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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 5075

Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) (8:44 PM) —I would like to thank those senators who have spoken on the bill. I would like to thank those senators who have participated in the committee of the Senate inquiry into this bill. I think it is important to put into perspective what this bill is actually about. It is not about a number of the claims that have been made here by some of those opposite. There seems to be a presumption that these types of debates—and I have seen them now in this chamber for a long time—are opportunities for conservative politicians to essentially revisit their obsessions with the ghosts of their pasts, the misspent youth that they are seeking to dispel and their attempts to essentially re-fight the battles and relive the old indignities and humiliations that they suffered at university. They see this process as some sort of psychological cleansing because they, frankly, have no grasp of the fundamentals of what is actually in the bill.

If you listen to the speeches, these very colourful presentations that we have heard over recent times, you would not get a sense of what is contained in these propositions that are before the chamber tonight. What we have here is a measure that would provide about $170 million for the universities of this country to provide services for students. What those who are opposed to this legislation are doing is turning their backs on the capacity of universities to provide $170 million for the students of this country. Those are very useful sums of money, coming as they do at this particular point in the interregnum between now and the point at which a great bulk of the $5.4 billion worth of new moneys provided as a result of the government’s last budget are available. So when I hear Senator Fielding talking about cuts to universities that will flow from this bill, I frankly wonder whether or not we are talking about the same piece of legislation. We are dealing with a group of assumptions here that are not borne out by the facts of what this bill seeks to do.

This bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to bring about an end to the damage to the student amenities and services on university campuses that was caused by the existing voluntary student unionism provisions, which were introduced by the previous conservative government. We do so at the same time as maintaining the commitment by the new Labor government not to return to compulsory student unionism. So this bill is an attempt to start rebuilding student services after the decade of neglect by the previous government. This bill makes amendments to require the higher education providers that are receiving Commonwealth Grant Scheme moneys to comply with new student services, amenities, representations and advocacy guidelines. This means that for the first time universities will be required to meet national access to services benchmarks. There are provisions in this bill—Senator Mason, I trust you are aware of this, rather than fighting out those ideological obsessions of yours—that actually deal with assisting students.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Minister, direct your remarks through the chair.

Senator CARR —These are important benchmarks which will allow students to have the provision of information on the services that are provided to them on their health, on their welfare, on their financial services and on their various advocacy services. So this bill introduces for the first time a requirement for universities to meet national student representation protocols to ensure that universities provide opportunities for democratic student representation so that student views might be taken into account in institutional decision-making processes. What a shocking thing to do! What a horror for a government to actually ask students what they think about the provision of services on their campuses!

What this Labor government has been doing is taking a balanced and a practical and a sustainable approach to securing the future of student amenities and services while also maintaining a commitment not to return to compulsory student unionism. The provision of student amenities and services on our university campuses is a key part of providing a world-class higher education system. One thing I will agree with Senator Barnaby Joyce about is his observation that going to university is a bit more than just simply turning up to class—or, for those who do not turn up to class, filling in some assignment every now and then. It is actually about a broader engagement. And what we will see through this proposal is that we have an opportunity to provide services to students with much needed services that have been substantially reduced or have ceased to exist as a result of the negligence by the previous government when it came to provision of services on campuses.

What we saw under the previous government, one of the few governments in the OECD to reduce spending for universities, is that students were hit particularly hard with increases in prices for the provision of basic services like child care, parking, books, computer labs, sport and food. What we have heard is a lot of sanctimonious twaddle about what has been going on at universities. But what we actually see when we look at the facts in these matters is that parking fees, for example, at Monash University have risen from $80 to $280 per year. Child care fees at La Trobe have increased by $68 per week and by $800 a year at the University of Technology Sydney. We have seen the membership fees for the Sydney university sport and fitness centre raised by 500 per cent. These are the facts of what has been going on under the previous government as a result of the starvation of the university system by the previous Liberal government.

This is the great panacea that those opposite created with the voluntary student unionism regime. And what we have seen is that the cost of the voluntary student regime has been directly detrimental to students right across this country. We saw that universities were redirecting funding out of research and teaching to fund services and amenities which otherwise might not have existed at all. This is the harsh reality of the education nightmare that was created by the previous government. And so it was a pity that senators who were speaking in the debate on this bill did not reflect more wisely upon the actual experience of students today but rather reflected on their obsessions from some 20 years ago.

I think this is an opportunity for senators to correct their record of appalling abuse of students that we saw over the last decade. There was not a squeak out of any of you on that side. I sat here for over a decade and there was not one squeak out of you when it came to the cuts in higher education that were experienced under the previous government.

Just this evening we have had a number of universities trying to appeal to your better natures. I know how foolish that is, but, nonetheless, they remain optimistic of their capacity to persuade you. The Group of Eight, for instance—forever idealistic is the Group of Eight—has called on the Senate to ‘support the Government’s policy for restoring vital student services on university campuses’. It says:

The Federal Government’s decision to allow universities to support essential student services through the collection of a modest fee is a sensible compromise that will enhance the quality of Australia’s higher education system,” said Go8 Chair, Professor Alan Robson.

               …              …              …

The Go8 strongly supports the Government’s decision to ensure students will have the option of a HECS style loan to cover service fee costs. This means the student services fee will not pose an up-front barrier to any student.

That was pointed out to us tonight. So there is a request from the Group of Eight that this bill be passed. Obviously it has fallen on deaf ears and it is a tragedy that such ignorance is allowed to prevail. Then there is the Australian Technology Network, the ATN, which calls on the Senate to support the government bill:

… which will ensure the continued availability of quality student services to the nation’s university students.

It points to the guidelines underpinning the legislation as explicit in outlining the allowable uses of the fees.

Failure to pass this bill will have a potential negative impact on the nature of services provided for our regional students.

Reduced services is a significant threat to the level of international enrolments, to the satisfaction of international students with their on-campus experience and more generally to the global reputation of Australia’s higher education system.

Once again we have the ‘ignorance is bliss’ mentality on the other side of the chamber.

Senator Barnaby Joyce spoke about his experiences at UNE—the University of New England. Tonight the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England, Professor Alan Pettigrew, urged federal senators to pass this legislation that will rebuild student amenities and services at universities around Australia.

‘It’s very important that the Senate consider wider issues of student welfare, and the health of the sector,’ Professor Pettigrew said.

               …              …              …

‘This is an issue that also goes far beyond sporting and eating facilities.’

He said that the need for the legislation was particularly pressing for regional universities. I trust that that message has actually been heard. Senator Barnaby Joyce, I look forward to you joining with the government to ensure that this legislation is carried, because otherwise we will think that this is another case of you blowing hot and strong but not actually being prepared to do anything about it. That is what we have heard from you so many times now, where you have got up and said, ‘This is what I am going to do,’ but have failed to deliver every time. What you insist upon is trying to grab the headline without actually walking the walk and talking the talk. You have actually got to cross the floor on this issue for this bill to be carried tonight.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Joyce on a point of order?

Senator Joyce —I have done it 28 times more than he has.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order.

Senator CARR —I have never done it, because I am not a fraud and a hypocrite when it comes to the question of supporting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Minister, I ask you to reflect on your language in that case.

Senator CARR —Indeed, I always reflect on my language. I make this point: it is all very good to stand at the front of this building and big-note yourself about how you are going to cross the floor; it is another thing to actually do it. What you have got here tonight, Senator Barnaby Joyce, is the chance to put your money where your mouth is. Here is your big chance because, on the basis of what has been said here tonight, there are not sufficient numbers for this bill to be carried through the third reading when it goes to division. So I am going to require you to show the courage of your convictions. I commend the bill. I trust that, in the time we have to debate this matter during the committee stages, senators will reflect upon what it actually means to defeat these measures.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.