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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3186

Mr TURNOUR (10:53 AM) —I rise today to support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This debate highlights the stark differences between the Rudd government and the opposition: a government that is making practical changes and responding to the needs of the Australian community and an opposition that is ideologically focused, whether on Work Choices or still on student union ballots that went on in the seventies and eighties. We are a government committed to building an education revolution, from the early childhood sector through to primary schools, with our Building the Education Revolution that we announced recently with our Nation Building and Jobs Plan, through to high schools with our trade training centres, through to the VET sector and through to universities with our commitments there. This legislation is an important part of the overall education support and investment that we are making.

The bill establishes practical measures to support students at universities and introduces a VET FEE-HELP scheme to support more students studying diplomas and advanced diplomas. The legislation is about allowing universities to implement a student services fee of up to $250, and this can be indexed annually going forward. It allows universities to do that.

The government is very practical about this. It recognises that we are in some difficult economic times and that people may have some difficulty paying this fee. That is why students who have difficulty paying it will be able to access assistance through a new HECS-style loan component of the Higher Education Loan Program, Services and Amenities HELP. In implementing this charge, the university will have an ability to vary the charge depending on whether students are full-time, external or part-time. I studied at university as a full-time student, and as an external student and as a part-time student. Back when I studied in the 1980s, do you know what the university used to do? The university charged a different services rate depending on whether you were an external student, a part-time student or a full-time student. But that is not what the opposition are saying, because they are only interested in a scare campaign on these issues. Universities will take a practical approach to this, as the government has. They want to see this services fee reintroduced.

We have made very clear in our outline on this legislation that the fee will be used to provide important services including welfare programs, counselling, student advice and support, sport and recreation and other important services, in some instances, like child care. These are important services and, sadly, universities—as the member for Herbert and others opposite have pointed out—have continued to provide those services. But they have done that by taking money away from teaching and research to prop up services that are critically important to the universities. They recognise that. That is why, generally, universities did not support the coalition when they implemented their VSU legislation.

This legislation, as I said, is not about an ideological agenda of reintroducing compulsory student union fees, as the opposition continues to seek to assert. It is not about an ideological agenda of introducing student union fees or student association fees. They are expressly not part of the student services charge. The minister has made that clear and members on this side of the chamber continue to make that clear, but members opposite continue to run a scare campaign. Those opposite bring up historical anecdotes from the 1970s or 1980s or even, in recent contributions from the member for Herbert, from that very bipartisan group, the Liberal students association, about the National Union of Students getting moneys in this way. This bill expressly prevents that happening. We need to be honest and upfront about this bill. This bill expressly prevents that happening. It is about providing for a student services charge of up to $250 to provide welfare services and sport and recreation—those basic services that all universities see as core business for themselves in running a campus that has a community and environment that supports research and supports students getting a decent education.

As I have said, this legislation expressly prevents these charges being used for political purposes. That may not be in the opposition’s speaking notes, but they might want to have a look at the legislation and the actualities in relation to this legislation. The charge can only be used for services as outlined in the guidelines. We made clear that the sorts of things I have already mentioned—we are still doing consultation on the guidelines—cannot be used for student representation services. It expressly prevents that. The bill does provide a framework where we will have student representation at universities, but let us not confuse the two. The $250 services charge cannot be used for that. That is expressly outlined—

Mr Hayes —The funds are administered by the universities.

Mr TURNOUR —and the funds are administered by the university. So let us not get confused about that. Let us not get confused by the ideological agenda that the opposition is trying to run on this bill. In parliament this week one of the big debates that is going on is about our desire to kill and bury Work Choices—to make sure that Work Choices is dead and buried, as the Leader of the Opposition said it would be when he became leader. That reminds me that not only is the opposition still ideologically committed to Work Choices, they are still ideologically committed to attacking and having these sorts of debates about student associations and student unions.

We have moved on. The Australian community has moved on. People want to see fair workplace relations laws and, in the same way, they want to see universities able to responsibly implement a student services charge to provide welfare services, support and recreation services and, if necessary, childcare and those sorts of basic services that a decent community needs—a community that universities want to be able to support through this charge.

I was lucky enough to go to the University of Queensland and study agricultural science. As I mentioned earlier, I have had experience in paying the student services charge. We had a gym at university and there were a range of other activities. At one stage I had a dispute with a lecturer over a result that I got and knew that I could get some support and advice in relation to that. They are useful and worthwhile services that universities need to provide. Welfare and support services for students who may be struggling are very important. They are certainly services that I recognise were important when I was at university. Similarly, being able to go to a gym, play sport and have those sorts of recreation activities coordinated at university is very important. They save the taxpayer money in the long run. We know that diabetes, heart disease and obesity are real problems for our society, and enabling universities to not have to take money away from teaching and research to provide these services is worthwhile, and that is what this legislation seeks to achieve.

I represent the great seat of Leichhardt—I come from Cairns—and there is Cape York and the Torres Strait. Within my electorate we also have a fantastic university in James Cook University. There is a fantastic campus up there. In a recent ranking of the world’s top 500 universities, JCU was one of only 15 Australian universities listed. It has a particular reputation in the biological research area, whether that is about the Great Barrier Reef or tropical rainforests; it has a fantastic medical school that is producing some world-class graduates; and it has a great humanities area as well that is being developed through some investments by the government. There are 3½ thousand students at James Cook University and about 600 staff. Some of the courses offered at the university include dentistry, nursing, midwifery, nutrition, sport and exercise science, Indigenous studies, creative arts and education. The services that we are talking about are critically important to students studying in these fields.

One of the other issues that is critical, particularly in relation to this legislation, to a university like James Cook University is that we have a very high proportion of students studying who are the first children in their family to go to university, so they do not have a history of attendance at university. Some of them come from Cape York or the Torres Strait and may have come from difficult backgrounds. When the VSU debate was originally going on, when the coalition introduced their draconian, ideology driven legislation to seek to abolish the fee and ban student associations and student unionism effectively, we recognised that, particularly at James Cook University, where students had come from these difficult backgrounds, there was a need for the welfare and other support services.

There is a need to create a community at James Cook University. People can obviously study, learn and research, but they also need to feel that they are in an environment where they are part of a community. The other services—whether it is sport, recreation, child care, having a place to gather, talk and feel as though you are part of a community, having proper representation and involvement of students within the life of the university—are critical, and they are all things that this bill seeks to reintroduce to allow James Cook University to provide them. Creating a community through the provision of these services would allow them—as they have been doing, as the member for Herbert pointed out—to continue to provide many of these services but not have to take money away from their teaching or research funds in order to do so.

There were significant impacts at James Cook University from the former government’s legislation. With the changes, as I have said, they had been able to meet some services but there were significant cuts to services at James Cook University, including the childcare centre and some other services. Fifteen jobs were lost when the VSU legislation came in, some welfare services ceased and James Cook University diverted money from teaching and research to maintain some of these services because they recognised that many students at JCU needed particular support. The students travel long distances and they want to become part of a community that these important services provide. Also, if they are struggling and have difficulties, they need to be able to get proper support, whether it is welfare, counselling or advice on academic issues. That can be provided now if we pass this legislation through the House and the Senate.

I have spoken to my local student association about some of these issues and, if we pass this legislation, the university will be able to reimplement a student services charge of up to $250. I expect universities will have different charges for full-time, part-time and external students, given that that is what happened in the past. They will be able to use this fee to reintroduce many of these services. I understand that at JCU they plan to provide greater support in welfare services. They will be able to boost and reinvigorate their sports and recreation program, which, as I said, is particularly important in creating a community. That boost will ensure we are tackling some of the issues in the broader community, whether it is heart disease, diabetes or obesity. I think sport and recreation is one of the critically important programs at universities and schools to help with lifestyle choices that are good for people in their broader lives, as well as giving them the fundamentally good education that James Cook University provides. JCU will also see whether they should provide some childcare services. That will be up to the university in consultation with their students and their students’ association to make those decisions. That is right and proper.

Some members opposite would suggest that we have not said what this fee is going to be used for and that it is going to be taken away for some sort of political lobbying. We think it is appropriate that the decision should be left to individual universities to decide the best way to utilise these funds if they implement this fee. It is the universities who can make the best decision about what level of fee they can introduce, up to the $250, which can be indexed annually. As I said, this is not about compulsory student unionism as contended by the opposition; it is not about the reintroduction of that.

The bill also makes some technical changes in relation to tertiary admission centres. To get to university—and I am sure this varies in different states—you apply through a tertiary admissions centre. Admissions centres need to communicate with universities about students who are applying and they need to swap information with each other. This legislation will streamline those processes and make the privacy obligations of admissions centres more effectively fit with those of universities. It will also be useful in streamlining the operations of the university system and enabling young people to get into university.

The bill also introduces VET FEE-HELP, which is a HECS style system for people who are undertaking diploma and advanced diploma VET courses. Students undertaking VET public courses in diploma and advanced diploma areas decreased from 197,000 in 2002 to 165,000 in 2007. Under the former government, students undertaking diploma and advanced diploma courses decreased in number between 2002 and 2007 from 197,000 to 165,000. What was one of the main things we heard? I heard it, I am sure opposition members heard it and I am sure the member for Melbourne Ports heard it. What were people talking about? It was the skills crisis—the shortage of skilled people in trades and other areas such as nursing. These were the areas of diploma and advanced diploma courses that people could undertake to help find jobs.

What did we have under the former government? We had a decline in people undertaking these courses. One of the reasons we have had a decline is fees came in and it became less affordable for people to do courses. The Rudd government is very committed to ensuring that people have the opportunity to get a decent education, and if they cannot afford it then VET FEE-HELP will enable them to study further and provide them with an opportunity to do these courses. This will mean a reverse in the huge skills shortages left to us by the former government. The Rudd government in partnership with the states through COAG is determined to tackle these skills shortages in this country. This is a good example of a practical measure that we are providing through this legislation—which clearly the opposition is going to vote against—to provide for and support people wanting to do more diploma and advanced diploma courses in the VET area. Allowing students to access a HECS style loan scheme for VET courses will enable many more students to study at this level, improving their skills and improving their employment options.

In some occupations, such as enrolled nursing in health and community services regulated by state and territory nursing boards, the diploma course is the minimum qualification. We have heard about skills shortages. I know many of the aged-care centres in my electorate are looking for more enrolled nurses. What we are going to do is provide some help for people who want to study in those areas through a VET FEE-HELP scheme. Wouldn’t you think that was a good idea? We certainly do. Does the opposition? I do not think so.

In the business and construction area, diplomas and advanced diplomas allow people to go beyond the trades and technical area. They can move into roles in project management, financial estimating and other managerial roles. So in the construction area, the diplomas and advanced diplomas allow people to move from the trades area into more managerial areas and to advance their technical expertise and knowledge as part of the construction industry. I think that is a great idea. I think it is a great role for this legislation to provide support for those people, particularly as I am sure many would be mature-age students who want to go back and gain greater qualifications through a diploma and advanced diploma. VET FEE-HELP will enable them to access a loan scheme to pay for those fees while they are doing that study. Many people start and then do not finish because of this issue about paying the upfront fees. This is a fantastic component of this legislation.

This bill is not about any ideological agenda by the Labor Party, the Rudd government, to reintroduce student unionism, as the opposition contend. It is about practical measures to support student services at universities and it is about practical measures to support students who want to do advanced diplomas and diplomas to advance themselves in their own careers or, if they are just studying, to get a job. It is about streamlining some approaches to the process of people applying to go to university. It is a practical bill. That is what this government is about—practical measures to support education. This is particularly aimed at the VET and higher education level but we have measures that go from early childhood through primary school through high school right the way through to the higher education and VET sectors that this legislation specifically deals with.

The opposition opposes our move to tackle the skills crisis, to invest again in education, to gain a real community at universities and to help people out there who are struggling and want to do a diploma or an advanced diploma course. I say to the opposition: get out of the way. We are going to get on with building the education revolution in this country. We are committed to it. You need to sort yourselves out and get back in the business of developing policy rather than opposing everything. I think the Australian people are tired of it. I know the government is tired of it. We are basically looking for an opposition that will support good legislation. This is very good legislation and I commend it to the House.