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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2464

Ms RISHWORTH (10:16 AM) —I rise to speak in favour of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. It was very interesting to hear the member for Higgins recount his university days. Fortunately, I am able to provide a more contemporary picture of what university campuses were like in the late nineties.

I was involved in the provision of services on campus as part of the Flinders University student union. We were a group of students, many not aligned to any political party, who were trying to do the best for their students and trying to provide the best services on campus. We heard the member for Higgins talk about how you cannot be compelled to join a lobby group. I put this question to the member for Higgins: when he was compelled to join the Law Society, did he organise and rally against that to make sure that was voluntary? I think the answer to that is ‘no’. We have heard many of the previous speakers, including the members for Mayo and Higgins, talk about this as a choice. We hear a lot about choice from the Liberal Party. The message I have for the Liberal Party is that you cannot just put the word ‘choice’ in a piece of legislation and expect people to buy it. Nothing says that more clearly than ‘Work Choices’.

The legislation in front of us today is very important in restoring basic services to university campuses. They are essential to support students while they study. Unlike what previous speakers on the other side have suggested—that we are just bringing back something—we are in fact fulfilling one of our election commitments, which is to provide a new way forward to ensure that basic services are provided on university campuses and that students have a voice in their education.

During my years at Flinders University I enjoyed a vibrant campus culture, but I also valued the very important services such as the Flinders Employment Service. Like many students, I had to work part-time jobs while studying to make ends meet. It was the Flinders Employment Service that helped me find many short-term jobs that fitted in with my uni break. They actually liaised with employers to make sure that they understood the requirements that my university course had on me as well as the requirements that the job would have on me. This was very important. Things like the employment service, child care, counselling and academic advocacy are all examples of services that have helped many students continue with their university studies when things are particularly tough. Voluntary student unionism, introduced by the previous government, has led to the decline in the availability of and access to these types of services—especially when students need them most.

It is not just the Labor Party, as the opposition would have you believe, that believes and has seen this. Consultations with students, universities and other stakeholders undertaken by the Minister for Youth painted a very dark picture indeed. Those consultations revealed just how devastating voluntary student unionism legislation has been to Australian universities. It is estimated that $170 million has been stripped from the funding of services such as health, counselling, employment, child care and welfare. These are services which are fundamental to the wellbeing of students and of vital importance to students to navigate their way through university. In addition, voluntary student unionism drastically undermined the opportunities for students to engage in sporting and cultural activities to the extent that the Australian Olympic Committee noted a direct negative impact that voluntary student unionism has had on sporting participation in this country.

Examples of how university life has been hurt have also been illustrated to me by my constituents. Aaron is one of my constituents who was studying at Flinders University before and after voluntary student unionism was introduced. Aaron commented to me that he has really noticed that there are fewer clubs and fewer societies. There is no discount food option, the child care centre has had to close and the student newspaper, with 40 years of history—the Empire Times—has been forced to shut down. Many of those in the opposition have criticised this legislation before us today, but they did participate in a lot of the things that benefited from compulsory student unionism or the student union fee. They got to participate in and benefit from all these sorts of things, and now they are directly trying to stop others—new students—from also benefiting from these things.

Aaron does remember that it was hard to find money to pay his student fee at the beginning of the year, but he said that now he really has noticed that missing value. The impact of the dwindling services at university has been felt most acutely in outer suburban universities like Flinders University, near my electorate, and also on rural and regional campuses where many students have no alternative place to go for these basic services such as health services, and where university clubs were really the lifeblood of the community.

It is very disappointing that the Liberal Party still does not seem, with all this evidence, to understand the impact that the previous government’s voluntary student unionism legislation had on our universities. They continue to argue that the VSU system created a system where no-one had to pay for anything they did not use. However, they are blind to the evidence that the costs for these services have just been transferred onto the universities. This is clearly illustrated in the submission by Universities Australia, which shows that VSU forced universities to cross-subsidise these essential services from other parts of their already stretched budget and also remove money from teaching and research just to ensure that these basic services were funded. Therefore, every student, along with the Australian taxpayer, has been footing the bill for these services at universities.

In response to this accusation from the previous government, we are not skimping on our election commitment. We went to the election with very clear guidelines, and we are not reverting to the old compulsory student unionism. What we are saying is that universities will be allowed to set a service and amenities fee, capped at $250. Universities will have a choice of what fee they set and put to students. However, no student will be required to join any student organisation. Providing this flexibility to universities will provide a balanced and practical approach that ensures student services and representation are secured into the future but will not—unlike what the opposition would have us believe—compel any student to join an organisation they do not wish to join.

Importantly, under the legislation, universities for the first time will be required to implement national access to service benchmarks, as well as national student representation and advocacy protocols, to ensure that students do have a voice on campus. The national access to service benchmarks set standards for the provision of information on access to services such as welfare and are similar to the current requirements for international students. The representation and advocacy protocols provide a framework through which an independent voice of students in university governance can be assured. A mechanism to consult with students and provide structures that allow students to represent themselves will ensure that universities will provide services that students actually need. We all know that universities do their best to provide services that students need but, without listening to students directly, they will not necessarily get these services right. This will be very important to ensure that the services that universities provide are actually what students want and need.

Finally, on this point, I want to emphasise the inherent value of democratising our public institutions and how important it is that we reflect our democratic values by ensuring that people have an opportunity to participate in the decision making that affects them. This will be very important with these protocols. Although this bill is about supporting democracy in our community, what we are proposing is something that is very apolitical. The new provisions prohibit the fee being spent to support any candidate for any level of office. It will be clear in the guidelines limiting the purpose for which these fees can be used. In addition, the bill does not allow student service fees to support political parties through campaigns and activities on campus.

There have been very many legitimate concerns—and this is probably the only legitimate concern that the member for Higgins raised—about the up-front service fee being a barrier to students attending university. This is a legitimate concern. The Rudd government has made it clear that we want to make access to universities equitable. Therefore, the provision has been made for the first time that, if a university chooses to charge a student fee, eligible students will have the option to take out a HECS style loan which will allow students to defer this payment under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, thus ensuring that any up-front fee charged by the university will not be a financial barrier for students starting university.

This bill not just supports students on campus but also includes a number of other measures that include enhancing the privacy rights of Australians who apply to university, by ensuring that the roles and responsibilities of tertiary admission centres are recognised in the legislation. Currently tertiary admission centres are not referred to in the act. Some of the amendments before us today will make sure that admission centres—often students’ first contact with the tertiary education sector—are held to the same standards and duty of care as offices of higher education providers with regard to the processing of students’ personal information.

Another measure introduced by this bill is the provision for increased flexibility under the VET FEE-HELP scheme. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that it is this government that is committed to skilling our nation, and this is one of many measures that this government has committed to in order to increase skills and training around Australia. The Council of Australian Governments has set a target of doubling the number of diploma and advanced diploma completions by 2020. The legislation before us today will help us achieve this goal. This government is committed to skilling up the Australian workforce. While the previous government failed in so many ways, it is this government that is investing for the future.

Evidence of this government’s commitments was displayed just last week in my home state of South Australia, where the federal government delivered $40 million over four years to boost the skills and qualifications for around 12,000 South Australian jobseekers in key sectors that are needed in our economy, such as health, community services, agriculture, engineering, mineral exploration and defence.

These places are part of the Australian government’s Skilling Australia for the Future initiative, and this program is part of the Australian government’s commitment to provide an additional 711,000 places by mid-2012 to ensure that Australians develop the skills they need to be effective participants in, and contributors to, the modern labour market. In addition we are investing in higher education infrastructure, through the Education Investment Fund. The Rudd Labor government is committed to investing in and reforming the university sector rather than leaving it to wrack and ruin. Flinders University, in my electorate, has welcomed the injection of capital funding provided to them in the budget last year.

This bill is one of many initiatives that reflect the government’s continuing commitment to education. This bill ensures that higher education opportunities in this country are accessible to everyone, that training opportunities are not restricted due to cost and that universities have the services that students need. This bill presents a balanced and practical solution to the decline in student services at universities and in diploma and advanced diploma enrolments in the vocational education and training sector. The passage of this bill is central to the future of our universities and training programs. Accordingly, I commend the bill to the House.