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Transcript of press conference: Parliament House, Canberra: 29 September 2010: Higher Education Legislation Amendment Student Services and Amenities Bill 2010

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Senator the Hon Christopher Evans

Minister for Tertiary Education Minister for Skills Minister for Jobs and Workplace Relations

29 September, 2010

Higher Education Legislation Amendment Student Services and Amenities Bill 2010


Main Topics: Higher Education Legislation Amendment Student Services and Amenities Bill 2010

CHRIS EVANS: Thank you for coming this morning. I just wanted to announce that this morning the Government will be reintroducing the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Student Services and Amenities Bill 2010 into the House of Representatives. And it's the Government's commitment to try and get this Bill passed by both houses of parliament this year.

As you know, this legislation has had a long history since the previous government, through their VSU legislation, abolished the capacity for students to pay services and amenities fees. We tried, over the last couple of years, to introduce legislation that restored the capacity for those fees to be charged to students to allow them to ensure student services were provided, and that amenities and services that had previously been available to students were able to be restored.

The reality is that we've had difficulty getting this legislation passed by the parliament. We've made some further amendments to the legislation to try to make it more attractive, including providing the facility for student services fees to be included in the HECS calculations so people don't have to pay upfront.

But this legislation will be introduced in the House of Representatives this morning. We're looking to get that bill passed by Christmas because that will allow us to ensure the services and amenities will be provided to students next year. So we're going to be seeking the cooperation of parliament to get this legislation carried this year.

It's important that we are able to restore the services and amenities that have been depleted at universities, particularly in light of the concerns of regional universities where students are finding campus life restricted. The loss of a lot of sporting, counselling and other services to students has really impacted on the campuses.

And that's why I'm pleased to be joined by Mr Ian Chubb, who's the vice-chancellor of ANU, who this morning will talk about the ANU experience in terms of the capacity to provide

those services. And Carla Drakeford, who's the president of National Union of Students, who'll also address the perspective of students.

The point I want to make, or the two key points I want to make, is that this legislation is supported by the universities and it's supported by the students. What we're dealing with is an old-fashioned, ideological opposition from the Opposition. So I'd encourage them to rethink their position.

It's also the case that this legislation has been supported by the independents in the Lower House. We've agreed with them that we would reintroduce the legislation. And I'm hopeful of getting Mr Crook from Western Australia to support the legislation. I'm hoping to get Mr Wilkie and Mr Crook to support the legislation. And when it comes to the Senate, I will be urging both the National Party, Senator Fielding and Xenophon to support the legislation and allow us to restore these services to universities, to provide for a proper university experience for students. One that allows them to play sport and take part in the active life of the university, not just have a study experience.

Those of us who have been to university, I think, appreciate that it's about that broader experience and I notice that there are some former student politicians in the audience as well. But it is important, I think, that students get that full experience. The legislation that the Howard Government introduced destroyed a lot of the capacity of universities to provide that broader experience.

And we hope that this practical, balanced piece of legislation gets the support of the parliament and allows us to make sure that universities can provide the services that students need. So I'll ask the vice-chancellor of ANU, Ian Chubb, to make a few remarks first.

IAN CHUBB: Well, thanks Minister. Let me start by saying that the vice-chancellors of Australian universities have written to all parliamentarians urging them to support this bill.

That letter went out yesterday and will be - have been - read by members of parliament and we hope they will take the advice of people who know, because we're there day to day, what the impact of the VSU legislation has been on our campuses. At ANU, prior to the VSU legislation, we used to collectively spend about $2.4 million, $2.5 million a year, in those dollars, and we now spend a bit over $1 million a year, so you can work out for yourselves what the impact is likely to have been.

But in order to spend that $1.1 million, we've had to take that from other activities too. So, sure, we'll be told that we have to establish priorities and we have to choose our own suppliers and I understand that, but we had a perfectly reasonable, perfectly feasible, acceptable system before it was removed for reasons which are lost in the mist of time - by people who, I think, think universities are what they were in 1965 and 1975, and they're not.

We need to be able to offer the same support for our students for the reasons the Minister outlined. Universities should be able to offer more than just study rooms, libraries and lecture halls.

It is partly about socialising people. It is partly about getting them to be part of the community. It is about them expanding their minds through taking advantages of opportunities that each university can offer. That's particularly true in the regional parts of

Australia where those campuses are very often the largest thing in town.

So in order to be able to provide not just for their student base, but also for the community in those areas, I think these fees are very important - critically important indeed. So I, along with every single one of my colleagues, support this bill.

CARLA DRAKEFORD: Obviously, the National Union of Students is very supportive of the student services and amenities fee being introduced to the parliament today. We've obviously been waiting a number of years to see this sort of reform to come in to get rid of the - a piece of anti-student legislation that was introduced about four years ago now.

Particularly, NUS is very concerned - it has been for a long time - about the impact on regional students and inside our regional universities, and as well as those regional students going on to metropolitan universities. Our main concerns are around advocacy and welfare. Obviously, regional students are around 70 per cent less likely to attend university and that means that that small majority of regional students need additional support.

They need to be able to access services that they're not paying for upfront and they need to be able to pay a fee at the start of the year and see services that have previously been stripped out of organisations. A really good example of a regional university that's been very badly harmed by VSU has been the University of Southern Cross.

There, there were over 200 job losses, so it also impacts regional communities as a whole, as well as impacting students. On top of that, we saw active clubs drop from 25 to five. There was - the university took over advocacy and welfare services and, as the vice-chancellor just mentioned before, that puts an enormous strain on our universities and takes money away from other facets of life such as teaching and learning.

We really need this bill passed and I urge the Nationals, in particular, to come onboard with this bill. It is incredibly important to support our regional students, not only through measures such as Youth Allowance changes from early this year but also to ensure that there are services on campus, that there is active participation in campus life and that students learn to become global citizens by engaging in sports, clubs, representation and advocacy rights on their campuses.

It's also important to note that places like the University of New England's student organisation has totally collapsed, as well as the University of Ballarat’s. At the moment, UNE is starting to build up a small student organisation but have lost over $1.8 million over the last couple of years.

So rebuilding those services is integral to seeing students retain at university which is obviously in line with the Government's plan and something that NUS is very in favour of and we support it quite heavily. So again, I would urge the Nationals to please listen to this.

It is incredibly important that their regional students, students from their area and students who are studying in regional Australia get this support as soon as possible, which would be from 1 January 2011.

CHRIS EVANS: Thanks, Carla. I'll also - we've got Mr Tully Fletcher who's the president of the student organisation at ANU if people have got some specific questions about the impact

of VSU. So if you've got questions about just what it's done to the number of clubs and the activity on campus. We will take a few questions now.

QUESTION: Minister, how can you hope to get this through parliament by December, given the current Senate rejecting this bill last parliament?

CHRIS EVANS: Well, there have been some minor changes to the bill which try to deal with some of the concerns that people had. But fundamentally, it is about allowing student charges to be charged, to allow the funding of amenities and services on campuses.

We made that commitment to the rural independents to have another go and the Government's been committed at the election to have another go and try and get this through. We had those terrible, long ideological debates about student unionism. There's a lot of old student politicians in the parliament.

Quite frankly, I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in the ideological debate. We have a situation where student services are being restricted. The lack of capacity to provide them is impacting on students' quality of life, it's impacting on their health, it's impacting on the life of universities. We have the - I wouldn't say the rare - but we have a situation where the vice chancellors, the universities and the students are in total agreement of the need for this legislation.

We have a situation where this Government's prepared to deliver to those people what they need and what they want to allow universities to do their job properly and to ensure students have a proper, supportive experience at university.

And I urge the Nationals and Senators Fielding and Xenophon to come on board. We're obviously looking for support in the House of Representatives. I'm fairly confident we'll get it there but it is an important piece of legislation. We are determined to give it another go and I'm open to discuss these matters with those people to try and find a way through. But it is a practical and vital measure and I want to try and get the Parliament, this new Parliament, to focus on that need and I'm happy to talk to Barnaby Joyce, Tony Crook, Steve Fielding, whoever to try and get this passed.

QUESTION: At one point, from memory, Senator Joyce was supporting this legislation in the last parliament. Have you had any discussion with him and/or with Senator Fielding, who, from memory, opposed the bill?

CHRIS EVANS: No not as yet but I'll be, certainly in the next few days, looking to do that. I mean the Nationals have, as I understand it, had a party policy for a long time supporting these services. I know Senator Joyce was very concerned about the impact on sporting activities at regional universities.

The reality is this is hitting regional universities harder. They are more reliant on those services because of the lack of other options. All the evidence about the cutbacks in services are there. So I would be looking to convince Senator Joyce and his National Party colleagues in the Senate as well as Senator Fielding, that let's move on from that barren ideological debate about compulsory student unionism. That has been settled. There's no provision in this bill that seeks to revisit compulsory student unionism. It's not affected under this legislation.

But let's actually deal practically with the needs of universities and their students.

QUESTION: Are you concerned a lot of legislation like, this and other bills are going to have to be pushed back until after July 1 when you get a more friendlier Senate base?

CHRIS EVANS: Well one might make an assumption that the Senate will be friendlier but the reality is the Government will still be a minority and I've learned over the years that one's just got to work through these issues with whoever's in the Senate.

QUESTION: It would be a lot easier to negotiate with nine Greens than the current five Greens, one Independent and one family first?

CHRIS EVANS: Look, certainly the combination of forces, if you like, will be easier. We'll either have to have the Greens support us or we'll have to have the Opposition to support us.

I'll remind you that a lot of legislation is passed through bipartisan support and we're looking to the Opposition to act responsibly in that regard in allowing the Government to govern to get more legislation passed.

But I suppose to answer your key point, there is no strategy by this Government to delay legislation until the Senate changes. It will be business as usual. Legislation like this is needed. It's needed from 1 January next year and I'm not going to wait around in the hope that things may be easier next year.

QUESTION: Senator, you said there were some changes between the bill that was defeated and this one. What are they?

CHRIS EVANS: Some of them are technical to deal with the timing issues et cetera, but the main measure that I think you might want to focus on is that we've allowed the fees to be treated as part of the HECS debt, so there's not the upfront requirement which was some of the concerns earlier.

So this version of the legislation makes it very clear that those fees, which will be in the order of $250 a year, and not as large as the earlier fee structures were, can be added to the HECS debt if you want to pay them off over time rather than meet the upfront costs.

QUESTION: But wasn't that a provision of the original legislation?

CHRIS EVANS: Yes, but there's been a number of iterations of this. I also want to make the point clearly that the Government is open to rational discussions with people to get this bill passed.

So we've had this sort of narrow ideological debate. We're not interested in that. This is about a serious practical measure to improve the experience of university students, improve universities. And so if people want to come to me with practical suggestions to make the legislation better, I'm open to those.

But fundamentally we need the capacity to have these student amenity fees charged to build those facilities and amenities for students.

QUESTION: Minister, there's a - you talk about rural university hardship, is that as a result of the lobbying from [indistinct]?

CHRIS EVANS: No that was a part of the measures that went to the changes in income support that occurred last year, as part of the negotiations with many others on that set of legislation.

QUESTION: Is that new to the bill that was defeated last time?

CHRIS EVANS: No it's not part of the bill. What the press release does is refers to those other changes which were introduced which sought to benefit students from regional and rural areas.

And it's a bit of an update really of how those changes are occurring. We've got a lot more people accessing assistance as a result of those changes and we're about to implement that particular fund from the start of next year to, again, provide additional support to ensure that rural and regional students that are severely disadvantaged currently, who are at university in much lesser numbers than the city counterparts, to try and make sure they get an equal opportunity for a university education.

QUESTION: What about subsidising the fee then for rural and regional students?

CHRIS EVANS: Well, the fee will be set by those particular universities based on their own needs. But the point I make is we've changed those income support measures to try and provide more support to students from rural and regional areas and the fund will also provide extra support.

So we've made those measures in terms of income support to rural and regional students. What we're now seeking here to do is to fix this long running problem where we've seen amenities and services at university campuses diminished and which have then impacted on the university experience of so many students.

QUESTION: Under this bill, would universities be allowed to pass money collected through the fee on to student organisations?

CHRIS EVANS: No, this is about supporting services. There's no capacity for people to fund student unions or fund political parties. It's a matter of providing services to students...

No, sorry, they will be allowed to support the clubs, but there's no role for compulsory student unionism or there's no role for directing funds towards external activity.

QUESTION: What about sort of advocacy student representation? Can it be spent on…

CHRIS EVANS: Well, there are measures in the bill as there were previously that deal with requiring the universities to facilitate the student voices at the universities. That's part of the bill. It was part of the previous legislation but it's not part of the funding approach.

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