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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 2828

Ms LEY (Farrer) (12:17): I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. In brief, this bill will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to clarify the application and operation of indexation arrangements for the student services and amenities fee, clarify courses eligible for the higher FEE-HELP limit in 2012, update the name of the Melbourne College of Divinity to MCD University of Divinity and make technical amendments to the calculation of the bonus to voluntary repayment of HECS-HELP debt.

The coalition has no concerns with three of the four items that this bill deals with. I will briefly speak about those. The bill updates the definitions of course of study in dentistry and veterinary science ensuring that only courses that satisfy the minimum academic requirements for registration as a dentist, veterinary surgeon or veterinary practitioner are eligible for the higher FEE-HELP limit. Qualifications that are achieved post the minimum required for registration will not be eligible for the higher FEE-HELP limit and this upper limit is set at $112,132 in 2012.

As members will understand, FEE-HELP assistance is payment made available to eligible students but a student who is not a Commonwealth supported student may be eligible for a FEE-HELP loan to pay tuition fees. The amount of assistance to which the student may be entitled is based on his or her tuition fees for the units. But there is a limit on the total amount of assistance that the student can receive. Under the Higher Education Support Act the FEE-HELP limit is generally $80,000. In relation to a person who is enrolled in a course of study in medicine, a course of study in dentistry or a course of study in vet science where the person is enrolled in that course it is $100,000. These amounts are indexed and the upper limit in 2012 is $112,132.

The purpose of the amending item in this bill is to amend the definitions of a course of study in dentistry and a course of study in vet science to mean a course of study which would satisfy the minimum academic requirements for registration as a dentist or a vet surgeon regardless of whether further study is completed before registration is sought. The explanatory memorandum to the bill states:

This will prevent a person from having access to the higher FEE-HELP limit where they choose to continue studying beyond the minimum level of study required for professional registration. A person will not have access to the higher FEE-HELP limit regardless of whether they choose to register as a dentist or a veterinarian. For example, a person who chooses not to register as a dentist after completing the minimum academic requirements and instead decides to go on to further study to specialise in a particular area of dentistry will not have access to the higher FEE-HELP limit beyond completing the minimum academic requirements for professional registration.

The upper limit of $112,132 applies to the minimum academic requirements but no further. Obviously, many students would go further to gain those professional registrations. The coalition has no issue with that part of the bill.

The bill includes technical amendments to the calculation of the voluntary repayment bonus to resolve current rounding issues. The bill amends the act to provide that, in the instance of a partial repayment towards a HELP debt, the amount will be rounded up to the nearest dollar. The intention is to ensure that a person making voluntary repayments is never disadvantaged as a result of rounding calculations.

The bill also updates the Higher Education Support Act to reflect the change in name and role of the Melbourne College of Divinity to the MCD University of Divinity, in accordance with the approval granted by the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority. This is the first university to be established in Victoria in more than two decades. They have been offered a specialised university status offering courses from diploma to doctoral level in ministry, theology and philosophy. The coalition has no concerns with this particular amendment. I come back to the part of the bill that does alarm the coalition. Once again, it concerns this Labor government's endeavours to further slug our university students, this time with a hike in the compulsory student amenities fee. We think the government has slugged Australian students enough. When the original enabling bill for the student amenities fee went through in 2010 and took effect in 2011, it allowed universities to charge a student fee of $250. But an indexation amendment has been slipped in along the way and that $250 is therefore subject to indexation every year. This bill clarifies that in 2012 it will in fact be $263. That is the maximum amount of student services and amenities fees that universities can charge. So it has gone from $250 to $263. This bill also clarifies that annual indexation will occur from 2013. The coalition's opposition to the student amenities fees is well and truly on the record. As I said, we believe that Australian students have been charged enough by this government.

I will make some comments in the context of the broader education arrangements. I know the Prime Minister is concerned about Australia losing the education race, but the Labor government's response is to increase these fees to university students and to reinforce and re-engineer compulsory student unionism. Australians everywhere are doing it tough. Families are doing it tough and that includes students, particularly those from rural areas who have not been supported with independent youth allowance in the way that the previous government supported them, in the way that rural and regional students deserve to be supported and in a way that it is in any way equitable when you consider the disadvantages faced by rural students compared to their city counterparts. As a rural member of parliament, I strongly endorse our rural universities. No, I do not think that every student in my electorate should be given the opportunity to study at Melbourne universities or Sydney universities and have all of their costs covered. I do not think that and I reject the framing of the debate in those terms, which I constantly see government members doing. But I do think that the students and the families I represent should have the opportunity to have the same number of choices made available to them. Incredible though our rural universities are—and I know they are incredible because I have gained two qualifications from them—they do not offer everything. They do not offer every single course or discipline. Sometimes of the tertiary training expertise does not reside in country areas—whether it is in vet science, which we just mentioned, though there is a fantastic vet science course at CSU in Wagga; medicine; engineering; or some of the sciences. You cannot make teachers move to those areas. The alternative is simply that our students have access to the best professional qualifications wherever they may go. We have seen stumbling and bumbling from the government over youth allowance and rural students' access to it. The minister was dragged kicking and screaming to pretty much coming back to something that we had, but not quite as good—and, gosh, there was a lot of heartache that students went through along the way. But, finally, through inquiries and representations the minister was brought back to the table to recognise these fundamental facts about equity of access for students going to rural universities. As I said, families are doing it tough and students are doing it tough. This bill is not about the independent youth allowance, but I think it was appropriate to mention it at this point.

Living costs continue to rise under this Labor government and Australians fear further rising costs as the carbon tax looms on the horizon. But Labor's response to Australians struggling with a higher cost of living is simply to slug students with more fees for the things they do not need and to take away their right to choose. That is right: as our students start to study or recommit to study, this Labor government is adding to their expenses by wanting to pass this Higher Education Support Amendment Bill, increase fees and add $263 to their expenses. That is $263 this year and then every additional year further indexation will apply.

What is the return students get for this money? They get a student newspaper, the O-week sausage sizzle, how-to-vote cards for student leadership—we do not really know. It will be up to the student unions to decide what these hard-working students, frequently juggling several jobs in addition to their studies, will or will not actually receive in exchange for their $263. Students should spend their hard earned and precious dollars on the services and goods that they want to purchase rather than on the ones that have been decided by the union. If student unionism was desired or required, surely the laws of supply and demand should apply. Yes, the coalition returned choice to student union fees in 2005 and the students around this nation breathed a sigh of relief. Since 2005, when we returned choice to student unionism, students have not had to work those extra shifts through exam weeks to earn enough simply to pay for these amorphous student services that they may or may not use, services that they may or may not benefit from. If such services were in demand, enterprising people would have, and in fact have, stepped in to provide such services on university campuses around this nation.

The coalition believe in giving every student choice. The coalition believe in giving every student access to education. Each time a fee is introduced or a fee is increased, students struggle. We seem to be the only ones who care about that struggle in this place. Future generations, future employers and future workplaces will be left short as more and more bright minds are restricted from accessing further education by the policies of this government. We thought that access to education was a right that this nation prided itself on. The Labor government is intent on widening the gap between those who can access education and those who cannot. They produce report after report on reducing the gap but here they are, yet again, introducing another bill that simply widens the gap. This government is completely out of touch. Its policy development is clearly little more than a 10-minute brainstorming session in front of a whiteboard each and every time. Let us remind ourselves of some of the ridiculous waste under this Labor government: computers in schools, a $1.4 billion blow-out and less than half delivered; the NBN, $50 billion but no cost-benefit analysis; and who could possibly forget the Building the Education Revolution fiasco? This must truly be the only government in the history of the world who believed that building a canteen could fuel a revolution. It is really rather difficult when the so-called canteen is not even large enough to fit a pie warmer. The cost of this masterstroke by the Prime Minister was $16.2 billion, but if you ask everybody what they want from their schools for their children they will tell you that it is that their children have the best teachers who teach them in the best way and who inspire them as only good teachers can. You do not need a classroom; you can learn sitting under a tree. I am not suggesting we do that, although I do have tiny schools in the electorate of Farrer that quite often leave their one-room classroom and sit under a tree. It does bring home the point that we did not need $16.2 billion of largely wasted expenditure. I do not say that none of the infrastructure was wanted or welcome, because some of it was, but time and again the government does things with no cost-benefit analysis, no evidence base and no demonstration that what it is doing is good value for taxpayers' money.

We have had way too many policy blunders under this government. This government is so overwhelmed with its own rolling series of internal crises that it fails to realise that cost-of-living pressures are genuinely overwhelming Australians. The coalition remain committed in its opposition to compulsory student unionism. We will be proposing an amendment to prevent this fee hike on students, who are already reeling from the cost of living under this Labor government.