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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Page: 3257

Ms SAFFIN (11:33 AM) —I speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. Indeed, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to speak in support of this bill. The bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 in four particular areas: (1) it allows higher education providers to charge students an annual capped student services and amenities fee from 1 July 2009, (2) it introduces a new Higher Education Loan Program, HELP, category for student amenities fees, called SA-HELP, (3) it broadens the application of the HELP category for vocational education and training students, called VET FEE-HELP, and (4) it provides that officers of tertiary admission centres have the same status and duty of care as those of higher education providers in relation to processing student information. It also amends the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 to account for the new SA-HELP provisions.

The purpose of the bill is to deliver a balanced, measured and—as I outlined above—practical solution to rebuilding student services and amenities of a non-academic nature. It restores independent democratic representation in tertiary institutions and advocacy in the higher education sector. There has been some comment about the advocacy of students through student unions in tertiary education institutions as though somehow that is a bad thing. That is what I have heard from the opposition. But it is a good thing; we expect our students to be active and engaged—engaged in a battle of ideas. That is what we want them to do. We want them to go to universities to expand their minds and learn not to be thwarted by an ideological straitjacket, which is what the legislation that was introduced by the previous government did. I remember when the Howard-Costello government introduced the system that outlawed or prohibited student union fees. It did a number of things, but really it was ideologically driven. It was driven in the same way that Work Choices was, and they just went a bit too far. This resulted in a loss of money to higher education institutions and a loss of student services and amenities. It also resulted in a loss of about 1,000 jobs—and I will turn to that later in my contribution.

I also remember the vice-chancellors objecting, as did some of the now-diminishing National Party members. If I remember correctly, Senator Joyce might even have crossed the floor on this matter when it went through the Senate a few years ago. The National Party were thrown a bit of a lifeline—a transition funding package called the VSU transition fund. That was for some recreational and sporting facilities but in no way addressed the downfall, the loss of revenue and the thousand jobs that disappeared out of the higher education sector and out of the universities. The Australasian Campus Union Managers Association and the Australian Union of Students both said that this was a lame response and it could in no way meet the difference—the missing dollars for both the recurrent funding and the capital required to provide basic student services and amenities. Forget the politics and forget the advocacy; what we saw was the Liberal Party, with its ideological obsession about getting rid of student unions, actually ripping the guts out of the universities providing services to students.

I am on the council of a university—Southern Cross University. It is my local university. I have seen the impact of this. It is not just something that I read about; I saw the impact. I was part of the debate, and I am glad to be part of the debate now so that we can restore those services to the university. The Australasian Campus Union Managers Association reported that, as a result of the axing of the scheme a few years back, there was a net loss of nearly $170 million to amenities and services. It was their report that detailed the loss of about 1,000 jobs. Speaking of jobs, we have heard a lot about jobs lately, particularly from the opposition. This is the party that professes to care about jobs but introduced a scheme that took 1,000 jobs out of the universities. It is no different to what they did with Work Choices. They just went that bit too far with their ideological obsession in these areas. I remember that it took about three goes for this to get through. It was proposed in 1999 and in 2003 and finally went through in 2005. So it was something that they were determined to do.

I will make a few points about the student services and amenities measure. The review of the impacts of the voluntary student unionism measures undertaken by the government in 2008 revealed that essential student services were hit hard. They stripped close to $170 million from amenities and services, as I have detailed before, and not only were much-needed services reduced—and on some campuses they ceased to exist—but also students were hit with increased prices for child care, parking, books, computer lab access and sport and food services as a result of VSU. It is bad enough that money disappeared and jobs disappeared, but it also increased costs to the students.

Students also experienced indirect costs, with many universities having to redirect funds out of research and teaching budgets to fund services and amenities that otherwise would have been cut. I have heard it said on the other side of the chamber that there are some students at universities, external students and part-time students, who might not get direct access to services. But the services are there for the common good—for everybody to access—and that is what this is about. It is about providing services and it is about access.

The government, in introducing this legislation, is taking a balanced and practical approach to ensure student amenities and services, and access to independent and democratic representation and advocacy, are secured now and into the future. Also, through these amendments, the government will, for the first time, introduce national access to services benchmarks relating to the provision of information on and access to services, such as welfare and counselling services, in line with the current requirements for overseas students—and for the first time these amendments will introduce national student representation and advocacy protocols to ensure that students have an independent voice on campus.

To support quality services over and above these benchmarks and protocols universities will be provided with the option to set a compulsory fee, capped at a maximum of $250 per year indexed annually. A set of guidelines will be developed outlining the range of services and amenities for which the fee can and cannot be used. This will include things like child care, health care and sports and fitness clubs. Consultations to finalise these guidelines are scheduled for March, and I know that my local university, Southern Cross University, has been very involved in this area. It will be a decision for each university as to whether it wishes to implement a fee and the level of that fee up to $250.

My concluding comment is that this is sensible legislation. It is legislation that federal Labor gave a commitment to. It restores student services and amenities back into universities. It will bring money back into the university sector and it will enable the creation of jobs, after the 1,000 jobs that were ripped out of the universities with the introduction of the Howard-Costello VSU plan. With those comments, I commend the bill to the House.