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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3199


Mr NEVILLE (11:50 AM) —The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 cuts to the very core of two different political philosophies, one being the belief that individuals should have the right to choose whether or not a fee be paid to any organisation, the other being the belief that compulsory membership by way of fees is all to the greater good. In answer to my colleague who has just spoken, I have no objections to unions of any sort. I have been a member of a union myself. I have no objection to student unionism. But I do take the most violent exception to compulsory unionism and to student unionism where the facilities of student unionism have been used for political purposes. So let me make myself clear: I think the right of association is part of our democratic heritage; and if students want to do that, so be it.

I make this preliminary comment: if student unionism in its old form had been delivering to students the sorts of things that my colleagues on the other side have been saying throughout this debate, why is it that, except in a few sandstone universities and some in Western Australia, union membership has fallen to what we are told—you cannot get an accurate figure on this—is about 15 per cent? That says to me that six out of every seven students have said that this organisation does nothing for them; that it does not provide any real material help to them in their obtaining of a degree and their journey through tertiary education. So in this bill the government has—I suggest by stealth—reversed the existing situation, where higher education students are currently not compulsorily required to expend money for services that they do not want or need.

Under this legislation, students at higher education institutions will be required to pay up to $250 a year as a student services and amenities fee, but we have not had from the government what that really means. What concerns me greatly is that this fee is the thin end of the wedge. It is a return to compulsory student unionism by stealth, as I said, because the bill leaves open the way for any student body to divert funds. It is a piece of political trickery. The services which can be provided, thanks to this per student tax, will not be detailed until after the bill has been passed and the guidelines for providing student representation and advocacy services have been outlined from that bill.

Let me paint a scenario for you. The government says that there will be a requirement for the universities to provide for an election of a representative advocacy body. What does that mean? Does that mean that that will be a controlling body for all students? Or does it mean it will be an advisory body that will advise the university senate or council on how things should be done? If it is the former, isn’t it just a short shift from having a student representative body and saying, ‘You can take over the running of the expenditure of these $250 fees’?

You might argue that in the first year or two there would not be much politics involved and it would be just the student representative body elected on each campus. That probably would not be the case at some of the long-established universities, where the unions even to this day have a bit of a foothold, but on a lot of country campuses you would get a student representative body. But I would bet within a year or two it would be politicised—I am not saying politicised necessarily by the left side of politics; I think the right side of politics would probably have a hand in that as well—and you would find that that student representative body would in a short time have a distinct political flavour about it. If the minister has not laid down very strict guidelines, the university council might say, ‘We will allow this representative body to run these facilities,’ and then you would virtually have a situation where the university union, that representative body, would again be running the facilities of the university.

Having allocated the subsidy, or the tax, the $250 per student, into various services—for example, into the cafeteria—if subsequently the cafeteria were to make a profit, would there be a requirement for that to be reinvested in student facilities or would the representative body be able to take that profit and apportion it wherever they saw fit and not necessarily on campus? These are things that we have yet to see, but given the way the previous system worked I would be most wary. It could leave open the door for funds to be allocated and then donated to any sort of body. If that is not a sly, convoluted way of cycling money back into radical political activity, nothing is.

We all know—and I am not going to bore you with the detail of it; there are pages of this stuff available—of the abuses of compulsory student unionism, and that is part of the reason why students will not have a bar of it. I do not know any other walk of life where you are forced to do something like this and have no say in it. Also, if you are having trouble raising the money you are going to be allowed to add it to HECS and have it deferred. Again, to me that is a fairly convoluted way of getting money out of parents and students into the system and removing, again by stealth, some of the legitimate objections that people might have to the collection of that money.

We know that under the old system most of the student bodies charged between about $350 and $600. That was a lot of money for parents, especially parents who had two kids at university, and I am not a bit surprised that student unionism dropped away so quickly when the compulsory nature of it was removed. It meant that these student organisations had to be more responsive to the needs of their members and it stopped the sticky fingers of unions dipping into the pockets of students. Of course, student unions were up to their arms in all sorts of activities and they have lobbied hard to have the laws the previous government introduced overturned.

I know of one young man in my electorate who has spent his entire holidays working, and who will work when he returns to university, to cover the fees for his three-year course. He is trying to pay his fees up-front while his parents cover the cost of college accommodation, which is around $15,000 a year. Next year it is likely that his sister will join him at university, so the family will then have a bill of about $30,000 for accommodation. Under the old system they could have been up for $1,000 or $1,200 for compulsory fees, and even under this system it will still be $500. I say ‘at least’ $1,000 for these two kids, because, from what we have heard of the government’s intentions, this study is going to be CPI-ed, which means that in subsequent years it will continue to increase. As I said, students will be allowed to defer the payment into some top-up of their HECS debt. I do not know if that is a healthy thing. And all that it is doing is just providing this stream that, at the flick of the pen of the minister, can be allowed to degenerate into a new, if not surreptitious, form of compulsory unionism. At a time when the government said there would be no extra taxes, surely it is expensive enough to have to pay for travel, textbooks and accommodation without having to be lumbered with some additional fee.

As a follow-up to this point, it is predicted that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in the coming year because of the global financial crisis. So what sort of prospects will students have of getting jobs to defray the cost of these government imposed fees? They will just be another expense on top of another expense. At this point, when the government is expecting us to pass the bill, we do not even know what all this money will be spent on, or what oversight, if any, there will be. Sure, we know it will be for a facilities fee, and we know that there will be a student representative body, but we have not seen a clear delineation of what things will be in and what things will be out. You can see this debate through one of two prisms: either a glorious effort to resuscitate compulsory student unionism or a spirited defence of the right to choose. There must be room for those of us who see the need for better student amenities on campus while rejecting the compulsory nature of those facilities.

Quite frankly, I think there should be a requirement on universities to provide some of these services. For example, at a university you have a health service, and I think that, for young kids coming out of secondary school, that is important. They have not got their parents there. They need to get advice. That is important. They need counselling, perhaps (a) to do with their courses or (b) to do with just coping with the change of lifestyle—and a lot of kids drop out because of that. Over the years this has been duckshoved onto the unions. It was a very clever move on the part of the universities to cost-shift. I believe that those services are very much the responsibility of the university council or senate themselves to provide. It is part of their duty of care. The concept that it can only be provided by some sort of student representative body is nonsensical. The same goes for a cafeteria. A lot of new campuses are far away from any form of food outlet—I know that the one in Bundaberg must be a kilometre from the nearest service station. To have a cafeteria should be the responsibility of the university. I have got no objection to the government making direct grants to universities for their facilities and including some of those essential things—a medical centre or a cafeteria—as part of it, but the money should not be taken from students as a levy. It should be part of the responsibility of the university to deliver those things. Yet we have been slowly suborned over the years to believe that those sorts of things can only be provided by a student union.

The other sorts of things I would query—and I think that we as members of parliament have a right to know if the government proposes these sorts of thing—are how to provide for a differentiation between the various types of students. There are a lot of very focused students today doing external studies, and some universities specialise in this. When I was studying I think that student fees—and I am not sure whether they were compulsory then—were organised along the lines of a student paying a full student fee if they were a full-time student, a 50 per cent fee if they were a part-time student, and a 25 per cent fee if they were an external student. In this bill we have not had any outline of whether that sort of thing would happen.

I stress again the importance of medical and nursing services. I think that the university should be providing them. You have smaller campuses like Cairns, Mackay—and I am talking in the Queensland context—Gladstone, Bundaberg, Hervey Bay and Ipswich, where you have a comparatively small number of students, and even with these fees there is not going to be sufficient money for the provision of some of those things I have just talked about, like medical centres.

The other thing I query is the idea that a student union—and this is clear from the minister’s statement—should be an advocacy body. What does that mean? Does that mean an advocacy body purely for the students in general advising the university senate and council, or does it mean it should advocate on behalf of individual students over their right to do a certain course or to query marks or query whether they were given reasonable time to put in assignments and the like? It is that level of advocacy.

I think that you could get around very easily. Why not have in all universities a student ombudsman, an independent person from outside either the university council or the student body—perhaps a retired lawyer, magistrate, judge or whoever might be available—who could rule on those things? You do not have to make it some confrontation between the student body acting as advocate against the university itself. So I think that the running of country campuses, especially regional campuses, could be done in a much simpler fashion.

The whole idea of compulsory student unionism is clearly at the back of this legislation. As I said, once you have got a representative student body, after you have gone through the first year or two it will eventually be politicised. There will be the Liberal club or the National club or the LNP club or the Labor club or whatever it might be, and then it will not be long before they want to start running some of the student facilities of the university. I do not know whether that is a healthy thing. I think that $250 is quite unnecessary. Some argue that there should be sporting facilities—in fact, the previous speaker talked about rowing and how rowing has provided about 80 per cent of our elite rowers. Much and all as I admire the university rowing clubs, and some of them may have had their genesis in student unionism, you really have to ask yourself whether it is the role of the average student, who has probably never held a pair of oars, to pay fees for those elite athletes. Is that really the role of your student fees? So, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have a definite worry about this bill and, in the absence of any clear explanation of some of the things I have raised today, I fear that I will have to oppose it.