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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 2836


WYATT ROY (Longman) (12:55): In this country we enjoy many liberties and have extensive freedom in our lives. We enjoy access to many education institutions, including internationally respected universities. Yet sections of this bill, the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012, threaten some of the liberties that Australian students enjoy. The reduction of these liberties has wide-reaching implications for the future of our society and our nation.

Australia's future and its future success lies in its ability to adapt to the changing conditions of its economy. We are well aware that as a nation we face significant challenges over the coming decades. As time marches on we will be confronted with the challenge of an ageing nation as well as the challenges associated with the economy restructuring post the mining boom. As I have said in this place before, it is our obligation and it is our responsibility, as legislators, to ensure that we are prepared and resourced to face these challenges head on, to tackle them effectively and ensure our future financial security.

One of the planks which will form the structural foundation of our future economy is higher education. Education and innovative research will be absolutely critical to achieving higher productivity, better efficiency and new industry. Research and education will help enable this country to have a high-productivity economy, affluent with opportunity, an economy where individuals are empowered to be employed in innovative industries and earn higher real wages.

I have spoken in this place before about the recommendations of the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education and the implications that these recommendations would have on Australia. The Bradley review recommended a goal of 40 per cent of young Australians holding bachelor's degrees by 2020—perhaps a grand goal, but a country such as ours needs grand goals. If we are to genuinely restructure our economy post the mining boom to focus on innovation and research, this is a goal that needs to become a reality.

But how can we encourage more students to achieve tertiary education, I ask? I propose that it is not by increasing the amount a higher education provider can charge under the compulsory student services and amenities fees. I propose that what this bill is trying to achieve by raising compulsory student union fees will have the opposite effect for students. It will make higher education less affordable, and it will make it less viable for many young Australians around our country to attend university. Ultimately, this move threatens Australia's chances of achieving the Bradley review's goal of 40 per cent of young Australians holding bachelor's degrees by 2020. This country is striving to achieve that goal. It is a strange move for those opposite to work to undermine that goal rather than to support it.

There are many barriers to entry to university around Australia. In some cases a barrier can be the sheer distance to travel to access a university campus. In other cases it can be the cost of relocating to a metropolitan centre to study. Another can be the difficulty of studying full time and trying to earn enough money to pay the bills. If we want our young people to attend university—indeed, if we want to encourage them to partake of the many opportunities available at a tertiary level—as policy makers we need to be doing everything we can to make the transition to university and time at university as practical and affordable as possible.

Nowhere is this evidenced more than in my own electorate. My community is one where the majority of young people have not gone on to training or higher education. In terms of university participation, my electorate of Longman is ranked 144th out of 150 electorates. Every day I speak to people in my community who share with me stories of struggle—struggle to pay their bills, to put fuel in the car and to put groceries on the table. This struggle has been made significantly worse by this Labor government. People are telling me that they cannot afford more costs. This struggle is not confined to families—young people have the same concerns. How then can we expect Australians to fork out even more money for their studies when they are already finding it difficult to make ends meet? It is difficult to quantify what impacts this will have on my community. How many young people will choose not to attend university simply for the fact that they feel they cannot make their money stretch far enough to get by on their limited funds while they study full or part time? But we can be guaranteed that there will be young people who choose not to attend for this very reason. If this bill, and the resulting higher student union fees that it causes, forces one person to choose not to equip themselves with the tools of a university degree for this reason, it is one person too many.

My community is host to one university campus, the Queensland University of Technology. The Caboolture campus of QUT, headed by Robert Craig, is a great community asset which has significantly invested in the future of our community through some important community engagement measures and which perfectly illustrates some of the difficulties that young people in my electorate experience in simply making the choice to attend university. Mr Craig highlights that one of the biggest hurdles is actually an aspirational one, convincing young people that they could and should attend university. That it is a possibility and that it is not too big a hurdle to jump are the keys to helping young people from my region overcome their background to go on to success at a tertiary level. But how can we possibly inspire our young people and help them to aspire to university when the perceived hurdle of financial costs in attending university are only set to increase under this bill? I suggest that this goes against exactly the thing we are trying to achieve in our community. I suggest that it works to undermine the unsteady and wavering aspirational goals of students that we are trying to build up.

Another issue that this raises is the way this bill enforces university students to pay for so-called services that they may neither want nor need through their time at university. We on this side of the House have a long history in support of individual freedom of choice to be voluntarily a part of a government organisation or association. We on this side of the House have long been advocates of voluntary student unionism at universities. It is clear that these actions are simply another example of a government trying to underhandedly go about reducing the freedoms of students and young people alike by introducing or reintroducing compulsory student unionism. The most powerful argument against this stealth attack on voluntary student unionism is the views of the students themselves.

We have a very strange situation here. We have a Labor government which truly believes that the majority of university students would be better served by seeing up to $263 of their money—money that could buy 50 beers, 175 litres of petrol or 40 pizzas—go to student politicians instead. How out of touch has this Labor government become? If the Labor Party cannot understand a student choosing to keep nearly $300 of their own money instead of giving it to a student politician, let us talk in statistics so that the Labor Party might actually understand. And the statistics do speak for themselves. Only five per cent of university students ever vote in student elections and the majority, a massive 59 per cent of students, indicated they were against compulsory university student fees in a poll commissioned by the Australian Democrats.

Why should students be subsidising student politicians' duplications of services through fees which they cannot afford, do not want and, for many young people, are a deterrent to entering into study at all? The answer is simple: they should not be subsiding these services and they should not be forced into forking out even more money, their own money, when they are at their least financially stable.

Recently I was contacted by one of my constituents, Wes Draper, who commutes to Brisbane to attend the University of Queensland. This young man, a conscientious physiotherapy student, contacted me to express his concerns over the reintroduction of compulsory student unionism. In his message to me, Wes said:

I have recently found out that I alone will be paying $131 at the start of this semester to pay for services that I do not use. This may seem like a small amount, but I fail to understand how it is fair that so many students will be paying this fee even though we don't all use these services. Many of these services, such as food and drink, are paid for by us anyway. I would also like to point out that a friend of mine who studies two degrees is required to pay this fee twice. How is that justified? Is that not "double dipping"?

Wes is just one of many young people who have contacted me to express their disgust over these fees. It is the concerns raised by Wes and many others like him that are the basis for which I do not support the move to increase the amount of money that universities can take from students.

As policy makers in this place, the responsibility rests upon our shoulders to prepare Australia for the significant national challenges that our country will face in the coming years. We are well aware that part of this will include education and innovation in our industries. To achieve this, higher education will be a priority. Ensuring that enough of our young people are educated and contributing to research will be integral. How do we achieve this? We achieve this by encouraging, not hindering. The best way that we as policy makers can make an impact and support our young people on this front is to ensure that costs associated with study do not increase, but this is exactly what this bill seeks to do. It seeks to empower universities to collect even more money from students who cannot afford extra money. It empowers student unions to force the subsidisation of their activities at the expense of students.

As policy makers in this place it is up to us to ensure that we have a society based on opportunity and on fair reward for hard work, where individuals are empowered and offered a hand-up rather than a handout, and where we as a nation can have hope that tomorrow will be better than today. A vibrant and inclusive higher education sector will be a key plank in achieving this. It is in this society that an individual's freedom to choose must be protected. It is this individual liberty that is directly under attack in this bill. It is this individual liberty that is under direct attack by this Labor government's student tax. On this side of the House, we will always stand up for Australians' individual liberty and for their freedoms.