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Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Page: 3209

Mr MARLES (12:42 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. It is a pleasure to follow the member for Moncrieff, whose contribution reminds me of a quote that I think was attributed to Winston Churchill, when he said of himself: ‘When my arguments are weak I just make sure I speak louder.’ That pretty much characterises the contribution that we have just heard from the member for Moncrieff. It also highlights exactly what we have witnessed over the last few years from the Howard government and why this bill is so important—because what it does is undo the appalling mess that has been left for universities in this country by the Howard government’s pursuit of its voluntary student unionism legislation. That was part of a long-running campaign which has obviously had the effect of disempowering students, removing services from campuses, really attacking the very vibrancy of student life and reducing the ability of students to represent themselves.

But all of this was done—and we have heard it perfectly through the previous contribution—in what has been a misguided, ideological pursuit on their part, which somehow equates students on a campus with the relationship that may exist with workers in a workplace. They try to equate a student union, in a sense, with a trade union and try to equate student services fees on a campus with some form of a closed shop, as we just heard from the member for Moncrieff, in an employment or an industrial setting. That of course is nonsense. Students have nothing like that relationship with the university at which they are enrolled. That is not an industrial setting, and what we have seen in the past with student service fees is simply not the same as some form of compulsory membership to a union. This constant returning to some misguided idea that these are a band of organisations which are secretly siphoning money off to the Labor Party is, frankly, laughable. That is not what is going on, nor has it ever been, and indeed this legislation makes it clear that that cannot occur as part of the future arrangements. In any event, that is not how things have been in the past, but it does highlight the obsession on the other side of politics with this particular issue and the ideological way in which they have driven down a path which has had very dramatic effects upon student life and the services that are provided to students on campuses.

The Howard government had a number of goes at abolishing student service fees which ultimately manifested in the higher education support amendment act that was passed in 2005 which prevented compulsory student membership of an association or an organisation, but also prevented compulsory fees being levied by universities for non-academic facilities, amenities or services. The effect of that particular policy was to strip $170 million out of the university funding which was going to the provision of student services on campus. It means that on-campus student organisations were emasculated.

The term ‘voluntary student unionism’ is a very politically loaded term. It has industrial connotations which are simply not real. It ignores the very important role that student organisations play on campus. Since the introduction of the Howard government’s voluntary student unionism legislation, we have seen a decline in and in some cases the complete closure of vital student amenities and services. We are not talking about chocolate clubs or beer societies but health services, employment services, childcare services and welfare support services. All of these were stripped away at a time when students needed them most. When the cost of living rose for students, all of these much needed services—which provided low-cost services to a group in society who often do not have enormous means, students who are starting out in life and mostly do not have full-time employment—were removed.

In my electorate is Deakin University. As it happens, it is also in your electorate, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke. The Deakin University Student Association is the principal student organisation that operates across Deakin University. I have spoken to them on numerous occasions about the effect of the Howard government’s VSU legislation on activities and services they are able to provide and about the effect on student life at Deakin University. I would like to take you through some of that. They describe a situation whereby their organisation has effectively been gutted by the introduction of voluntary student unionism legislation. Only 20 per cent of students are paying for services, which ultimately subsidises services that are needed by every student on campus. The services have suffered and, as a result, the students themselves have suffered. I think that particularly regional universities have suffered as a result of voluntary student unionism legislation in that the student life which exists as a campus in regional Australia often has a major impact on the region beyond the university. We talk about places being university towns and, in some ways, that is a fair description of Geelong. There is no doubt that the role of student life at Deakin University in Geelong goes far beyond simply the students; it is also of enormous benefit to the community beyond that. When services are removed for students on campus, it has a ripple effect well beyond campus life and the students themselves.

Unquestionably what that legislation did was require students to pay far more for these services. The ability to collectively pool the student service fee, which existed previously, and provide low-cost services which would save students lots of money throughout the year has been removed. That is really illustrative of the enormous lie that was put forward by the Howard government when they suggested that students would be better off by not paying the up-front fee. The truth is that a relatively small fee enabled an enormous array of services to be provided to students at a significantly reduced cost.

At Deakin University all the student services that had previously been funded through the student services fee have to a greater or lesser degree been cut back under the voluntary student unionism legislation. For example, there is now no longer a campus newspaper at Deakin University. There are neither staff to produce it nor money to print it. People may have a particular sense of what a student newspaper is like but, at the end of the day, it provides information to students about what is going on with student life and also it provides a focus for the student community. That has been removed by the introduction of the voluntary student unionism legislation. Not surprisingly, the Deakin University Student Association say that students talk to them about the fact that in the absence of the services provided by the student association—and the absence of student newspaper is a particular case in point—they feel less informed about and more disconnected from the university community of which they are a part.

Before the introduction of the voluntary student unionism legislation there were 30 affiliated clubs and societies at Deakin University’s two Geelong campuses—now there are only 19. That is not because of dwindling numbers. Indeed, there are more students than ever who want to study at Deakin University. The demand for undergraduate places has risen by 15 per cent this year. It is now one of the most popular universities in Victoria and yet, as a result of the introduction of the VSU legislation, there are far fewer opportunities for the students at Deakin University to connect socially and participate in the student life which used to exist at that campus. Being a regional campus, that is particularly detrimental for the many students at Deakin University in Geelong who are not from Geelong and for whom the university life is in a sense the main social safety net for them in maintaining a life which allows them to study at university. All of that has been swept away. There are significant consequences as a result of doing that.

The Deakin University Student Association used to fund the maintenance of a lot of sporting facilities around Deakin University. As a result of the severe drought that has afflicted Geelong over the past decade, the cricket ground at Waurn Ponds has now been forced to close because it is unsafe. The ability of the student association to provide the necessary maintenance facilities to keep that oval open during the prolonged drought that Geelong has been experiencing has been completely removed by the VSU legislation. That has had a flow-on effect for the soccer and baseball teams that would normally also train on that ground. There simply is not the ability for the student association to deal with that particular issue.

The Howard government did set up a transition fund to try and lessen the impact of the voluntary student unionism legislation on regional campuses and on recreational and sporting activities, but the example that I have just given at Deakin University shows how profoundly that fund failed in allowing that particular service and that particular facility to be maintained. Perhaps more critically, the student association has really struggled in a VSU environment to effectively maintain its presence, its staff levels and its services within the student body. The Deakin University Student Association, for example, no longer has a marketing department. The association has been forced to make some very tough decisions. This year the student association has really cut back its activities to simply advocating for students in circumstances of academic failure and, in needing to represent the students’ interests through the academic processes of the university, they are able to do little else than simply that.

Often there are services which students do not necessarily realise they need until the circumstance arises where they do need that service. Academic advocacy is an example in point. People do not necessarily know that they need it until they find themselves in a position of having failed a subject and needing to have their position represented within the university structure. Often there are very sound reasons why a person might be in a position where they are unable to complete their studies and it is very important that that information and advocacy of their situation is provided through the university body. The Deakin University Student Association is now making this particular work their priority, but it is very much being done at a cost of almost all the other services that they used to provide. Certainly, they believe that in the event that no further money is available and if there is not a remedy to be found in this legislation then they will not be able to do anything other than simply to provide that advocacy role.

The blame for all of that can be laid squarely at the feet of the Howard government and its voluntary student unionism legislation. It was an attempt to silence the voice of students. It was an attempt to remove the effectiveness of student associations which once catered for all students and which used to provide much-needed advocacy and amenities across a campus and build a social fabric, a life that students could engage in. All of that, as a result of the VSU legislation, was torn to shreds.

The Rudd government through this bill is committed to ensuring access for all university students to the amenities and to the services that they need. This government is proposing a very different alternative, one which will deliver a balanced and measured practical solution to this issue and one which will see the rebuilding of non-academic student services and amenities and one which will see the restoration of independent, democratic representation and advocacy for students within their tertiary institutions.

This legislation will require a higher education provider that receives funding for student places under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme to ensure that students get information on and access to basic support services of a non-academic nature and to ensure the provision of both student representation and advocacy. The legislation gives the power for a university in this situation to implement a fee of up to $250 per student, and the means by which they do that—whether or not they levy the extent of that fee or whether they levy a different fee for part-time students or external students—is a matter for the university. Issues have been raised about the impost that that creates for students. Students who find themselves in circumstances where a fee of that amount is unable to be paid by them can take out a HECS style loan in order to cover that fee. So in no sense will this fee be a barrier for any student to participate in the tertiary sector.

Importantly—and this deals with a number of the rather hysterical comments that were made by the member for Moncrieff—the legislation is very clear: fees collected through this process will not be able to be used in any way to support a political party or a candidate for election at any level of government. This is in no way the implementation of some form of compulsory student unionism. This is not setting up some mysterious and nefarious line of credit to the Labor Party. These arguments just highlight how obsessed the other side are with this particular area of public policy. There will be no change to section 19-37(1) of the Higher Education Support Act which prohibits a university from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation. Guidelines will be put in place which will outline the range of services that the fee can be used for—and indeed not used for—such as child care, health care, sports and fitness clubs. It will be up to each university to precisely determine how they will introduce the fee and, importantly, they will be required to engage in a dialogue with the student body about how that fee will be implemented and the size of that fee.

Not surprisingly, the Deakin University Student Association support this bill and would support, in the case of the Deakin University, the introduction of a $250 fee. They say to me that the injection of funds that would come from such a fee would enable them to rebuild the services that they used to provide to students on campus at Deakin University, and in fact they propose to do that very rapidly. Indeed, the student association predicts that they would have significant improvements in place within a semester and certainly by the end of the year.

This legislation, in a sense, cuts a middle path through a debate which has been passionate, I suppose, but very puerile in its execution by the other side—puerile in the sense that what we have seen are people who have struggled to grow out of the old debates of student politics and have sought to bring them to this place, very much at the cost of student life, particularly students on campus in 2009. What occurred on campus in the 1970s to the people who are in this place on the other side ought not to be used as a penalty against people who are conducting their studies in 2009. This legislation will deal with that issue. It will allow student life to return to a state of normality. It will provide for the growing of a rich and vibrant student life at tertiary institutions which is such an important part of the university experience. Contrary to the point made by the member for Moncrieff, the bill absolutely meets the Rudd government’s promise to restore campus amenities and services, to restore student representation on campus and to restore student life, and for that reason I very much commend it to the House.