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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3202

Ms LIVERMORE (12:10 PM) —In listening to the debate, it seems that members opposite are insisting on debating this measure in terms of the student union issue. Speakers on this side have tried again and again to reassure them by pointing to the bill itself and saying that this is not about compulsory student unionism—that is definitely not what this is about. There is no change to the Higher Education Support Act, which currently prohibits a university from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation. There is nothing in this bill that changes that part of the Higher Education Support Act. It is not a return to compulsory student unionism, as much as the opposition wants to create that bogeyman.

This legislation is a very sensible, a very practical and a very considered response to the situation that we have in our universities at the moment. They are $170 million short and there is an expectation and a requirement amongst their student bodies that certain services—like child care, health services, cafeterias, accommodation, welfare support and sporting facilities—are provided by universities or available at universities in a situation where there is currently no funding mechanism for universities to meet the costs of providing those services. So we have a situation where the VSU bill amounted to $170 million being taken away from universities and still an expectation to provide those services. The inevitable result of that is that those services are simply no longer able to be provided. This bill seeks to plug that hole of $170 million that hit universities as a result of the VSU legislation under the previous government and to do it in a reasonable and sensible way. It gives universities the ability to charge fees of up to $250 a year, starting in the second half of this year with fees of $125. Universities need to consult with their student populations as to the amount that will be charged and the kinds of services, activities and facilities that will be supported by that funding. That seems like a fairly moderate and practical solution to overcome the effects of the VSU bill in 2005, which saw a hole of $170 million open up in our universities.

We did not come at this with some knee-jerk, ideological reaction. It is a pretty simple bill. We could easily have whacked this into parliament straight after the 2007 election if it had simply been a matter of an ideological crusade. It is not that, and that is clearly evident by the process that has been gone through in the development of our solution to the $170 million funding hole, in order to come up with something that will work for universities and students. The process has taken close to a year. It has involved calling for submissions from interested parties and stakeholders. We have received something like 160 submissions. The minister travelled right around Australia and held face-to-face meetings in cities and regional centres to get the views of the community and stakeholders in universities on the effects of the VSU legislation, services and facilities that are actually required at universities and the best way forward to rectify the mess that was left with the VSU legislation.

That is one way of showing that this is certainly no empty ideological crusade on the part of the Labor government but rather a search for practical measures to improve the experience of students on campus. The other evidence that points towards the need for this measure is in the Bradley report. In chapter 3.4 of the Bradley report, the review last year into higher education in Australia, there are some pretty damning findings involving student experiences at universities in Australia and how these compare internationally. The overall satisfaction of students with their experience in Australian higher education institutions ranks far below comparable survey results in the United Kingdom and the United States. These statistics are telling us something about what is happening on our campuses, and I do not think we can ignore the effects of the $170 million in the last couple of years taken out of the facilities and student support services that assist students to feel at home and find their place on campus.

In a paper written by Professor Geoff Scott that was part of the supporting evidence relied on by Denise Bradley in the review, he says:

There is a strong link between students’ retention and success and the extent to which they are engaged with their fellow learners and their teachers during their studies. Factors influencing the extent of engagement include ‘the social climate established on campus, the academic, social and financial support provided by the institution, student in-class and out-of-class involvement with campus life, and frequent feedback provided to students and staff about their performance.

In this country we are faced with the challenge of trying to increase the number of Australians with higher education qualifications. The challenge put forward by the Bradley review is for institutions to reach out and provide opportunities to students from a much greater mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. Part of that is providing students with the support and the facilities that they need to feel at home on campus. Students from outside the traditional demographics entering our universities need those extra support services to make the most of their opportunities and their experience at university. At the moment we have quite a high attrition rate amongst students in their first few years at university and we are not seeing a high enough proportion of students from either regional and rural areas or lower socioeconomic backgrounds attending our universities. That challenge is spelt out very clearly in the Bradley report, and I cannot say that cutting $170 million out of student support services and facilities that create that life and that spirit on campus and provide the assistance and support that students need is really helping in that challenge that the country faces to increase the number of people getting a higher education, particularly in those under-represented demographics.

This is a very practical way of solving this. The bill provides that universities can now charge $250 a year from 2010 onwards. Students are able to defer those fees into a HECS-style loan until they are in a position to pay back the HELP loan for their overall university education. So it is not a great impost on students. It does not necessarily have to be an upfront cost. What it really means is that universities can rebuild these important services—things like childcare services, computer labs, cafeterias and accommodation and welfare services.

I point out some of the impacts we have felt at CQ University in Rockhampton as a result of the introduction of the VSU legislation. This comes from the submission that CQU provided to the discussion paper process; it is not stuff that we have just plucked out of the air. We are not running this as a political debate. Our support for this measure comes out of what we have heard from universities themselves. In its submission, the Central Queensland University Student Association said there had been ‘loss of community involvement with university students through closure of entertainment venues and reduced sporting, social and cultural club subsidies’. The student association’s gross income has been reduced by 75 per cent, or $1.9 million, and they have slashed staff from 42 to 15 through redundancy and attrition. Losing that number of jobs has a big impact in a community such as Rockhampton.

The student association has outlined a range of negative changes, including loss of staff, loss of cultural and social services, loss of sports subsidies, increased costs for lockers and photocopying and the closure of a live entertainment venue. The student association also used to provide equipment such as barbecues and eskies for events that were happening on campus, funding assistance for venue hire and funding assistance for speakers and workshops. They say that with a user-pays system in place they have observed that students are opting out of services such as sports clubs, and we are seeing that in campuses right across Australia. Students have been paying for the effects of VSU through higher prices on campuses or by having to source services and facilities off campus. There are hidden costs in the VSU. We say that we expect universities to create a particular environment, to support student advocacy, to support students on campus and, through facilities and activities, to bring campuses back to life and to improve the statistics on student engagement and satisfaction with their experience in higher education. We say that universities should be allowed to charge student fees to enable that to happen. I see far more benefits than costs as a result of the measures in this bill.