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Thursday, 19 March 2009
Page: 3274

Ms KATE ELLIS (Minister for Youth and Minister for Sport) (12:52 PM) —in reply—In summing up, I would like to thank all members who have spoken in this at times lengthy debate on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. There have certainly been some lively contributions. I will try very hard not to get too sidetracked in responding to the at times kooky suggestions put forward by the previous speaker, but I might just correct him on a couple of the things he put forward that were clearly incorrect. Firstly, he asks, ‘Why doesn’t the government go out to universities and ask students what they think?’ Well, we think that that is a really good idea, which is why we did exactly that before bringing this legislation to the parliament. In fact, we went out and did a roadshow that went to every single state and to a number of regional campuses to talk firsthand with students, with educators, with university administrators and with all of the local stakeholders about their views on the solution that went forward. Of course, the member opposite would know this because the Young Liberals were amongst those whose views on this matter we listened to. It is interesting that one of the things that kept coming back during those consultations right around the country was people saying, ‘Wow, do you know that for over a decade we have been stripped of our funding, we have been slugged with further debt and not once have we seen the government actually come out and talk to us and ask us about what we think.’ So it was quite newsworthy to many students at universities around the country that the government did indeed take the time to do that.

The one other thing that I will correct the member opposite on which is also clearly very, very wrong is this view that the minister has discretion on the guidelines. The member put forward the question: ‘Why shouldn’t the parliament have to approve these?’ Well, here is a big news flash: it does—with a disallowable instrument. If the government seeks to change it, it has to go through both houses of the parliament. So let us not let facts get in the way of a good story here! Anyway, I did say that I would not be too sidetracked by that one contribution.

Clearly there has been a lot of interest in the government’s balanced, sensible and sustainable plan to rebuild student services at our universities. Unfortunately, though, what this debate has also revealed is that the Liberal Party remains stuck in the old ideological battles of the past. The truth is that there is no reason why those opposite should not be supporting this bill, despite our ideological differences, because this bill is not a continuation of the debates of days gone by. Rather, this is about moving forward in a new way to ensure that the universities of our future are world-class institutions that produce well-rounded graduates and are able to attract and retain overseas students from all over the world. We on this side know that this is absolutely critical to sustaining Australia’s workforce and that our future productivity and economic growth rely upon it.

Of course, supporting this legislation would mean that the opposition would have to concede that there has been much damage done by the Howard government’s extreme laws—that they did indeed go too far and that all of the consequences that those who opposed the laws predicted would happen have indeed occurred. And they will not do that. So instead what we have seen is the Liberal Party demonstrating that they would rather pretend that this is the same debate that we have had in the past, and instead they have chosen to rely upon misinformation, falsehoods such as those that we heard from the previous speaker, and hopelessly outdated rhetoric. The opposition have shown in this debate that they would rather talk about the teacher strikes in Puerto Rico and the communist party of Malaya than how we can sensibly reform our universities to train the workforce of the future.

We saw a rare parliamentary contribution from the member for Higgins, where he waxed lyrical about resolutions that were passed in 1975, a court case in 1978 and the difficulties that he had in 1979 making up his mind whether or not to join a student organisation. What the member for Higgins’s contribution showed was that the Liberal Party would rather reminisce about now defunct organisations from the 1970s than acknowledge the serious misjudgment they made in 2005. Their standing in this parliament and their making an argument based on a resolution passed by a group of students in a now defunct organisation before many members of this House, before many students on our university campuses and, indeed, before I was even born, shows how outdated they really are.

The Senate report on this bill says:

Since compulsory levies were abolished in 2005, the cost of legislating to make an ideological point has bourn heavily on the vast majority of students who remain largely indifferent to campus political activity, but who need to eat and otherwise miss the services formerly provided by student unions.

The opposition have spent a lot of time in this debate complaining about students paying for services they do not use, but they fail to understand that the impact of their approach went far beyond the services alone. The Liberal Party’s approach not only cut $170 million from services, with students paying the price ever since for the loss of health, legal and welfare assistance services, but also has had a serious impact on teaching. The Liberal Party still fail to understand that their changes directly undermine the quality of the teaching that students could receive. It is not just me saying this; it is the Chair of Universities Australia, Professor Richard Larkins, who is certainly no long-haired radical that the opposition like to turn to in this debate. He said earlier this month that the Liberal Party’s approach had ‘directly impaired our ability to deliver quality education and research’. He went on to say:

We had to use money for research and teaching and use it to support the student experience on campus.

So, memo to the Liberal Party: all students suffer when universities are forced to redirect funding away from teaching and research.

It has also been interesting to listen to opposition members talking about their concerns for students from regional areas. Yet the same members remain oblivious to the impact the previous government’s approach has had on regional Australia. We heard the member for Forrest telling us how hard it was for students from her area to find affordable housing if they moved to Perth to go to university. I wonder if she understands that one of the services that we want to help universities provide under this legislation is housing assistance for students. The member for Cowper told us how worried he was about the additional burden on students at Southern Cross University. Again, I wonder if he understands that the previous government’s approach forced the dental service at that very same university to close and that the 2,100 students who used this service in 2005 have now had to find somewhere else to go.

The harsh fact for the opposition is that students attending regional universities and students from regional areas attending city universities were badly hit by the service cuts caused by the previous government’s approach. That is because regional students are generally heavier users of services and amenities on campus, as they sometimes lack the local support networks of city based students. The government’s proposal will help to re-establish services and jobs in and around regional universities. It will also help to ensure that basic services are available for students where they may otherwise be unprofitable because of the remoteness of the campus and limited number of customers. Also, unfortunately for members opposite, there was a lot of misinformation put out during the debate, so it may take some time to get through correcting the record. But, rest assured, I am prepared to stand here and make sure that the truth of all of these issues is put on the record prior to the vote on this debate—that I promise to this chamber.

I will also make mention of sport, which was also seriously impacted by the previous government’s approach. The government received evidence from across the sporting spectrum, from the Australian Olympic Committee to individual sporting clubs, and all concluded that sport had been an innocent victim of the 2005 changes. The submission from Australian University Sport and the Australasian Campus Union Managers Association said that, as a direct result of the previous government’s changes, direct funding for sporting clubs had been cut by 40 per cent, funding for intervarsity sport was cut by half and participation by women in the Australian University Games was reduced by almost 10 per cent. Six universities shut down their elite athlete support programs and eight universities discontinued funding of sports scholarships. The AOC expressed concern about the impact of Australia’s international sporting performance when it said:

Given the importance that the university sports system has on elite level sport, these trends will have a direct and real impact on Australia’s ability to maintain its hard won international standing in sport.

But we know that the Liberal Party have no interest in sport in universities, because they made this clear in 2005 when they said:

Sport and recreation is an adjunct to a university education. It is far from being ‘core business’ …

Mr Hawke interjecting

Ms KATE ELLIS —I note that the member opposite said ‘Absolutely’ at that point, and I hope that the shadow minister for sport will come clean about that being his view as well as the rest of the Liberal Party’s view. Here again we are hearing that the Liberal Party do not believe that sport has any place on university campuses.

Unlike the Liberal Party, the government do care about sport, just like we care about the quality of education that students receive at university. This bill also delivers on the government’s commitment not to return to compulsory student unionism, as much as those opposite would like to suggest that that is the case. Section 19-37(1) of the act, which expressly prohibits higher education providers from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation, is unchanged by this bill. That is right, the very clause that the government put in, we are not changing in this legislation.

Opposition members interjecting—

Ms KATE ELLIS —This is obviously not clear enough, though, for the Liberal Party, with the members for Indi, Casey and their colleagues intent on fighting the same old, tired and ideological wars of yesteryear.

Mrs Mirabella —Who are you calling old? Come on!

Ms KATE ELLIS —I will just repeat what I said for the benefit of members opposite and their colleagues: I am calling their ideas old and outdated and I am saying that they are engaging in the debates of the past. Sorry if that was not clear the first time.

This debate is not about the 1970s or the 1980s. It is about the higher education sector in 2009 and beyond. In 2009, I find myself in the very rare position of being in agreement with the member for Indi on at least one thing. I agree with her that no-one should be forced to join a student organisation against their will, and that is why the provision that outlaws compulsory student unionism is unchanged through this bill. The bill will require higher education providers that receive Commonwealth funding to comply, from 2010, with two new sets of guidelines. The Liberal Party assert that the Minister for Education would somehow have unilateral powers to specify exactly what these guidelines say, and we have just heard that argument again. But, once again, they are not letting facts get in the way of a good story. Not only does this demonstrate that they do not understand the bill; it also shows a total ignorance about parliamentary process. If they understood the processes of the parliament, they would know that if ever this government, or indeed any future government, wanted to change these guidelines, an entirely new instrument would have to be tabled in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Instead of talking about what the bill does not do, I am now going to concentrate my focus on what the bill will do. For the first time, universities will have to meet national access to services benchmarks, which will require them, as a very condition of their funding, to provide students with information on and access to health and welfare services. This is very similar to the benchmarks that the Howard government put in place which only applied to international students. We on this side think that domestic students should also have access to these important benchmarks. This will better align the arrangements for domestic students with those obligations for international students. The bill also introduces, for the first time, a requirement to meet national student representation and advocacy protocols. This is a new requirement that does not exist now. There is no obligation on universities to consult with students about decisions which may affect them directly—no obligation at all. For the first time ever universities will be required, through these protocols, to provide opportunities for democratic student representation and to take student views into account in institutional decision making.

This is a value that is reflected in the democratic rights that underpin our nation and our community. This new requirement has nothing to do with the student services and amenities fee and is not being funded by this fee. Universities will be required to establish new representation arrangements, irrespective of whether or not they choose to implement a fee. Over and above these basic services, representation and advocacy rights, the bill will also provide universities with the option to implement a services fee from 1 July 2009, capped at a maximum of $250 per year. Universities that choose to levy a fee will be expected to consult with students on the nature of the services and amenities and advocacy that they will provide. But to ensure that the fee is not a financial barrier, any university that implements the fee must also provide eligible students with the option of taking out a HECS style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, SA-HELP.

I was also very interested to hear the Liberal Party’s new-found concern for student welfare where a university chooses to introduce a fee. The government is very mindful of the impact on students, whose average debt increased massively under the previous government.

Mrs Mirabella interjecting

Ms KATE ELLIS —Perhaps the member for Indi might like to explain why she voted time and time and time again under the Howard government to massively increase fees on students—including the time she voted to increase HECS by 25 per cent—but now sits here and cries crocodile tears over this capped and deferred $250 fee. Of course, even more recently than under the Howard government we have also seen this sort of hypocrisy because the members who sit here and rail against universities having the choice to implement a capped and deferred fee are the very same members who voted against the $950 payment to every eligible student across Australia.

Mr Hawke —It’s only $700 because you’ve taken $200 off.

Ms KATE ELLIS —Well, clearly it is $700 that you voted against—so are you worried about student income or are you not worried about it, because you are trying to walk both sides of the street at the moment and it is not a very convincing argument.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. JE Moylan)—Order! The minister will address her comments through the chair.

Ms KATE ELLIS —Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will be sure to do that. I would like to address some comments through the chair about external students, because there have also been some arguments put about the impact on external and part-time students. I want to make it very clear that if universities opt to implement this fee then they will be able to charge some groups of students less than the maximum. In fact, this is clearly the case for external students—where there is a clear expectation that if universities choose to implement a fee then they will implement sensible arrangements for part-time students and for external students.

The guidelines will specify the purposes for which the fee can and cannot be used. Universities will only be allowed to provide amounts raised through the student services and amenities fee to organisations for the provision of services specifically outlined in the fee guidelines. These include such radical things as: child care, health and welfare support services, and sport and recreation. These are things that we believe are very important on our university campuses. Despite the wild claims from the opposition, they do not include political campaigns or broader political activity and nor do they even include student representation.

The money will not be able to be spent on boozy pub crawls like those the member for Fadden spoke about so fondly in his speech. I would like to again stress that this fee will be collected by higher education providers, not by student organisations. So while members opposite are engaging in the debate of the past about student organisation control of these funds, under this initiative they will be controlled by higher education providers. I say to all members: if passage of this bill is delayed, essential student services will continue to decline and the student experience will be further diminished. The losers in those circumstances will be not just our universities but also students, and particularly those students from regional areas or attending regional universities who depend on the availability of services to help them make the transition to university life.

The provision of services and amenities on our university campuses is a key part of Australia having a world-leading higher education system and the new arrangements need to be available as soon as possible. This bill is not about the past; it is not about student politics in the 1970s; it is not about returning to the former system—it is about establishing a sensible, reasonable and rational new way forward. It is about the universities which will play a key role in our future. I urge members to support this bill, even if that means swallowing their pride and admitting the obvious truth that the Howard government’s legislation went far too far, just as everybody said it was going to. I commend this bill to the House.

Question put:

That this bill be now read a second time.