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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 5177


Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) (1:27 PM)

I would like to take this opportunity, however, to state the government’s position clearly. If this bill is passed, this fee will be paid directly to universities and not to student organisations. This is a fee to assist the rebuilding and the restoration of student services and amenities and is not for student organisations. What the Rudd government is putting to this chamber is a balanced, practical and sustainable approach to securing the future of student amenities and services, while maintaining our commitment not to return to compulsory student unionism. The provision of services and amenities on our university campuses is a key part of Australia having a world-class university system. By voting against this legislation, senators are turning their backs on $170 million of support for our universities.

We have seen as a consequence of the attitudes of the previous government on these questions not only much-needed services being substantially reduced or ceasing to exist on many campuses but students being hit with extraordinary increases in prices for basic services such as child care, parking, books, computer labs, sport and food. I cited some of these figures last night. I thought I would remind the Senate that parking fees at Monash University have risen from $80 to $280 per year. I would ask Senator Fielding, when he is considering the plight of the poor in Victoria, to think about what these costs mean for students actually participating at these institutions. Child care at La Trobe has increased by $68 per week and at the University of Technology, Sydney, by $800 a year. The price of food has increased by 15 per cent at that university in Sydney. Membership fees for Sydney university’s sport and fitness centres have risen by 500 per cent. What do you reckon that would do to people at universities who do not come from private schools and who cannot rely on the sorts of private incomes about which we have heard so many laudatory comments made by Senator Joyce and others? What would 500 per cent increases do for poor kids at university?

That is why every university organisation in the country has called on this chamber to support this legislation. Universities Australia have indicated in their release:

Student service amenities underpin the university experience.

They call on the Senate to ensure the availability of quality student services and amenities for Australian universities through the passage of this bill. They say:

As there are important support services stressed by some senators, there are many essential university services such as health care, counselling, career advice, childcare facilities and independent advocacy and legal support that provide a safety net for all students—

that is, not just those with the money to get private facilities. They say:

Without this legislation, universities will have to continue to cross-subsidise their core teaching and research budgets at a time when their budgets are under pressure.

Innovative Research Universities is an organisation headed up by a vice-chancellor at a regional university. IRU Chair Professor Sandra Harding says:

A modest levy, such as that proposed by the government, would be a boon for student life on campus … It is critical for students to have access to support services which augment the student experience and significantly contribute to both students’ success and the development of well-rounded graduates.

There is an appeal being made to us right across the university system, because of the importance of this legislation, to underpin Australia’s reputation for excellence in education. By voting against this legislation, you are voting against the provision of those services that students desperately need.

Let me finally deal with the question of the Liberals’ attitude on this. There seems to be a fundamental misconception here, from what Senator Mason put. There is the notion that somehow or other the conservative parties in this country under the present arrangements in this chamber and in the House have anything whatsoever to do with liberalism. Their illiberal views are no better expressed than in their hostility to universities and their contempt for the fundamental principles that underpin universities. We saw that in government. We saw their contempt for academic freedom when Brendan Nelson, as minister for education, intervened on 10 separate occasions to block Australian research grants to scholars in this country. We had the provision of 7.5 per cent of funding being conditional on compliance with the so-called National Governance Protocols. We saw intervention in the size and the composition of boards at universities. We had their constant demands for the application at universities of their hideous Work Choices principles. There was a fundamental contempt for the principles that underpin the essential nature of what is a liberal institution in our society—that is, the university system.

What you are seeking to do and what we are being asked to do here is to intervene in such a way as to censor student newspapers and to intervene and determine the morality of students themselves, as if we should somehow or other regulate the behaviour of university students. Senator Mason talked about the ‘grand obsessions’. What we have seen are the grand obsessions of the Liberal Party, from when in the 1970s and 1980s they suffered humiliations—and perhaps psychological difficulties—as a result of their encounters with students at universities. Perhaps they should take up those problems with counsellors. They should not visit those psychological scars on this chamber. They should try to direct the attention of this parliament to more productive means.

Question put:

That this bill be now read a third time.