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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 5046

Senator WORTLEY (5:21 PM) —I rise to add my voice to those already heard on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This bill delivers on Labor’s commitment, made prior to the last election, to restore important services to those attending our universities, to ensure that their voices will be heard and to ensure that students have representation on campus. In delivering on this commitment, the Rudd Labor government will return fairness and confidence to the tertiary education sector—confidence that so markedly deteriorated under our predecessors, who neglected, downgraded and defunded this vital component of our national life and, indeed, of our economic and social future.

Before I look to that future and discuss the bill before us, I draw attention to the OECD’s report on higher education, released just one month before the last election. The OECD found that Australia’s spending on higher education remained well below the levels of other developed countries. And while spending from all sources in our universities was just above the OECD average, most came from private funds. Only Russia, Italy, Korea, Brazil and Chile spent less in public funds as a proportion of economic output on their institutions than Australia. It remains the case that in the decade from 1995 Australia was the only OECD country to effectively disinvest in the tertiary sector. Consider this: in its last term in office, the Howard government—clearly fuelled by ideological zeal—ripped $170 million from the tertiary level of our education system. This $170 million was ripped away from funding for student services and amenities.

Education is of paramount importance. As I have said in this place previously, a strong and appropriately resourced education sector is vital to Australia’s future, both locally and in terms of our international competitiveness. One of the cornerstones of our future wellbeing as a community and of our economic security now and in an increasingly uncertain global environment is undoubtedly investment in education. This government wants to see all students having access to the best all-round education we can provide. We want them to have access to services that will help them adjust to university life and succeed in their chosen career. We want them to have the opportunity to participate in the multitude of activities and to have access to resources such as employment, welfare and counselling services; child care; sporting clubs; cultural activities; social events; and many others. This is the opportunity that many of us in this place enjoyed at university. It is the opportunity to enable them to participate fully in the university community.

Introducing the bill in the other place, Minister Kate Ellis spoke of the very thorough consultations with students and their institutions that took place in 2008. Those consultations revealed very clearly that universities had to divert funds from budgets intended for research and teaching, shed services or staff, or restructure so as to provide essential services that would otherwise have been discontinued as a result of the changes. In many cases, regrettably, they were discontinued. Universities Australia, the peak body representing the university sector, submitted these very telling remarks:

Universities have struggled for years to prop up essential student services through cross-subsidisation … to redress the damage that resulted from the Coalition Government’s … Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.

I draw your attention to the phrases ‘redress the damage’ and ‘essential services’. Many universities provided individual submissions on these matters. Many pointed to the fact that students were now less represented on committees and other governance structures, that their voices were no longer being heard and that the quality of their university experience was being compromised. This, combined with the significant loss of student services, had added significantly to the loss of community on university campuses.

The Australian Olympic Committee also made submissions, pointing out that, since the advent of VSU, fewer students were participating in campus sport, particularly women. As a consequence, the maintenance of facilities and the retention of world-class coaches were directly and negatively impacted; no doubt it has negative health consequences as well. In their remarks on the impact of VSU, Australian University Sport and the Australian Campus Union Managers Association said:

Prices charged to students for use of services and facilities have in general increased materially since the on-set of VSU…

These prices are outstripping, in most cases, the CPI. It has also placed greater financial pressure on students. In its summary report in April 2008, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations noted:

Most submissions concluded that the abolition of upfront compulsory student union fees had impacted negatively on the provision of amenities and services to university students, with the greatest impact at smaller and regional universities and campuses.

The bill before us has a number of purposes. It is a bill to support students and their centres of learning and to set about repairing the damage that has been caused by the actions of the former coalition government. It requires universities to put into place national access-to-service benchmarks for all domestic students. It introduces national student representation and advocacy protocols that will make sure students have an opportunity to get involved in boards and committees that will make their views known. This is their democratic right. As well, the bill gives universities the option to put in place a fee of a maximum of $250 to allocate to high-quality student support and advocacy services. Students will be able to access a loan to meet this fee. The bill also acknowledges the role and the value of tertiary admissions centres and will give these centres a status and duty of care commensurate with that of higher education providers with regard to the processing of personal information.

One of the foundations upon which our economy is built is the skills base provided over many years by the vocational education and training sector. We all know that under the former government this sector was downgraded and neglected. In fact, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research tells us that the number of students training in this area fell by 16 per cent between 2002 and 2007. This is an indictment of the policies of the previous government and we bear the consequences by way of skills shortages. This bill will make sure that students looking towards courses at diploma level and above in VET institutions will be able to obtain that training without the worry of paying fees at the point of enrolment. The relevant amendments will permit the expansion of the VET FEE-HELP program to provide loans for all tuition costs or a component of these. Loans will not be liable to income or asset tests and repayments will commence once a graduate’s income exceeds a prescribed amount.

The Minister for Education has spoken recently about the need to make a new commitment to the knowledge and skills so fundamental to the prosperity of the individual and of our nation, warning that national participation and attainment in higher education is too low. The augmentation of VET FEE-HELP is projected to be a significant element in meeting the target set by the Council of Australian Governments—that is, to double by 2020 the diplomas and advanced diplomas completed.

The bill before us today does not repeal section 19-37(1) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003, because it is the universities that will be able to levy the student amenities and fees and it is universities that will be held accountable for how those fees are spent. What we are doing is working in partnership with students and their institutions to ensure that there is democratic, independent student representation. The government aims to reverse the ransacking of this crucial sector by the former government. The Rudd Labor government is determined to act on this country’s needs now and into the future, and the measures outlined in the bill puts that determination into achievable form. Supporting this bill and ensuring its progress through this place will see services and representation reinstated and restored across our country, at large city campuses and at smaller and regional centres of learning. I commend the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill to the Senate.