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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 2839


Mr EWEN JONES (Herbert) (13:07): I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. This bill makes a number of small changes related to higher education. The first of these is to change the name of the Melbourne College of Divinity to the MCD University of Divinity, where the university is referred to in the Higher Education Support Amendment Act. So it is deep and meaningful stuff that we are doing here.

The bill also allows for the rounding down of university students' HECS-HELP debt to the nearest dollar. The current system of rounding the debt up has resulted in many students making bulk payments off their debt thinking they have paid off their loan in full when they are actually left with $1 to pay. The last minor amendment is the introduction of increased restrictions on the subjects that qualify for a HECS-HELP loan in the fields of dentistry and veterinary science. This is needed to ensure that these loans are only available for the standard based dentistry or veterinary science bachelor degrees and not for the advanced courses in these fields, which are also available. I have no problems with these small changes.

The bill however also corrects a mistake made in the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Act 2011 to allow this government to throw back to compulsory student unionism—the student amenities fee, to be indexed and increased to $263 for 2012. I oppose inflicting this fee on Townsville students and I strongly oppose the intent of this bill to make it hurt even more. Townsville is a university town. We have the main campus of James Cook University with over 9,000 full-time on-campus students as well as many thousands more, up to 25,000 students, studying part time and externally.

As a regional university servicing not just Townsville but all of North Queensland, James Cook University attracts a diverse student population from rural young people leaving college to local high school graduates to mature age students returning to study mid career, many of them whilst trying to juggle a career or raise a family. For these reasons, the opportunity for external study, particularly given the accessibility that technology now allows, is also very appealing to a lot of students. This broad range of backgrounds and commitments inevitably means a varied need and demand for services and facilities between students.

This straightforward reality is completely ignored by this Labor government. It now seeks every student to have to pay for amenities regardless of their use of the facilities or whether or not they even have access to them. This government likes to talk about fairness but I do not see how fair it is that an external student or a student who does not spend much time on campus should pay for facilities that they do not use, effectively subsidising the students who do choose to use them. If a university or student association provides good services that cater for what those students want then there is no reason that those who do use them would also not pay to do so. The average student already struggles with the cost of living, with most students finding it difficult to balance many work hours with study. They are simply not in a financial position to have a government throw an extra annual $263 fee for them to pay. To top it off, when they finish university with tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay off, that is quickly earning interest, they must pay the fee before they even start earning an income.

It is a disgusting attitude for this government to think that it is okay to charge students a fee for services they do not even use, because many will put it on their HECS-HELP loan. These income-contingent loans provide us with a good and fair higher education system that helps make university accessible to as many people as possible. But that does not mean that it is free and that it does not cost any extra. When you put drinks on a bar tab it might seem like a good idea at the time but you still have to front up and pay for them at the end of the night, unless you are very swift and run the risk. While some students can put this fee on HECS, at the end of the day they still have to front up and pay for it when they begin working, plus the interest that has accrued along the way.

I have already had concerned JCU students come to me angry about this. They tell me it is already tough enough to make ends meet without paying for facilities that they simply do not use. They are busy enough with study, work and, for many, a family. They do not even have time to play sport or to be involved in campus based organisations. Others are not interested in using these facilities. They are happy spending their spare time off campus.

At James Cook University we also have a renowned school of medicine and other health related courses such as physiotherapy. These are courses that involve extensive placements and with the university's focus on tailoring education to regional service delivery a placement does not just include going to an office down the road for a few weeks. It involves going to another town and being based there for several weeks, if not months, at a time. These students wonder why they still have to pay the same fee as everyone else when they are not even in the same city or have the same campus facilities for large parts of the year.

The majority of Townsville students would fit into these groups. They study externally or they do not have time for extracurricular activities, or they do not want to spend more time on campus than they have to, or their placements take them to an entirely different city. That is the modern university experience and this new fee is yet another sign of just how out of touch this government is with higher education. Last year it snuck through the amenities fee when everyone's attention was on the carbon tax. I would not support it then and I will definitely not support this legislation that uses indexation to increase to an even greater cost. I know that it is not going to the student union director. I know that the university itself is collecting it. For those reasons I have had very quick discussions with the Vice-Chancellor of James Cook University, Professor Sandra Harding, and said that it is the students who are coming to me who say that it is simply not fair. They say to me that they should have the option. I was rung by the mother of two boys. She is a single parent living in Kirwan, which is one of the nice suburbs in Townsville. Both of the boys live at home and work part time to help make ends meet. She has a weekly grocery bill of $300 and she has just received an electricity bill of $900—electricity is going through the roof. They do not have a pool and the boys do not sleep in air-conditioning, as that would be a very expensive way to live. She is wondering: 'What's next? What else can they pile on?' Her rates are coming and she is wondering what else can be piled on to make things more and more expensive. She was very close to tears while she was talking to me about just how hard it is to make ends meet. The boys go to university, they do their one subject or they do their two lectures and then they come home. They study at home and then they go to work. They are not hanging round the rec club, they are not going to see bands and they are not doing anything at the university—they are going to work. That is a common story.

I have two daughters at university, one in Townsville and one in Brisbane. They are both members of the student union. When my wife went to university, she was a member of the student union—because she chose to be and because she wanted to be. My kids also want to be members. They want to be involved and they want to avail themselves of the services. So they feel that it is money well spent and I support them in their decision. But it is just not acceptable, in today's day and age, to make a student services and amenities fee compulsory for the modern university student—who does not go immediately from school to spending four years at university living in a dorm, playing up all weekend, playing rugby for the university and so on. It does not happen like that. The modern university student has a job, the modern university student is flat out and the modern university student is working weekends and working nights. They do not have time to avail themselves of these facilities, plus they want better facilities anyway. If they want to avail themselves of a good service, they will go out and pay for it themselves.

JCU students in Townsville are not happy with this whole system of having to pay these upfront fees. In reaction to that and because this government has so far ignored them, I have started a petition calling for the abolition of this unfair fee. Those students who do not think that they should have to subsidise someone else's extracurricular activities can go onto my Facebook page and sign the petition to finally have their voice heard.

At a press event we did to highlight this issue, a young man, the son of an electrician, said the one good thing about this whole issue was that it was bringing things to a head—that there are so many people out there who do want the choice. There are people out there who want to pay for these services and they should be allowed to pay for them. The universities should be allowed to ask them to pay. But, if you do not want to pay a fee for these things, you should not have to. Ask people to pay cash to use a service—do whatever you like. But do not slam these people with up to $263 a year when they cannot afford it.

I have no problems with most of the changes that this bill proposes to make but I will not support legislation that makes university students at James Cook University pay for facilities that they do not use. The university experience of today is vastly different from what it used to be and students should not be slugged with a compulsory fee just because their campus has not provided services that students want to use and are willing to pay for. I urge all students, particularly those in Townsville, who do not think this is fair to join me in telling that to this out-of-touch government.

We need to provide as good a start as we can for every university student. We have to hope that, by providing them with a good basis for their education, they will be rewarded for effort and will be given every opportunity to succeed. But, if we are continually putting anchors out the back of them and slowing them down then, as the member for Longman said, we are going to get to the stage where people are going to choose not to go—simply because they have to tag this money for so long. It does become an issue. It is only $263, which for us in here is probably not that much money. But when you are a student trying to do these things or when you are a single mum with two boys trying to make ends meet, however, it is money. It is cold hard cash that you have to account for. It is money that you have to be sure you are getting a positive result for. They are getting no result for this.

Make students pay for these services as they go. Make the people that use the services pay. Make them pay as they go in. Make them put a dollar coin in a bucket. Make them do anything, but do not make it compulsory for people who are struggling—people with grown-up kids going back to study or external students. Do not make them have to pay for free drinks for somebody else. It is just wrong. The government should have a real good look at itself and bring this thing down.