, as well as $24 million to increase childcare assistance for parents who are studying at university or TAFE. Obviously, this measure is crucial to so many women in giving them an opportunity to change their economic circumstances or to have a career path. I shudder to think of the number of fine minds that might have been denied a chance to have a career but for the support that is given through child care at universities.

This bill also amends the Higher Education Support Act to improve the privacy standards for tertiary admission centres. Relevant student information that is shared between the government, higher education providers and tertiary admission centres will be subject to strict privacy requirements. This is a simple amendment to ensure that the privacy rights of students are protected. It is important that this information is handled delicately. Anyone who can recall their first round of university offers when they left high school will recall that it is an incredibly exciting time—and obviously a sad time for some people—so it is important that we do the right thing with this information to ensure it is not handled incorrectly. Any fair-minded, intelligent person, whether or not they went to university, would understand that the legislation before the House gets the balance right. It ensures that students will have access to the services they need on campus, without imposing a hefty financial burden on those who cannot afford it. As I said, there is a HECS style support available.

This legislation is about hope and about ensuring that we protect the jobs of the next generation and beyond. As I said, those opposite whom I have heard in this debate really need to get rid of some of that baggage that they acquired at university. I do not know what went on in those Liberal clubs at universities, but there are obviously too many slights, too many grudges. People need to move on—

Mr Hayes —And grow up!

Mr PERRETT —That is right. I take that injection from the member for Werriwa. They need to forget the slights, forgo the grudges and move on and join me in commending the bill to the House.