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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2473

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (10:50 AM) —I rise this morning to make a contribution on this Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I particularly want to focus on the constituency I represent in this place and the impact that this bill, if it passes both houses, would have on the children and the families of rural and remote Australia.

The aim of this bill is to allow universities to charge up to $250 per student prior to students being able to gain access to a course at university. I have had experience with this, with my children, who are all university educated. We had to pay those fees up front on behalf of our children. Because they did not live near the university, they had to leave home—we were more than 600 kilometres away from the university they attended. Unless they paid those fees, they could not commence their course. I repeat that: unless they paid those fees, they would not be given access to that course to which they had gained entry at university. This applies not just to my children but to many, many—in fact, all—students.

It is really just like the old union approach: no ticket, no start; no pay, no course. That is what it was like. That was the first fee you paid and then you got access to the university course to which you had gained access.

Quite clearly, this government is breaking a commitment that it gave to the people of Australia prior to the last federal election. There was no mention prior to the last federal election of this being a compulsory fee or of the reintroduction of a fee that would be charged to students. In fact, the government is breaking faith with the people of Australia. It did not give this commitment. It is a broken promise. It is a tax on students and it is a new tax. But we have come to see that with this government in the way it dealt with its commitments prior to the election and in the way it has governed in this place since the election.

I want to talk a little bit about the impact that this legislation would have on rural and remote students. My own children had to leave home to gain access to further education at a university which they had gained access to. I know from going to many speech days in my electorate, and from representations from families and meetings with people socially and in the street, how people struggle to gain the best access and opportunities for their children’s further education. I also know the pride that they have in their own children when they graduate from high school and go on to postsecondary education. People from all walks of life—from the professions to people in business, people on the land, single-income families and single mothers—come to me on this issue. I have spoken to these people and I know just how they struggle, whether they are professional families, small business families or single-income families, and how they work hard to support their children to gain access to education, which they have to leave home for, unless they are going to do it externally through distance education from the university.

I point out to the House that there are some 130,000 students who are studying externally at universities today. Often those students are doing one subject per semester, perhaps holding down a part-time job or a full-time job but wanting to better themselves. Those 130,000 students who do not walk through the gates of the university but who study externally will have to pay this tax.

We have heard from the other side of the House, from Madam Deputy Speaker Burke—and I have a lot of time for the Deputy Speaker; we share a lot in common, because we occupy the chair that you are now in, Madam Deputy Speaker Vale, and we have responsibilities in that chair. We heard her talk about how her university seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It is on the fringe of the city; it is not in the middle of nowhere. All of the students I represent have to leave home, and they are not from the middle of nowhere. They are from five to six kilometres up to 1,000 kilometres, or even further, away from the nearest university. In fact, from the east to the west of my electorate is some 1,800 kilometres. So students coming from the most remote communities have a long haul to get through the doors or the gates of a university. They have an added cost to get to university if they are going to leave home. There may be airfares, bus fares, train fares or whatever, but there are many costs for those families for their students—their children—to gain access to a university.

When you look at the participation rates in post-secondary education of children from families in rural and remote Australia, compared to the participation rate of those families who live in metropolitan Australia, you have to say it is almost a shame on this parliament. You ask: why is the participation rate in post-secondary education by students from rural and remote Australia so low, compared to the participation rate of students from families who live in our capital cities or in our regional towns where there are university campuses, where they can live at home with their families and study daily by travelling to the university? They may choose to live on site at a college or perhaps rent a flat nearby, but they have that choice, whereas students in my electorate and in rural and remote Australia do not have that choice. Currently, there are some 130,000 students from rural and remote Australia. Most of those who are studying externally will never see the benefit of the services that the so-called $250 per year amenities fee will, under this legislation, supposedly enable universities to provide.

I spoke a moment ago about people from rural and remote Australia. I want to spend a couple of minutes on that, because they are not wealthy people. Look at the socioeconomic barometer, if you like, of people living in rural and remote Australia—whether they are professionals, work for the local council or have a small business—compared to the median family income of those in our capital cities and regional cities where there are universities and you will see it stands in stark contrast. Students from a median family income background from rural and remote Australia who seek to go away to university are certainly at a socioeconomic disadvantage within their families before they start to gain access to postsecondary education.

I want to touch on the issue of postsecondary education in a broader context because the government seems to think that all students who leave high school will go on to university. What about those students who go on to TAFE college and, in the case of my electorate, to ag college? There is no such concern about their possible need for amenities at those ag colleges or TAFE colleges. This is targeted at universities. Why? The prior speaker spoke about the facilities that are provided on the university campus, which she described as ‘in the middle of nowhere’, and many on the other side have described some of the circumstances of universities in the capital cities and the seats they represent.

I visit ag colleges and TAFE colleges, and I do not see the students coming up to me there and saying, ‘We want to organise ourselves because we want to have a say in what is provided at this ag college.’ They do not complain to me about the fact that there is not public transport for the ag college at Dalby, for instance. They know there is not public transport there, but it is not an issue. They know that that is the circumstance of the access arrangements to the ag college there in Dalby, in Longreach or in Emerald or wherever there are pastoral and other agricultural colleges. These ag colleges and TAFE colleges stand in stark contrast to our universities when it comes to those basic amenities, but they seem to cope. It is not an issue for them. So why is it an issue for the universities? It is only because the Labor Party want to impose a new tax which they did not tell the Australian people about prior to the last election.

As I said, I visit ag colleges. They have sporting fields. They have sporting teams. That has been provided by the college. Maybe there is a fee to join voluntarily the local rugby club or another sporting activity that may be associated with the college, but it is a voluntary thing. If they do not have something and they want to add more facilities to a campus, be it a TAFE or an ag college, they go out and do a bit of fundraising. They might run chicken raffles. They run raffles of all sorts to raise some extra money to improve those sorts of amenities that might otherwise not have been provided by the TAFE college or the ag college. They seem to survive, but it is still voluntary. That is the fundamental point: it is voluntary.

What this bill will mean is that, before a student gains access to the course at university for which they have qualified, they will have to pay a tax. It is the old union movement at its best: no ticket, no start; no pay, no access to the course. My own children went through that. Until we abolished it under the Howard government, I know there were many single mothers in my electorate and people doing a subject per year, wanting to better their educational opportunities and their opportunities in life, studying externally, who had to pay that before they would even be sent the course notes. That is a disgrace, but that is what will happen if this legislation passes both houses. It will happen.

No matter how many times the government comes into this place and says, ‘No, there are going to be provisions for that not to happen,’ we know from past experience what operated before, and it will happen again. It will disadvantage the most disadvantaged in Australia, and those are the students from rural and remote Australia who have to leave home to gain access to full-time study. They have to leave home to gain access to the university, if that is where their education is taking them.

I want to touch on another element of the issues relating to rural Australia and remote Australia—that is, the assistance provided through the Commonwealth and state governments to geographically isolated students. I know this is not directly related, but it makes the point about access to education for those people who live away from places where the access is just down the road or in the city or is based on subsidised urban transport routes. It is about that word ‘access’. There are students out there who are gifted and talented, and those students do not get any additional assistance to help them because they are gifted and talented. These are students who have a capacity to go on to greater things merely because they are gifted and talented. I ask: why is it that these students are not receiving the same support as other students? We ought to acknowledge that those who are gifted and talented do need to be recognised and do need to get additional assistance to gain access to the support that will enable them to make the most of their gifts and talents.

I do not support this bill. I would support a grant program such as we had under the Howard government—after we abolished this dreadful student union fee that had been for so long hanging over the heads of students across Australia and particularly rural and remote Australia—that is targeted to meet the needs of universities where they can identify a need. In many ways, the parallel would be the IOS Program that we had as a government, which went to all schools. There was up to $150,000 per school to make an investment in the school, provided that you had the participation and support of the P&C—the involvement of parents and citizens, or parents and friends, in the decisions as to where that money should be spent.

So I would support a grant program and I think what we had in place was the right way to go. It was targeted and would meet the needs of universities, be they in regional Australia or capital cities. I support a grant program but I do not support a compulsory tax that would hit not only students from capital cities but also the most disadvantaged students in Australia, and it would be another tax on those families from rural and remote Australia who struggle so hard to save to ensure that their children can gain access to the best education they can afford. I oppose the bill and I look forward to seeing what the Senate will decide, because this is yet another broken promise and a new tax being introduced by this Labor government.