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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 2831

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (12:31): It is a pleasure to follow the fine remarks of the member for Farrer in relation to the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. I really ought to thank the government as well at this juncture for its utter, ongoing incompetence in administering bills in this parliament, which has given me another opportunity to express my opposition to the compulsory levying of a fee on students for services they neither want nor need. If the government were competent, this legislation would not be before us today. But it is utterly incompetent, as we know, and so we have before us this bill that seeks to index the compulsory fee that will be charged by higher education providers.

Why are we opposed to the levying of a compulsory so-called service or amenities fee on every student in the country? Our view is that young people attending university and taking on higher studies can make their own decisions about their own capital and about the services they need. At Sydney University, for example, where there is a campus of 30,000 students—a captive market—if you cannot provide a service at a profit you ought not be in business. We do not need the government to say that a higher education provider can levy every student a fee to make a choice about what services students will or will not use. It is simply an illogical proposition.

We know that this government is ideologically wedded to the idea of compulsory unionism. It is a backdoor way of allowing associations to receive money from higher education providers. We have seen that this $250 fee, in operation since the passage of earlier legislation, is being levied on students around the country. It is potentially $250 less for the necessities of education, such as textbooks, study materials, transport and the costs of living. Some people say that $250 is not a lot of money. As I said before in this chamber, as a young student who went to university from western Sydney, I know that $250 is a lot of money to young people. It is a lot of money to young people today. It remains a substantial sum to provide at all times.

This government has an illogical track record in relation to service fees. It says that it is going to have to means-test private health insurance and other government mechanisms, because it does not want the rich creaming off the fat of the land. That is this government's argument in relation to so many areas of public policy. But in relation to students this government is blind. If you are 18 to 25 and attend a higher education institution, you can pay. It does not matter whether you are rich or poor; it does not matter whether you have a job or you are unemployed: you will have to pay a fee. It is a completely illogical piece of public policy from this government and it has been from the beginning.

The universities of today are very mainstream, earthy places; they are not elite institutions or facilities. That is a great thing about Australia: people from all backgrounds can access university. People can study part time or full time—there are all kinds of arrangements—and that is a very good system. But the 130,000 students who study externally will never have the opportunity to use the services they are forced to pay for. If we embrace the user-pays culture, which we do in today's society, there is simply no need for this fee to be levied on all students—there is no call for it. When it was abolished by the Howard government, when the system of compulsory unionism and the compulsory levying of fees was removed, there was no outcry from young people in this country saying: 'Please, levy us a fee! Please, our services are falling apart!' Do you know what happened? Universities continued to function. In fact, they functioned the way they ought to. Students who used the services paid for them. Students who wanted access to a service sought it out and got it at a reasonable price.

But this government wanted to return to the illogical system of levying every single person. They see every student as the same. They can see the difference between a person earning $150,000 to $200,000 for private health insurance and they can see it for private education, but they cannot see it in relation to 18- to 25-year-olds. This government cannot see the difference between people struggling and working very hard in the western suburbs of Sydney, for example, where I came from and where my experience said to me it was an expensive exercise to pay that compulsory upfront fee. I struggled to find the money; I know many people who did. It was always an impediment, always a burden. It was more of a burden and an impediment because I could never understand what services it catered for, what it actually provided me. I did not access anything for it. I know many people who did not. This bill relates particularly to the government's failure to get their legislation right—an 'indexation mistake', I think it is termed in the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act 2011. While I oppose the idea of levying a compulsory so-called service fee, I also oppose the indexation of that fee. I do not believe we should be indexing this fee. It is illogical to levy the same fee on every single student, regardless of income or ability to pay, and then say, 'Even if you don't use the services, or aren't getting value out of them, we're going to index them.' Indexation is a market concept related to the cost of delivering a service. If you index something, you are saying, 'Here's the quantifiable cost justified by the cost of the service provision going up.'

The simple fact is that this government is levying a fee on every student, through their higher education provider, without any relation to the service provided. So why should this fee be indexed? It is a big mystery. How is it that we have reached a position where the service providers cannot afford to fund the so-called services they are alleged to be providing under this retrograde legislation and have reached a point where they need to have the fee indexed? We all know the answer. There are no services provided by these bills. This is a complete and utter nonsense. This is a status measure that treats everybody the same. It says everybody can afford a flat fee, for services they do not use, regardless of whether a service is provided to a certain quality or not. It is a notion completely antithetical to our modern society.

The shame of this bill is that we are applying this to our best and brightest people, to young people, to people going to universities, to people seeking to get ahead. We have a retrograde Third World system where we are saying, 'We're going to treat you all the same and levy you the same fee, whereas, everywhere else, we are moving to means-testing and user pays.' Why would we treat our students and young people like that? It makes no sense.

We know that generation Y, which accounts for the bulk of university students at the moment, are a great generation. They have grown up with access to the internet and unprecedented freedom of thought and freedom of expression. We know that they are committed to innovation, forming their own businesses and enterprises, and doing things for themselves. When we are at a point in society where individual choice is at its maximum, why are we saying to people that they have to contribute a fee for a service regardless of whether they get a return or not? Why are we saying people are not capable of making their own individual choices? We know that, every day, these young people make individual choices about goods and services in the economy. They do so in a sustainable way related to their incomes. They are able to cope with the highly technological society we live in, which is much more advanced than any other generation in human history has dealt with. They do it well and they do it confidently. We ought to be saying: 'You guys are very, very smart people. You cope with the modern digital age. You're dealing with a range of complex issues that other generations haven't had to deal with. So you can choose whether you want to have gravy with your potato or not.'

The minister at the table raises her eyebrows at me, but these are the kinds of arguments we have heard from the Labor Party in relation to this legislation: if you get rid of a compulsory service fee, there will not be food provision on campuses. This is the absolute and utter nonsense we have heard from this government—especially the example I have given of a campus at the University of Sydney, where there are 30,000 students. If you cannot provide them with peas and gravy at a profit, you really ought not to be in business. Every single provider in this country—whether they be a food provider, a business or a news and information service—is desperate to get to university students and provide goods and services to them at cut-price rates. It is like any marketing principle: any business that can get to young people early and get them hooked on consuming their goods and services will be better off.

That is a great thing for young people. But, instead of embracing this culture, we have pieces of legislation like the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012, a status measure which seeks to apply the outdated concept of a compulsory service fee. It takes away individual choice, it takes away individual liberty and it takes away the ability of a person to think and act for themselves in the economy. It is totally antithetical to the whole construct of the Australian economy and the whole purpose of our education system, which is to bring people up as well-functioning individuals who can make their own choices.

This is just a short summary of why I am opposed to this legislation. There is plenty more. I know plenty of people do not want to hear it but we have made a lot of progress in Australia today down the path of individual liberty and people thinking for themselves. Gen Y and the generations to come are the kinds of people who can do this. They do not need a law from the federal government that says: 'We'll take money off you whether you want to pay it or not. It isn't for a service or return that you'll get. We can't quantify what you're going to get but we'll take that money off you. You won't have any choice about the service that's provided and you won't necessarily get a return. And we'll index that fee because there's no relation to the cost of providing the said mythical services.'

It is a poor way to do government, it is a poor way to do legislation, and it is an insult to every student in this country today that this government is pursuing this legislation in a blindly ideological way at the expense of ordinary young people in our country. It is an absolute disgrace. I do not make that remark in this chamber very often, but the treatment of young people by this government, the insult to their ability to choose and learn and do the things they want to do themselves, is graphically represented in the provisions of this bill. To index a service with no relation to the cost of providing the service is nuts. To levy every single Australian student, without any relation to their ability to pay, without any relation to the service provided to them, is nuts. Why do we do this? There isn't any coherent explanation. This is a compulsory student unionism mechanism by stealth. That is the only logical way we can explain it—a government, dominated by union members, seeking to reimpose a compulsory fee to reignite the spark of compulsory unionism on campuses. If freedom of association is good enough for everybody else in society, if it is good enough for every other stratum, it ought to be good enough for our students. People are free to join a union on campus, and I endorse that principle even though I do not agree with it. That competitive culture is something we should not deny our universities, students and young people, and that is why I oppose the Higher Education—so called—Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012 and the whole principle of indexation applied to a fee that should not exist in the first place.