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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3191

Mr SCHULTZ (11:13 AM) —I say to the former speaker: spoken like a true union hack. I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. The last time I spoke on this matter was when the then Howard government introduced an amendment to abolish compulsory student fees, which was passed by the parliament in December 2005. It should be of no surprise to members of this House that I as a former meatworker and a person experienced on the issue of compulsory unionism again rise to speak against the proposal of the Rudd Labor government to reintroduce such fees that place an added drain on the limited resource of funds that are available to the majority of students that attend university throughout Australia.

This bill proposes to amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to allow higher education providers to charge students an annual capped compulsory student services and amenities fee from 1 July 2009; to introduce a new Higher Education Loan Program category for student amenities fees called Services and Amenities HELP, or SA-HELP; to broaden the application of the Higher Education Loan Program category for vocational education and training students, called VET FEE-HELP; and to provide that officers of tertiary admissions centres have the same status and duty of care as those of higher education providers in relation to processing student information.

Whilst I acknowledge that this bill does contain certain other measures, its primary purpose is, from 1 July this year, to allow higher education providers to impose a new tax on the one million university students attending universities across the nation, whether they are full time, part time, studying on campus or externally. Whether or not they have a need for the services and activities which the $250 fee is intended to prop up, they will all be hit with what amounts to a new, compulsory annual $250 tax, equating to $250 million around the nation taken from students, who can least afford it. The services which may be funded by the compulsory levied fee will be outlined in the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines, which will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument after the bill has been passed.

The bill will also require higher education providers to comply with the new Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines. These guidelines will impose obligations on the provider to comply with requirements relating to so-called student representation and advocacy, effectively funding student elections, union offices and salaries. As is the case with the fee guidelines, these guidelines will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument after the bill has been passed.

The bill also makes a number of technical changes that will allow students to defer payment of the compulsory fee by accessing a HECS-style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program called SA-HELP. The bill will include tertiary admissions centres in the regime that governs higher education providers’ access and use of student records and information. The bill will also expand the VET FEE-HELP program to increase the number of students who can access the program. Currently only full-fee-paying students are covered. The bill will make changes to expand the types of courses included in the program—that is, diploma courses that do not provide for the transfer of credits to an approved course.

The Rudd Labor government has yet again broken another election promise because it did not include the introduction of a higher education amenities fee in the policies that it took to the last election. Research that I have conducted supports voluntary student unionism and further can provide evidence that voluntary student unionism, commonly referred to as VSU, is working. The RMIT Student Union asserts on its website that voluntary student unionism has led to its advocacy service being scaled back, yet it still finds the money to produce an expensive radio program on 3CR every Saturday morning called Blazing Textbooks—

Mr Turnour —Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms S Bird)—Will the member for Hume allow a question?

Mr SCHULTZ —No. This radio program is promoted as promoting an ‘anti-capitalist perspective on current issues on education from around Australia and the world’. This shows that if student unions were actually focused on providing services that were relevant to students, membership would be much higher and their finances would be in better shape. Furthermore, the Melbourne University Student Union recently stripped its clubs and societies budget by $18,000, or 24 per cent, in order to fund a $15,000 increase in its donation to the extreme National Union of Students. Despite their rhetoric, it is student unions themselves that are doing more damage to campus life than any voluntary system could. Compulsory fees guarantee revenue streams to service providers regardless of the quality of their product. There is no fiscal incentive to provide students—

Mr Turnour —Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Will the member for Hume allow a question?

Mr SCHULTZ —You can stand up all day—you will get no satisfaction out of me, mate.

Mr Turnour interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member cannot ask the question before he is given permission.

Mr SCHULTZ —You blokes do not like the truth—it always eats you up, doesn’t it?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Will the member for Hume accept a question?

Mr SCHULTZ —No. You can stand up and I will keep saying no. Don’t waste your time bobbing up and down!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member cannot knock back a question and then debate it. The member for Hume has the call.

Mr SCHULTZ —Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is no fiscal incentive to provide students with services—

Mr Turnour interjecting

Mr SCHULTZ —The one thing I’ve got over you, mate, is that I work for a living—not like you. There is no fiscal incentive to provide students with services that are attractive, because ultimately wages will be paid regardless of how good or bad the services may be. In 2004, before voluntary student unionism was introduced, Monash University students were compelled to pay an amenities fee of $428 per annum. This amount was used to fund various items as follows—and I want the parliament to listen very carefully to this: $238 for administrative costs, $30 for building services, $13.28 for clubs and societies, $22 for sport, $5.40 for childcare services, 59c for unspecified student services, 49c for student theatre and 28c for food services and subsidies. These figures undoubtedly show the way in which students failed to obtain value for money under the compulsory fee system.

This regressive tax will see those students with low incomes stripped of their power to choose what their already scarce funds are spent on. It removes the choice of students to allocate $250 to areas they place higher priority on, such as textbooks or sporting equipment. Of most concern, however, is that students will be charged the fee regardless of their capacity to pay. This effectively renders the bill a legislative instrument to introduce a poll tax on university students. It is akin to taxing every member of society a flat, across-the-board rate without taking into consideration one’s income.

Enabling students to defer their amenities fee onto their HELP loans does not change the fact that such charges are inequitable. No matter how the fees are collected, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to utilise amenities and services subsidised by the fee. It is well documented that some students work multiple jobs to cover spiralling rents and other cost-of-living pressures. As a result these students are less likely to have time to enjoy subsidised membership of ski clubs, rowing clubs or cheap drinks at the union bar than students who are living at home having their parents pay for their textbooks or who are independently wealthy. Unfortunately, these are students who can typically afford such items at the market rate.

The bill precludes students from having a choice about whether or not to pay the fee on the basis of their ability to utilise the services it provides. Students who attend university only to attend classes are unlikely to ever obtain any value out of such fees. Mature age students who work full time and attend night classes will be forced to subsidise the activities of a few. Even more outrageous is the idea that students studying by correspondence, who may never set foot on a university campus, will be charged a compulsory fee for services they will never use. The government’s plan does not allow any exceptions to paying the fee. It is ‘no ticket, no start’ for university students. There is no legitimate case for why students should be forced to pay for services they may not be able to afford or make use of.

Much of the controversy surrounding the 2005 legislation, and VSU in general, relates to its impact on university sport. Proponents of compulsory fees suggest they are essential to ensure the success of Australia’s Olympic team, among other things. The reality is that consumers of services provided by sporting facilities at universities are largely made up of outsiders—that is, people who are not students at the university. It is an outrage that student unions, the Rudd Labor government and the Australian Olympic Committee suggest that struggling students should be subsidising elite athletes, many of whom are already recipients of Commonwealth scholarships and corporate sponsorship deals. In addition, most of Australia’s top sporting athletes do not come from university campuses but rather from elite government funded institutions such as the Australian Institute of Sport and state based subsidiaries such as the New South Wales Institute of Sport. These hand picked athletes already benefit from taxpayer largesse and do not require subsidies levied compulsorily from their fellow struggling students.

The legislation fails to ensure that student money will not be spent on political campaigns or mediums that carry political agendas. Notwithstanding the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines, clause 19-38(1) of the bill prevents a higher education provider from spending money as a student services and amenities fee to support a political party or the election of a person as an elected representative in federal, state or local government. Clause 19-67 of the bill, which is entitled ‘Special requirements for student services, amenities, representation and advocacy in 2010 and later years’, enables the minister to set a minimum guideline that higher education providers must meet in order to obtain Commonwealth funding. These guidelines were released on 19 February 2009 and part 2 of those guidelines is of particular concern.

The National Student Representation and Advocacy Protocols detail requirements for higher education providers to meet the cost of student union elections, as well as independent advocacy services in relation to matters arising under the academic and procedural rules and regulations of the higher education provider. The practical effect of such protocols is that money will inevitably be transferred from higher education providers to student organisations, which will pave the way for inappropriate, profligate spending on political activity.

The legitimacy of the student organisations that will be consulted is extremely questionable. At even the most politically active campuses, prior to the introduction of VSU, turnout in student elections almost never exceeded 10 per cent. At Melbourne and Sydney universities, historically the most political campuses, participation in student elections can be five per cent or less. The idea that an organisation with such a tiny mandate has the broad support of the student body is patently false.

There appears to be no legislative mechanism for the government to control the spending of students’ money by student unions. Clause 19-38(3) requires money spent by higher education providers to comply with the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines, yet this does not apply to money spent by student unions. The absence of control over the spending of student unions reveals Labor’s true intention with this bill, which is to return to the bad old days of compulsory student unionism. The ability and inclination of the federal government body to monitor each and every item of expenditure by student organisations or universities to ensure compliance with the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines is extremely low, particularly under a Labor administration.

The Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines also carry significant flaws. Allowing items to be funded by compulsory fees will lead to the duplication of services already provided by universities, governments or the private sector, such as health care, child care, academic support and services to assist in securing housing for university students.

Student unions have a history of financial impropriety, corruption and, typically, a lack of popular support from the students. In February of this year, Darren Ray, a former president of the Melbourne University Student Union, was jailed for 20 months in relation to defrauding the Commonwealth of $180,000 through refunds from false GST claims. Ray also presided over a $46 million property deal that sent the union bankrupt. Most recently, the Melbourne University Student Union spent money to help fund the legal defence of a man charged with assaulting police and damaging a police station in the Palm Island riots. In 2006 the Monash Student Association funded the legal defence of G20 rioter Akin Sari, who was later convicted and imprisoned. In 2004 the National Union of Students spent a quarter of a million dollars campaigning against the Howard government in the federal election. Fortunately, this episode was not repeated under voluntary unionism arrangements in 2007. In 2001 student money funded the purchase of an axe used to break into a vice-chancellor’s office and gain significant media attention.

In conclusion, this bill is a tax on students. It is a disgraceful return effectively to compulsory unionism; it represents a shameful broken promise; it is poorly drafted and will cause the government far more headaches than it realises; and it treats adult students with utter contempt. This bill and these guidelines not only will return students to the bad old days of effective compulsory student unionism but go even further by imposing those draconian obligations on tertiary education providers. It is regressive, it is a huge cost impost on students, and I will be opposing this bill, as will many of my parliamentary colleagues.