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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2456

Mr HAYES (9:36 AM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009, a bill that will amend the legacy left by the Howard government’s voluntary student unionism legislation of 2005, which saw the loss of various amenities and essential services to students. These are services that all students in our universities deserve and have every right to expect during their tertiary education. The review conducted by the Rudd government last year revealed that the effect of the VSU introduced by the previous government was that somewhere in the vicinity of $170 million was stripped out of student services and amenities across this country. This $170 million stripped out of university funding by the previous government resulted in a widespread decline in, and in some cases the complete closure of, health and counselling services, employment, child care, welfare support and advocacy services applied on various campuses. It is not surprising that the review exposed further damaging facts. It found that students were often paying considerably more for access to what were often reduced services, and that a number of institutions had been forced to redirect their funds because they actually believe in looking after their students and providing these services. The member for Mayo, who is leaving the chamber at the moment, may not have looked at this and would be surprised to know that a number of academic institutions redirected their funding to ensure that these essential services were maintained for students. That funding was stripped away from funding that would have ordinarily been applied to research and teaching services at those institutions.

In response to the review promised at the last election, the Rudd government introduced this bill, which is aimed to restore the student union services and advocacy representation on campuses. This is not a return to compulsory student unionism. I listened intently to the comments of the member for Mayo and, if you stripped from his 20-minute contribution his concerns about a return to a breeding ground for potential Labor candidates, there was precious little he had to say. He certainly did not talk about anything to do with his own education, about what applied in terms of student services in tertiary institutions then. I am sure that if he had been even half truthful in all of that he would have indicated that he actually participated in and benefited from those services. I invite every other member from the opposition, when they make their contribution today, to relate their experiences when they were at university. Don’t forget that just about everyone who is going to pop up in this debate will have gone to university, and will be tertiary educated. Not too many tradesmen are going to stand up and lecture us on VSU today, let me tell you.

If you strip away from the diatribe we were just subjected to the comments about student unionism being simply a breeding ground for Labor politics, he flies in the face of just about every academic institution that participated in the review of the VSU legislation. This was in my opinion the most severe anti-student legislation that has ever been introduced into the parliament. It was driven by an ideological obsession of the previous government, and that is what this government is moving to correct. This government is remarkably skilled at trying to undo the harm caused by the prejudice of the previous Howard government. We are fixing the ineptitude that has come through their prejudiced position, as amply demonstrated in terms of the VSU legislation itself. We on this side of the House are taking a balanced approach to ensure that student amenities and services, access to independent democratic representation and advocacy are secured now and into the future, and that this is done in a balanced way.

The Liberal Party to date have consistently refused to acknowledge the devastation and the retrograde aspects of their scattergun approach to university education, particularly to university support services for our students. I do not want to keep harping on the comments of the member for Mayo—I do not think he needs the publicity—but, if you listened to his contribution, it is not surprising that they have got it wrong on this bill. He claimed this bill is all about compulsory student unionism. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would like to make it clear that the member for Mayo had nothing to say and that his contribution was all about student unionism simply supporting a breeding ground of Labor politics. I notice that the member for Higgins has walked into the chamber. No doubt he will be able to indicate to us his involvement in student unionism during his earlier years.

This government is not reinstituting compulsory unionism; it is looking to those essential services, those conditions which are necessary and which are expected. I have a daughter who went through the University of Western Sydney. I know how much she required various services that were provided. She went through under the regime of student contributions. I was very proud when she was awarded a degree. She did not get it in placard waving or anything else like that; she became a teacher and has for the last 10 to 12 years been out there teaching in high schools in my local area. I look on her time there, as no doubt she does, in terms of those services that were provided—in student assistance, photocopying, the occasional university sporting activity—being essential for university life. It does not behove us to sit down here and try to extrapolate this piece of legislation into something that is either pro or against compulsory union membership.

Do not forget where this debate on VSU originated from. This was the forerunner to the application of the anti-union forces which were mustered under the Howard government. This was just being consistent with their general approach to unionism. Because student unionism had ‘unionism’ in the name, they thought that they should follow on and do what they had tried to do to the working men and women of this country, extending that to students at each of our academic institutions.

We are about a decent education, restoring important student services and ensuring that students have appropriate representation on campuses. In order for our students to have greater and better opportunities to pursue their dreams, we must have good and fundamentally sound education facilities and students must be able to participate. Unlike the previous government, we are committed to world-class universities. They will play a crucial role in the future economic development of this country. There is absolutely no question about that. We must invest in our education, including our tertiary education. Our kids that are going through that are our future.

In the contribution I made yesterday in relation to the government’s general contribution to education, I think I mentioned something about the $14.7 billion now going through the economic stimulus into schools. This does things apart from delivering direct employment in that respect. What I tried to indicate at that stage, as you might recall, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, is that an investment now in school based education is an investment, quite frankly, in the economic growth of this country within 10 years. If we are going to be a smart nation, we have to be prepared to make those contributions. We have to be prepared to ensure that those students coming through are adequately provided for. This piece of legislation is seeking to address the harm that was done by the previous government in respect of those students pursuing tertiary education.

Sadly, my electorate does not contain a university campus within its boundaries. My boundary stops at the front door of a university, so quite clearly, whilst I do not have the university in my boundaries, a great number of students who go to the University of Western Sydney’s Campbelltown campus come from my electorate, and those who are not from my electorate are from my neighbour’s electorate in Macarthur. So this university is well positioned for us to see what it does. As I have said, I have a daughter who has graduated from that university. The University of Western Sydney serves a very large and diverse area. Apart from its Campbelltown campus, there are another five campuses operated by that university throughout greater Western Sydney. Presently, I think it has about 35,000 or 36,000 students in all.

Interestingly, in its submission to the report The impact of voluntary student unionism on services, amenities and representation for Australian university students, the University of Western Sydney reported that the introduction of voluntary student unionism had had a disastrous impact on it, with the loss of $9 million in student service fees, representing a significant challenge to the nature, organisation, financial viability and traditional models of student representation in the University of Western Sydney. The university, it claims, was hit particularly hard by VSU because of the multicampus network that it operates through its six campuses, providing various services across each of those facilities. The imposition of VSU immediately undermined the capacity of the university to implement, develop and deliver quality services to students right across the board in each of those six campuses.

Student services at the University of Western Sydney that have been particularly severely impacted by VSU include the provision of the shuttle bus, which was cancelled. By the way, not all of those campuses are located on a rail line, so the shuttle bus was particularly important. That was cancelled. Clubs and societies are greatly reduced. Social sport and organised sport were certainly reduced. Campus life activities were significantly reduced as a consequence of VSU. This might not seem a lot to members on the other side of the House, but it is to students on a tight budget. Bear in mind where we are located in Western Sydney, out of the metropolitan areas of Sydney. Most of those students are on a tight budget out there, and most of the families who are helping to support those students are on a tight budget. These student services meant quite a lot, and I can verify what they meant for my own daughter, who graduated from UWS itself.

The University of Western Sydney also noted that it provided assistance to fund key services that were determined to be essential to student needs. It said that it had actually diverted some of its funding that would otherwise have gone into teaching-related and research-related services. Where the university has deemed that services are essential, it has had to pick up that financial slack out of its own particular university funding to ensure that those services were maintained. In particular, the university says that those services that were maintained included welfare, case work, direct support for students via the student associations and commercial services, primarily food and beverage services. It also had to weigh in to help support some of the sport and leisure services that operated on each of its campuses. Those were funds which were diverted from teaching and research activities and redirected into these services because staff, from the Vice-Chancellor down, deemed these to be essential services for those students who are participating in studies at the University of Western Sydney. These arrangements, quite frankly, are just not sustainable into the future. We have to at least have a positive view about what is essential and what we should be doing to ensure the welfare of these students not simply at the University of Western Sydney but undertaking tertiary education across the board.

After looking through a handful of the 162 submissions that were received by the inquiry, I found that almost all of them concluded that the abolition of student union fees had impacted negatively on the provision of amenities and services to university students, with the greatest impact being on smaller and regional universities like the University of Western Sydney. Many universities, not surprisingly to those on this side of the House, have put forward the view that VSU has resulted in a lessening of the vibrancy, the diversity and, to some extent, the attractiveness of university life. I cannot verify that because all of my study at university was done part time, but we need to realise that vibrancy and diversity are important in ensuring that students enrolled at our universities complete their courses. That is important not simply for the kids that are actually going there but for the overall economy of this nation. We need to have the best minds graduating and applying their skills to improve the economy of this country.

This bill will provide an opportunity to enhance the on-campus experience for University of Western Sydney students through the growth of student clubs and special interest groups, as it will in all tertiary institutions. It will enhance the provision of specialist support services such as childcare facilities and welfare services for those in need, as well as improving university services such as food and beverage across all campuses. It will improve the representation of students in university affairs. What it does not do is divert funds from these bodies to political parties. I hate to disavow the contribution of the member for Mayo, but none of what he had to say was related to this bill.

Universities are working with student representatives and student bodies to establish new student organisations, which will commence shortly. These will be properly run organisations where students have a voice and can participate in their universities. The single student representative organisations will provide an independent and effective voice for the 35,000 students undertaking undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the University of Western Sydney. The member for Chifley has just walked in to the chamber. I note he has a campus of the University of Western Sydney in his electorate. These measures are for students of the outer metropolitan areas of Sydney who not only attend university but want to participate in and be part of the fabric of university life.

I am delighted to be in this place to support this legislation because I know it is valued not only by the Campbelltown campus of the University of Western Sydney but by the campus in the electorate of Chifley and by all tertiary institutions. I call on members opposite, who claim they have a commitment to higher education, to do more than simply dwell on their past evils against unionism, whereby they sucked up VSU, and look at what we can do to facilitate better representation for students into the future.