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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Page: 3259

Mr ZAPPIA (11:43 AM) —I too rise to speak in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I note from a speech made by the Deputy Prime Minister on 9 March that in Australia only 32 per cent of young adults have been to university. In contrast, in Sweden almost 50 per cent of young people attended university or a similar tertiary institution, and in Ireland the participation rate is around 55 per cent.

Of greater concern is that in recent years Australia’s university participation rate has remained static. In other words, during the years in which Australia prospered from the resources boom, higher education participation rates stagnated. Not surprisingly, comparisons with other OECD countries show that Australia’s higher education ranking has fallen from seventh in 1996 to ninth today. It is a trend that is consistent with many other patterns when one looks at education performance indicators in Australia under the previous coalition government.

This bill is another measure of the package of education initiatives that form part of the Rudd government’s education revolution. It seems common sense to me that providing university students with supportive ancillary services will enhance their learning outcomes and increase university participation. It is also the case that many and possibly most university students are not awash with money. I believe that most of them do it pretty tough. They skimp and save to make ends meet, with many university students juggling part-time work and studies. In fact, I understand that 1.1 million Australians are currently combining work with full-time studies. That is a combination of university students and younger people in secondary schooling. I recently heard of one university student who was juggling studies with being a carer. When I heard that student put her case, it immediately became evident to me that she was not alone in trying to do that.

University life and university study can be very stressful for a student. Juggling studies with work, family commitments and social life all add to that stress and compound it. University student services can therefore take a huge load off students. The support that those services can provide can make a difference between a student completing a degree or not. They can even make a difference as to whether a student attempts a university degree. Coalition members simply do not get it and never have been serious about raising education standards in Australia. Their view has always been that you can pay your own way through life. If you cannot, it is too bad. And that equally applies when it comes to education.

Using that mentality, the disadvantaged are further disadvantaged and the cycle of disadvantage is perpetuated. Children from disadvantaged communities do not lack the intelligence or ability to successfully complete higher education degrees. What they often lack is the financial support that is needed to overcome many of the barriers they often have to overcome. Professor Denise Bradley said:

Despite low access rates, the success rate (or tendency to pass their year’s subjects) of low socio-economic status students is 97 per cent of the pass rates of their medium and high socio-economic status peers …

If we want to increase education standards we must remove the very barriers that prevent so many young people from completing university and other higher education degrees. Providing university students with supportive services is an effective step in removing those barriers. Health services, counselling services, legal services, employment services, welfare support services, even housing, decent cafeterias, childcare support, sporting facilities and other services—this is the range of services that the various universities around Australia individually provide.

These services have been substantially denied to students because of the obsession the coalition members had with unions when they were in government. We saw it earlier this week in the debate in this place on the electoral law amendments, where their obsession with unions was very evident. We saw it with their extreme Work Choices laws. We saw it with their extreme ABCC legislation. We saw it with the Peter Reith affair—the rottweilers on the docks debacle—and we saw it with their student union legislation in 2005.

Whilst voluntary student unionism sounded admirable in 2005 in that it supposedly provided choice, the reality is that the decline in membership was inevitable and that in turn student support services would decline as well. That is precisely what happened, with $170 million being stripped from university student service funding around Australia. And what were the consequences? Let us look at some of them.

La Trobe and Southern Cross University dental services were closed down completely. The University of Technology, Sydney, La Trobe and James Cook universities closed their legal services. In the case of the University of Technology, Sydney, this affected not only students but also the local community, who were also able to access that very service. The emergency loan scheme once offered at the University of Sydney is now closed. At least three universities have shut down their Centrelink advice services and nine universities have shut down their student legal and or taxation advice services. Six universities have shut down their elite athlete support programs and eight universities have discontinued funding of sports scholarships. Some universities, to their credit, redirected funds from other areas in an attempt to continue the provision of essential student services. They cared about their students. Regrettably, all that does, however, is compromise the service for which those funds were originally allocated without fully restoring the full range of student services lost.

There is widespread support for this legislation from throughout the Australian university sector. Let me quote what some of the universities have had to say. On 3 November 2008 the Group of Eight, a coalition of leading Australian universities, said:

The Federal Government’s decision to allow universities to support essential student services through the collection of a modest fee is a sensible compromise that will enhance the quality of Australia’s higher education system.

Universities Australia, the industry peak body representing the university sector, said on the same date:

Universities have struggled for years to prop up essential student services through cross-subsidisation from other parts of already stretched university budgets, to redress the damage that resulted from the Coalition Government’s disastrous Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.

The Australian Olympic Committee said in its submission to the 2008 review:

… the introduction of the VSU legislation has had a direct negative impact on the number of students (particularly women) participating in sport and, for the longer term, the maintenance and upgrading of sporting infrastructure and facilities and the retention of world class coaches.

The impact of the removal of university student services on country students warrants special attention. Country students often relocate to capital cities or regional centres so that they can pursue their study. The relocation immediately adds to the cost of their career development. It is often those additional costs which prevent young people from country areas from pursuing university studies and their preferred career paths. However, for those that do get to a university, there is little doubt that they have additional barriers to overcome. They need to integrate into a new community, without having the support that a family home and a familiar local community provide. So their extended family, particularly in the early months, becomes the university community. For both emotional and financial reasons, they come to rely on the very services that had previously been provided by universities but which in many cases have now been withdrawn. This bill will enable universities to restore those services and in turn, hopefully, remove some of the barriers to university entry for many country students.

The removal of the barriers and the provision of university services will also be invaluable to overseas students, who, as with country students, have to relocate away from their own community. They have to relocate away from their own homeland. For international students, the relocation is compounded by language and cultural differences, so the university community and the services provided become even more important to them. Attracting overseas students to Australian universities is important for our country and important for individual universities. For our country, overseas students become an important link with overseas countries. Greater respect and understanding are fostered between Australia and other countries. Cultural barriers are further broken down and valuable trade links are sometimes established. For the universities, the overseas students provide an income stream which in turn enables the university to provide a much better range of services for all students. Overseas students have choices. They can choose to attend universities in countries other than Australia. Australian universities know that and they compete for the enrolment of overseas students. In fact, it is probably one of the biggest trade areas that this country has to benefit from in the years ahead. The choice that overseas students make about which university and which country they travel to will be influenced by all of the services that a university provides, including the student support services that this bill aims to reinstate.

I heard a moment ago the member for Page talking about her association with a university in her area. I have had a lengthy association with the University of South Australia, in Mawson Lakes. I know for a fact that the university places high importance on the enrolment of overseas students, so much so that the university has worked extremely hard with the surrounding local community to ensure that overseas students are made to feel welcome and are made to feel at home, through the provision of a whole range of services. The university does what it can. Its ability to provide those services has been limited because the funds have not been available. So it has turned to the local community to assist in making those overseas students feel at home. I have been involved in some of the programs to do that. This highlights two things: firstly, the importance of overseas students to universities in Australia and, secondly, the importance of having the appropriate range of services if you are going to attract those university students to Australia.

It matters to students and it matters to their families far away to know that the universities provide a range of support services that any young person living away from home may need. I am sure it is not very difficult for any parent to understand that, if your children had to relocate from a country area to the city, you would have some reservations and some concerns about their wellbeing and their safety. Imagine what it is like when your child relocates from one country to another. Those concerns are compounded because you are so far away from them. Therefore, any action that can be taken to put people’s minds at rest that both the universities and the local communities are providing the services that these students may require is very, very important.

In listening to opposition speakers on this bill, it is clear that they are blinded by any reference to the term ‘union’. I commented on this earlier. Interest sectors in society can come together with a common objective and call themselves an association, a federation, a congress, a society, perhaps even a chamber, but call it a union and the coalition members go into a frenzy. It was the coalition members’ paranoia about the term ‘union’ that led to the demise of student services at universities across Australia. Now coalition members say that imposing compulsory fees on students will cause an additional financial burden on cash-strapped students. They are right about one thing: students are cash-strapped. But, under this legislation, students do have the option of taking out HECS style loans to pay for any fees imposed and then repaying those amounts when they have completed their education and are earning an income. Furthermore, students will have a student voice in the decision-making process relating to the fees charged and the services provided. In other words, they will have a direct say in how those fees that are raised by the universities are expended. There will also be a clear set of guidelines in respect of what the fees can be used for. This will ensure that the fees raised are used for legitimate and approved services, services that are needed and appreciated by students and which will enable more of them to successfully complete their studies.

Finally, I just want to re-emphasise the point that was previously made by the member for Page. I would have thought that all members in this House would encourage young people, as they go through their university life, to become involved in the broader issues of society. Whatever career paths they choose, whatever philosophical views they choose, are entirely up to them. There is no suggestion that any legislation of this type directs students to take a particular philosophical view or another. It is open to them to do with their lives what they choose, and I would have thought that encouraging them to understand, participate and actively become involved in community life would be something that we should encourage them to do because, ultimately, when they finally complete their studies, that is exactly what they will have to do.

This is good legislation. It restores services that university students require. It will make their life at university easier. I hope and expect that it will encourage and support more university students to get through university. I commend the bill to the House.