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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3195

Ms HALL (11:30 AM) —I rise to support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, as will many of my colleagues within the parliament, who are totally committed to this legislation and can see the vast benefits that it will provide. I need to put on the record my very strong support for this legislation, as will many of my colleagues.

This legislation amends the previous government’s voluntary student unionism legislation, delivers a balanced, measured and practical solution to rebuilding student services and amenities of a non-academic nature and restores independent democratic representation and advocacy within the higher education system. It will amend the previous government’s voluntary student unionism legislation and deliver balanced and measured practical solutions. It is important to note that the previous government’s legislation stripped approximately $170 million from university funding, resulting in the decline and in some instances complete closure of vital health, counselling, employment, childcare and welfare support services—things that are vitally important to students when they are at university. Going from school to university is a very big life change, and the services that were provided were quite often the services that ensured that students going to university succeeded.

I must say that I found listening to the contribution to the debate by the member for Hume most interesting. As I entered the chamber he was throwing abuse across the chamber at one of my colleagues, suggesting that unlike the member for Leichhardt he had worked for a living. Well, I have known the member for Leichhardt a long time and I know that he has worked for a living. He has a background in agricultural science, and he is very committed to seeing students get a fair deal. The member for Leichhardt understands what it is like to attend university while at the same time struggling with work. He has been faced with all of those competing needs.

It is very wrong for the member for Hume to stereotype members and to be so judgmental about a person’s background without knowing anything at all about where they come from or what they have done in the past. I feel quite sure that the member for Hume would like to throw those sorts of comments across the chamber at me. I have had a long and varied career, starting with washing dishes in kitchens and serving tables when I was studying to working in a professional field prior to entering parliament. I have always worked, and that is pretty indicative of most people on this side of the parliament. We have worked hard, we have studied, but we do not come from the elitist background that members on the other side of parliament try to portray. We do understand that many on their side enjoyed growing up with a silver spoon in their mouths—

Mr Robert —Jill, don’t be like that. Did you hear me defending Alby?

Ms HALL —I notice the member opposite nodding in agreement with what I am saying! The member for Hume also pointed out that this legislation was like a poll tax, because everybody had to pay it and it was regressive. I did not notice the member for Hume arguing that way when the GST was introduced. That was a tax that everyone had to pay from the cradle to the coffin regardless. He seemed to be quite supportive of that. In talking about a regressive tax, he is saying people would have to pay it whether or not they used the services provided by the university. To be honest, I do not mind paying taxes that are used for things I do not personally use. I have not been in hospital in recent times; I do not mind my taxes being spent on hospitals. I am not undertaking any form of education at the moment, nor are any of my children, but I welcome my taxes being spent on education. I have no children in child care—I thought a 35-year-old was a bit too old to send off to child care! I hope my taxes are being spent on that. In all probability, I will never receive the age pension. I strongly support my taxes being spent on providing the age pension. I think the member for Hume has a very narrow approach to looking at tax and regressive tax.

When we come to unions, I think we are getting close to why not just the member for Hume but every member on the other side of this parliament chose to oppose this legislation. They feel that, somewhere in there, there may be some mention of unions. We all know that they are the slaves of Work Choices and that Work Choices was driven by hatred of unions. The member for Hume talked about national unions of students campaigning against the Howard government. When we look at some of these issues, we are getting a bit closer to the reasons that we have had speaker after speaker on the other side of this House stand up and speak against legislation that is going to provide vital services for students attending university—services that can provide a whole-of-life experience to students whilst they are at university and, in addition to that, services that can support them and ensure that they complete their degrees.

When I attended university at one time, I utilised the childcare service at that university. It was the fact that I could access that childcare service that enabled me to study. It was the kind of service that has been jeopardised since the Howard government ripped $170 million from universities through the introduction of voluntary student unionism. As well as much needed services being substantially reduced or having ceased to exist on many campuses, students have been hit with increased prices for child care. As I mentioned, I was able to study at one particular stage in my life because I could access affordable child care that recognised the fact that at that time my income was low. Voluntary student unionism has also led to increasing prices for parking, books, computer labs, sports and food services—all things that made attending university more affordable for students from my electorate and from electorates around Australia.

Indirect costs have resulted, with funds being redirected by many universities from research and teaching budgets to prevent cuts to services and amenities. I know that the University of Newcastle has done everything in its power to maintain the services that have been provided on that campus. This is because at the University of Newcastle, as at many universities throughout the country, it was recognised how vital these services were to maintaining a university campus that had a multitude and variety of services and support for the students attending that university. This legislation brings back a balanced and practical approach to ensure that student services and amenities, as well as access to independent and democratic—and I emphasise independent and democratic—representation and advocacy, are secured now and into the future.

These amendments will ensure that national access to service benchmarks will be introduced for the first time. They will ensure the provision of information on, and access to, welfare services and counselling in line with current requirements for overseas students. I believe that is a very important step. Counselling and welfare services have been of vital importance to students at universities over a very long period of time, but these national access to service benchmarks will allow for that to be evaluated. I think that members on the other side of this parliament will be very surprised at the information that comes out.

National student representation and advocacy protocols will be introduced for the first time to make sure that students have an independent voice on campus. I know that members on the other side of this parliament tend to become a little bit worried when people show their independence and have a different approach to theirs on any issue. What I would say to those members is: ‘Embrace the difference. Embrace the fact that students, whilst they are at university, are learning—they are opening their minds. They do not need to be locked into any particular philosophy.’ I suggest that members opposite support independent voices on university campuses.

As well as the benchmarks and protocols, universities will be provided with an option to set a compulsory fee capped at a maximum of $250 per year and indexed annually. This legislation is to take effect from July. The first fee will only be for half a year and it will not be for the full amount. It is also important to note that allowance will be made for students that are attending part time. The university has the ability to do that.

Guidelines will be developed outlining the range of services and amenities for which fees can and cannot be used, including things like child care, health care, sports, fitness clubs and all the things that I think are so important. Each university will decide whether to implement the fee or not. Eligible students will have the option of taking out HECS-style loans under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program—SAHELP—to ensure that the fee is not a financial barrier.

This legislation also maintains a commitment not to return to compulsory student unionism. As I said at the commencement of my contribution to the debate, I think that has been a big concern on the other side of this House. Members on the other side tend to cringe as soon as they hear the word ‘union’. I need to assure them that this is absolutely not a return to compulsory student unionism. Rather, it is about providing financial support to universities to ensure that students can access all those things that make universities a very special place, as well as providing students with support services.

It maintains the commitment not to, as I have said, return to compulsory student unionism. It is expected that providers will consider the views of students—and that means consultation—in determining whether to charge a fee and, if so, at what level it should be put. At the same time, when they consult with the student bodies—the students—they will determine what types of services and amenities will be supported by fees. I have mentioned child care, counselling, student welfare services, health services and the sporting facilities that have been so important. I note that the member for Hume questioned whether or not the sporting support that students obtain at university would lead to Australia being in a better position when it comes to the Olympics. I have a quote here from the Australian Olympic Committee. In its submission to the 2008 review, it said:

For a number of our Olympic Sports, the university sporting clubs system is a key component in the elite athlete pathway. The best example of this is rowing where approximately 80% of national representative rowers are members of or connected with a university club. Given the importance that the university sports system has on elite level sport, these trends will have a direct and real impact on Australia’s ability to maintain its hard won international standing in sport.

It continues:

… the introduction of the VSU legislation has had a direct negative impact on the number of students (particularly women)—

I have a longstanding interest in women in sport and the fact that women in sport find it a lot more difficult to receive the rewards for their sporting activities than men do. The pathway for women in sport is a lot harder. Women’s sport does not obtain the same level of support within the general community and does not get the same access to sponsorship and the media as men’s sport. I think it shows that the VSU legislation has impacted on the number of women that are involved in sport and that is really disturbing to me on a personal level—

participating in sport and, for the longer term, the maintenance and upgrading of sporting infrastructure and facilities and the retention of world class coaches.

I implore those on the other side of the parliament to move away from their very fixed approach and stereotyping of what they think this is—namely, they are linking it to unionism. They are fearful that students will join together and not support them. The National Union of Students, as the member for Hume pointed out, campaigned about the Howard government. That is not what this legislation is about. This is about supporting our universities and ensuring that they have the finances they need to provide those really vital services—such as counselling, child care, affordable parking and affordable food—to the students while, at the same time, providing students with the opportunity to have the diverse experience that university provides.

Being at university is the one time in a person’s life when they can experience different things and should push the boundaries in their thought processes. They should also be able to continue to be involved in sports at university. This is about funding universities. This is about creating diversity of experiences on university campuses. It is about ensuring that students have the ability to make a choice.