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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 2834


Mrs ANDREWS (McPherson) (12:45): I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012, and I congratulate the member for Mitchell on his excellent contribution to the debate. The bill before the House will increase the maximum amount that a higher education provider can charge students under the compulsory student services and amenities fee and comes as a result of the original bill passing through the parliament later than was expected. The coalition opposes these provisions, which increase the maximum amount of these fees from $250 to $263. The bill also changes the process of rounding HECS-HELP debt to the nearest dollar. Currently, the HECS-HELP debt that remains after a student pays part of it off is rounded up to the nearest dollar, but under the amendments it will be rounded down to the nearest dollar.

Further, changes are also to be made to the structure of FEE-HELP fees for dentistry and veterinary science students. Under the current system, the FEE-HELP amount for students studying medicine, dentistry or veterinary science is $100,000, with that amount being indexed to $112,132 in 2012. The proposed amendments will redefine what is meant by a course of study in dentistry and a course of study in veterinary science to now mean a course of study which would result in a qualification that is recognised as the minimum qualification by a governing body irrespective of whether the student has completed further studies before registration. This will ultimately result in students being able to access the higher FEE-HELP limit available for studies in these particular fields only up until they have achieved the minimum qualification for professional registration. This is different from the existing system, which allows for students to keep studying with the higher FEE-HELP limit until they seek registration.

As members of the House can see, this is not a large bill. However, its objective is quite clear: it will continue to place further cost burdens on students through its provisions regarding the government's new compulsory student unionism regime. I, like many of my colleagues on this side of the House and in the Senate, spoke out against what became the Gillard government's Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act 2011 as it passed through the parliament late last year. We did this because we believe that students, like all Australians, deserve a choice. In this case, students deserve a choice as to whether they want to participate in campus life or whether they wish to opt out of extras during their university years. The then bill introduced a new compulsory payment for students, which was levied against them regardless of their income, financial standing or whether they wanted to access the services that they would be forced to pay for. The members opposite have tried to frame the coalition as ideologues in this debate. Supposedly, we decried this bill on a matter of principle. Well, yes, we did decry it on a matter of principle—the principle of common sense. Why should a student pay for a service they do not need, let alone want? Many students across Australia, such as part-time students and mature students, do not pay the extra fees for student union membership because they do not want or they do not need to access those services. So where is the logic in forcing people to buy into a system that they do not want to access at all?

There is no reason that the government should have to impose a compulsion on students to opt into student unions at all, let alone to the point that it is a required cost to receive a tertiary education. University students across the country have the opportunity to play various sports and to get involved in drama and/or participate in student politics as they go through studies. They should not, however, be forced to pay for and undertake activities which they do not want. If a person wishes to involve themselves in these extracurricular activities, that is their choice, and their choice alone. It should not be the choice of a government that is out of touch with the views and perspectives of the Australian people—in particular, students. All the act itself does is restrict a fundamental right that students have, and that is the right to choose: a right to choose whether they want to play for a sporting team or not; a right to choose whether they want to get involved in a cultural club or not; a right to involve themselves in the management of their student union or not; a right to choose whether to engage in student life and activities or to merely concentrate on their studies alone. The government have claimed that the fee they have imposed on students is to ensure they receive a robust education at university. So does that mean any student who does not choose to utilise the student services and amenities will have any less of an education than those who did? I believe most certainly that is not the case. But this is the type of hypocrisy that the people of Australia have come to expect from the members opposite.

Student life at universities did not die away with the introduction of voluntary student unionism. What it did mean is that many societies and clubs that were a drain on student union expenditure without any real purpose closed down. Many clubs and societies that either attracted a continuous stream of users or served a function to the student body kept on going. To suggest that voluntary student unionism has contributed to the death of student life is simply untrue. I recently attended the club sign-on day at Bond University. Here students had the opportunity to come and sign up to the various cultural and sporting clubs the student body had to offer. I saw hundreds of students who were eager and enthusiastic to join up to the various extracurricular activities that provide them with a break from their rigorous study schedules. What may surprise members opposite is that all the people there wanted to be there and wanted to sign up to clubs and societies, and did so without compulsion. But not every Bond student is a member of a campus club and society. At Bond, students have a choice, and that is the important issue here.

Reintroducing compulsory student unionism only shows that this government has no regard for the costs that many students have to deal with on a daily basis. Students have to pay for accommodation, food, transport, health needs and other sundry costs as they come up. They cannot afford to have more costs imposed on them, nor should they have to. We need to ensure that students are able to afford the necessities they need to study and to live comfortably enough so that they have a good quality of life. This helps students focus better, leading them to be much more productive students and members of the community.

I would also like to quickly take the opportunity to foreshadow an issue that some higher education institutions may face in the future, especially one of the institutions in my electorate. Growth across the overall higher education sector between 2007 and 2012 has increased by 27 per cent or 116,000 places. This is a positive result, and shows that our higher education industry is going strong. Further analysis needs to be done to review the impact of the removal of caps on university places to ensure that places are being properly allocated based on future workforce needs. This is essential work if we are to ensure that we are training and producing graduates in disciplines where there is a projected future employment need.

In closing my contribution to the debate today, I reaffirm my opposition to the provisions which increase the maximum amount of student services and amenities fees. Students cannot afford higher costs of living, and this will do just that.