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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Page: 3262

Mr IRONS (12:01 PM) —I rise today to talk on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I am probably a bit different from most members in this place. I admit that I did not attend university or a tertiary education institution. I was a humble tradesman and I feel honoured to be in this place with so many educated people. Obviously, attending a university or a tertiary eduction institute also gives you an automatic degree in passion when it comes to this issue.

I have heard members from both sides of this House claim the high moral ground on this issue. It is fantastic to see the intelligentsia coming forward and proclaiming that they know best. I cannot talk about my own experiences on this matter but I have spent some time talking to people who have experienced campus life and who are currently enrolled. I have also listened to some of the highly charged arguments made by members in this place. There have been accusations of members presenting mischievous arguments on this matter. In my speech I will obviously have a slant towards the opposition’s position, but I would also add that we cannot isolate universities from the expectations and accountability that all of society has to live by.

My electorate is a student hub. In total there are 10,457 students who reside in Swan. Many students attend Curtin University of Technology, in Bentley, which is Western Australia’s largest university. There are also many students who live in my electorate who attend one of the nearby universities, such as the University of Western Australia or Murdoch University. UWA student Andrew Williams, who recently won a prestigious national science award, is one such example. In fact the participation rate of 17- to 22-year-olds in tertiary education in my electorate ranks 33rd highest out of the 150 electorates. The people of my electorate therefore have an important stake in this legislation.

There are many reasons why I oppose this legislation today. First, it represents a tax hike that will put more pressure on students to work and it will persuade some not to attend university at all—especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Second, I have been advised that the legislation is ideologically charged and, as such, is a return to compulsory student unionism by stealth. Third, this legislation is undemocratic. It fails to include key guidelines. We are being asked to vote now and find out about it later. It also fails to provide departmental scrutiny, instead giving significant powers to the Deputy Prime Minister. Importantly, it was not one of the policies that the ALP took to the last election.

If passed, this bill will lead to students in my electorate being charged a compulsory levy on student services, up to a total of $250 per year. Students should not be burdened with extra taxes. Like every other member of our community, students already pay the same income taxes, GST and other taxes that we all pay. They live by the same laws and they pay the same taxes. Students are already paying for living expenses, books and travel to and from classes and work, all without a steady income and without the ability to work a full-time job. A $250 tax is another unnecessary pressure, stress and difficulty for students to deal with. Students should not have to pay for services or amenities which they do not want. It should be the right of the student to choose. Many will choose to pay for off-campus services, which may be better value. Why should they have to subsidise uncompetitive activities on campus? It seems particularly unfair that the 130,000 external students across Australia who do not access campus resources will have to pay this fee. It also appears that students may have to pay for child care for staff members. The member for Braddon said that university childcare costs have risen. It is amazing that most of the childcare facilities at the University of New South Wales are being used by staff members. Why should students have to support services for university staff? The member for Braddon also spoke about services on campus being utilised by members of the public. Again, why should students have to support services for members of the public?

I note that the Minister for Education has recently been talking about the need to increase the number of people from less-affluent backgrounds who attend university. I can tell the minister that a $250 tax is unlikely to help her achieve this goal. Students on average have saved $247 per annum as a result of the Howard VSU legislation, and those who have chosen not to become members of student unions have saved on average $318 per annum. These savings mean that students can spend more time studying and less time in a job paying unnecessary fees or taxes. Only recently, members of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training were briefed on the detrimental effect of students having to combine work and study. Whilst I acknowledge that many students successfully manage work and study, they should not be pushed to breaking point. A student on the national minimum wage of $14.31 per hour will have to work an extra 17½ hours to pay off this new tax bill.

The compulsory $250 amenities fee is effectively a poll tax on university students. That is the key issue here. Students will be slugged this amount, or a portion of it, regardless of their income or their ability to use the services that the fees will contribute to. Like any regressive tax, it will hit poor students hardest. The member for Braddon accused the member for Canning of being mischievous when he assumed that the majority of universities would choose to implement this tax. This is not mischievous but simply realistic. Can the member for Braddon name one university that has said it will not introduce this tax?

I note the minister’s plan for how students should pay this tax is consistent with this government’s approach to most issues: add it to personal debt. How disappointing yet unsurprising that, in a financial crisis caused by excessive debt, the Minister for Youth is encouraging students to take out more debt.

The Minister for Youth said in her second reading speech:

Let me be clear—the bill is not a return to compulsory student unionism.

Why would you have to declare that if it were not so? Why are government members so delicate about this assertion? Maybe it is true. However, the only political activities expressly prohibited by the legislation are support for political parties and support for election to a Commonwealth, state, territory or local government body. Funds may be used for student representation. Funding campaigns against legislation and policies—and potentially against any political parties or in support of trade unions or any other organisation not registered as a political party—are not ruled out. It is more than likely that the money collected will find its way into the hands of unrepresentative student unions. Spending of student money to make political points should be prohibited.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask you to consider this in the context of how student unions are elected. A staggeringly low number of students vote in student elections. I understand that all positions for the 2008 election for the Curtin guild were uncontested, with one exception: NUS delegates, numbering 400 out of a total student population of 34,000—with 25,000 students at the Bentley campus—voted. In 2006 the guild elections at Curtin University were held on a Wednesday during a free period time. A lot of students were not in attendance at university that day or found they were unable to drag themselves away from the local tavern. How can this type of election be representative? I believe these trends are not uncommon in universities across Perth. This example indicates to me that student unions and guilds are some of the most unrepresentative elected bodies in the country.

In Australia we pride ourselves on deep democracy, sustained by federalism and our current system of compulsory voting. In most other spheres of society it would be considered unreasonable to raise money of this magnitude—up to $250 million—with no accountability for how it is spent. If this issue is so important to the government, why didn’t they just allocate $250 million out of the $42 billion debt package to the universities to use on amenities? I know why. It is because government money has to be accountable. If the government cared about the accountability of student money, they would consider extending compulsory voting to university guild elections. It would not be difficult to implement. Voting in elections could just be made a university requirement, like a compulsory student tax. This would ensure that student unions were fully representative and it would give a mandate to any body that is a beneficiary of this tax to use the money only as per the wishes of the representative body. Of course, within a context of compulsory voting it would then be fair to organise a referendum on the issue of student taxes.

This brings me to my final point. Even if this bill were not an ideologically driven tax on a vulnerable group, we on this side of the House would still have a responsibility to vote against it because we have not seen the key elements of the bill. Money collected by the tax will be distributed according to the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines. However, those guidelines are unwritten, so we have not seen them yet. We are simply told they will be tabled in the form of a disallowable instrument after the bill has been passed. This is undemocratic. Similarly, the universities are expected to administer this funding in accordance with the Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines, the final copy of which will be tabled in parliament only after the bill has passed. In addition to this there will be no departmental oversight to protect against poor expenditure; it will only be overseen by the Deputy Prime Minister. With her busy schedule, I doubt that will be effective.

In speech after speech—from the Minister for Youth’s opener to the member for Braddon’s effort—Labor have claimed that this is somehow delivering on a Labor Party election commitment. It may be delivering on a private commitment that the ALP made to the NUS. However, it certainly was not an election commitment that was made publicly to the Australian people. There was no mention of a higher education amenity fee in the policy which the Labor Party took to the last election. In fact, they made the opposite pledge. The member for Boothby has already quoted the then shadow minister for education, the member for Perth, who said in a May 2007 statement that he was not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

In conclusion, this bill represents a tax for students. It places an undue burden on those who can least afford it, purely to provide services they will not benefit from. The debate on this bill has been very emotionally charged. It appears from some of the exchanges between members—for example, that between the member for Hume and the member for Leichhardt in the Main Committee yesterday—that this is an issue that goes to the very core of ideals and philosophies of the conservative and the left-wing political parties in our society. Personally, having not lived through the battles in the furnace of political birth that many members in this place have gone through, I have found it a great experience and a personal education to see such passion and such emotionally charged argument during this debate. I will be voting against the bill.