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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2330

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (19:51): I am pleased to follow that fevered contribution from Senator Polley with something a little more measured and relevant to the bill. I have to say, with great respect, that a great deal of what Senator Polley had to say in that contribution did not relate to what appears in the bill I have in front of me, the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2012. Extolling the various reforms the government is enacting with respect to funding of universities is a fine piece of debating rhetoric but unfortunately does not relate to what is in front of us at the moment. In fact, what is in front of us at the moment is the government correcting what I think is best described as a mistake or an oversight in the legislation that was passed only—

Senator Mason: That is very kind!

Senator HUMPHRIES: Yes, that is very kind language. It was more like a shemozzle that the government enacted in passing the legislation in October last year. I think 'ambiguity' was the gentle word that Senator Polley used, but there is nothing ambiguous about this, Senator Polley. This needs to be fixed because it was a mess, a stuff-up, when it happened.

The guts of this legislation is about removing choice from university students. It is about saying to those students: 'You students, uniquely in the Australian community, do not have freedom to decide what you belong to and how much you pay to belong to that organisation. You do not have the freedom to make that decision and, most particularly, you do not have the freedom to decide whether your money goes to that particular exercise or it does not.' When I have heard in recent days members of the government in this place talk about the pressure on working families, I can only remember that some of the most pressured members of working families today in Australia are people studying at tertiary institutions.

When I was at university, when Senator Mason was at university and when other colleagues here such as Senator Back and perhaps Senator Payne were at university, we had the great privilege of not having to pay university fees. That happened to have been because of the era in which we passed through universities, when the pressure that students face today was not there. Today, students do pay fees, and quite steep fees. As a community we need to be aware of the pressure that they are under, as they engage in their studies, to both work and study in order to get through their degrees. Being aware of that pressure, what does this government decide to do? Wouldn't a government that was cognisant of the pressure on working families decide that it could do something to help them by removing or relieving fees they would otherwise have to pay? No, not this government. This government has decided that, uniquely among all Australians, university students need to pay a compulsory fee in order to engage in a particular activity in the community, which is to study at a tertiary institution. They have to pay that fee, whether they can afford it or not and whether they will use the services or not.

Senator Polley talked about the wonderful things that are available on campuses—the childcare facilities, the food services and so on. I quite agree that, compared with what was available in my time at university, some of those services are quite good. But let me make two points about that. First of all, there are many people who, even with the best will in the world, cannot access those sorts of services. To take a small example, a member of my staff lives in Canberra and is studying at the University of Western Australia. My member of staff will have to pay the fees that this bill will impose on him—$263. He has never been to Perth. He is most unlikely to get there or spend any time there during the course of his degree, but he has to put in $263 every year in order to be able to access the right to study at that university by virtue of legislation the government is reinforcing today to impose a compulsory student fee.

The second point is that we generally give people in our society the freedom to assess what is good value for money. We give them the freedom to say: 'This particular organisation, this club, this association, this professional body, this sporting group provides a service which I think is worthwhile, it would suit my needs and I choose to belong to it. I will put my dollars into that because I get something out of it.' People in all sorts of areas of society and at every socioeconomic level have that choice and they exercise it on a daily basis. But the one people we do not give that freedom to are those who study at universities. Patronisingly, we tell these future leaders of our nation, because that is what we hope people going through our universities will be: 'You can't decide for yourself whether paying a fee to this organisation is in your best interests. We know it is. We will require you to join and to pay the fee to that organisation, in effect.' That is just disgraceful.

So why is the government doing this? It is in the government's interests, and I am sure the Greens will rush forward to support this contention, that student organisations be well resourced. It is nothing to do with services. Don't give me this rubbish that you want people to have access to child care, that you want them to be able to go and get subsidised meals. If I want childcare or if I want subsidised meals I can choose to belong to organisations to get those services. But you want those organisations to be well funded and you have decided that, rather than put that money in from the universities or from the public purse, you want students to stump up that cost.

Senator Polley: You're just totally opposed to it, just be upfront!

Senator HUMPHRIES: We will see with the passage of this legislation the reinforcement of this system where students are effectively required to make a choice, most of them involuntarily, to belong to organisations or to subsidise organisations that they do not believe are good value for money or they do not want to belong to or they actually disapprove of belonging to. This is most unfortunate. So, yes, Senator Polley, members on this side of the chamber have fought a very long battle about this because as a matter of principle we believe the choice ought to exist.

I belonged to student organisations when I was at university. I was active in student organisations. In fact, I was the president of the Australian National University Students Association because I believed in being involved. But I did not want to say to other people, 'You have to make the same choice I make.' You ought to have the right to decide whether you belong and whether you think it is good value for money, and you put your dollars there. That right is being denied with this legislation.