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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2479

Mr BUTLER (11:21 AM) —I rise to support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. There are many differences between the two sides of the House in the area of education, but this is a particular area of difference. Our side of the House believes that the education experience is more than just sitting in classrooms and reading textbooks. At university, in particular, it is a much broader experience. In order to maximise the capacity of Australian students to enjoy that broader experience, the adventurism of the former government’s voluntary student unionism needs to be overturned, and this bill does quite that.

The Rudd government has a commitment to education that has not been seen in this parliament for many years. The core focus of the government is to build a stronger and fairer nation. We know that education is the best route to the empowerment of individuals, the broader community and our nation. We also know that we need a more skilled population to meet the competitive challenges that Australia will face in the future. The current climate that we are enduring makes that even more of an urgent priority than before the onset of the global financial crisis.

The education revolution has a very significant number of important facets and it is important, in setting out the context of this bill, to run through them quickly. One of the most pleasing aspects of our education revolution from my point of view is the focus on four-year-olds. We now know that the most important time for a human being’s brain development is the first five years. This government brings a focus to four-year-olds’ education and development that has never existed at the Commonwealth level, and I am very proud of that.

We are doing a range of things in order to improve the curriculum and make it more consistent, particularly for high school students but also for primary school students, and to lift the rate of maths and science education in this country. We have undertaken a range of primary and secondary school initiatives, including computers in our schools and, very pleasingly, the trades training centres. I was pleased to learn that, in addition to the Seaton High School trades training centre that was awarded in the first round of this program, Le Fevre High School, Ocean View College, Paralowie R-12 School and Parafield Gardens High School, all of which are in my electorate, have been awarded trades training centres under the second round of this incredibly important program.

There is massive infrastructure investment going on or starting under the Building the Education Revolution part of the Nation Building and Jobs Plan which will revolutionise the infrastructure in many schools which have not had significant investment for many, many years. Most recently, we have seen the Deputy Prime Minister’s response to the Bradley review, indicating quite clearly that this government believes that significant reform to our tertiary education sector, particularly the universities sector, is needed in order to provide a platform for that level of education well into the future.

As I said at the opening, this bill reflects our view that education is more than just a classroom and textbook experience, particularly at university. The key component of the bill that I want to address cleans up the mess left by the previous government’s adventurism in student services on university campuses. The quality of campus life—and this is a simple matter of fact—has been significantly degraded by the introduction of voluntary student unionism by the previous government.

We have seen—and I happened to turn the television on to watch the member for Higgins’s contribution to this debate—so many on the other side, including the previous speaker, fighting the fights of the past. There have been so many recitations of the bad old days, when the Australian Union of Students used to donate money to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation or some other organisation overseas. That may or may not be the case—I was not around at the time; frankly, even when I was at university I did not participate in student unions, although I was happy to pay the fee—but it is simply an inadequate response to this government’s genuine attempt to deal with the mess left by voluntary student unionism on campuses and to deal with the needs of 21st century students, who have not been able to enjoy the sort of campus life that most members of parliament in this House were able to enjoy prior to VSU.

What are student unions? Student unions have a very proud history in this country. Many of the key student unions at the older universities predate the Commonwealth. The Sydney university union was founded in 1874, Melbourne’s was founded in 1884 and, in my city of Adelaide, the Adelaide University Union, of which I was a member for some years, was founded in 1895. They have a very proud history of providing support services, advocacy, cultural and sporting activities, as well as giving our educated youth a democratically elected voice on political issues, which seems to be the point that so grates the other side of this House. There may or may not have been controversies, particularly back in the seventies and early eighties, but for over 100 years it cannot be argued that this sector of the education community did not provide a very important platform for a well-rounded educational experience in universities.

Student union fees paid by students over that period of time enabled independent representation for academic matters, such as disciplinaries, enrolment issues, university structure, intellectual property and such like, to be provided to students. They enabled students to access services, including child care, academic counselling, financial counselling and international student services, which I will address in a few minutes. They enabled students to access cultural and sporting activities by involving themselves in clubs that very significantly enriched campus life. Perhaps most importantly but less tangibly, they enabled students in one discipline to network and interact with students in other disciplines, enabling them to broaden their minds and their campus experiences and to form friendships and networks with people from other professions and other disciplines. It fostered talent in the arts, without which we would not have had Monty Python. As I said earlier, there is a very significant body of evidence that sporting activities on our campuses play a very important part in making Australia the great sporting nation that it is.

All of that takes money. Without student services fees of the type that this bill contemplates, you need, as the previous speaker said, a user pays system. We reject the idea of a user pays system in this area. In some areas it is appropriate, but in this area of policy we reject that idea because we know that a user pays system, by definition, results in disadvantage for less financially secure students. An alternative to user pays, which we have seen a bit over the last several years, is that the university itself must find the money to provide those services and opportunities to students—which means redirecting funds which would otherwise be used in areas such as teaching or research. Otherwise, services simply cease to exist, and there is much evidence to show that significant ranges of services have ceased to exist since the adventurism of the previous government.

In about April of last year, DEEWR released a summary report on the impact of VSU on campuses around Australia. Over 160 written submissions were received by that review, as well as consultations occurring in all capital cities and a number of regional centres, particularly university regional centres including Ballarat, Armidale, Townsville and many more. Frankly, that report makes for very depressing reading. Those on the other side of the House, who, as I have said, by and large enjoyed a campus life that did have that rich array of services—and many of whom participated in the political activities underwritten by those fees as far back as the seventies and perhaps some of them even earlier—and who now oppose this bill, should hang their heads in shame in reading that report and in looking at the campus life that is presented to students under a VSU regime. The University of South Australia, which has a thriving campus in my own electorate of Port Adelaide, raised about $4½ million in fees from student union membership pre VSU—not just that campus but the university across South Australia, which is the largest university in that state. The funds contributed by the university since VSU amount to about $615,000. The evidence from that review showed that the services and representation that have been lost to students under VSU include student employment services, access to loans and accommodation, a childcare subsidy, accident insurance, legal advice, tax advice and many, many more.

At Adelaide University, which I attended for some years, money raised through student membership pre VSU was about $3½ million, compared with about $50,000 post VSU. Among the many impacts experienced at Adelaide University, we have seen a significant decrease in levels of engagement with the community, a loss of welfare and advocacy staff at the student union, and a report of increasing isolation among international students. This is a point I want to take up very briefly. One of the great success stories of Australia in recent years has been the significant uptake of Australia as the destination of choice of international students. I was very pleased to see a media release by the Deputy Prime Minister in recent weeks that showed that in 2008, for the first time ever, Australia had over 500,000 international students enrolled in its education institutions. That is not just universities, but a very significant number of those students are studying at our universities, contributing significant funds to our university sector and significantly enriching the campus life and campus experience of Australian students as well. Over 100,000 of the students enrolled in Australian education institutions in 2008 came from China. This is a wonderful success story. One of the things that make Australia such an attractive destination of choice for overseas students, and for the families that sponsor them, is the rich campus life that we have had for over 100 years and which has been so shamefully attacked by the previous government.

Flinders University, the third university in South Australia, had to find $1 million to compensate for almost $3 million that was raised prior to VSU. Sixty clubs, and 11 sports and rec clubs, have shut down since VSU at that university. Student representative bodies—they previously numbered six—have been reduced to one. The union has lost education, research and advocacy officers as well as their international student support officer. They have had to close the occasional childcare centre. They have had to close the student newspaper—and I know many of the members of the press gallery started their journalistic careers in student newspapers. They have had to remove various honorariums that applied. Across Australia, Madam Deputy Speaker, the introduction of VSU—

Mr Hartsuyker —You should pull him up for that!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DGH Adams)—Order! The member for Port Adelaide has the call.

Mr BUTLER —I apologise for reflecting on your feminine side, Mr Deputy Speaker! Across Australia, VSU has cost students at university campuses close to $170 million, and it is students over these years that have suffered that loss directly or indirectly.

I just want to talk, very briefly, about sport. The Australian Olympic Committee, in the review that I referred to earlier, talked about the impact on sports generally but cited rowing—which is a popular sport in this place—as an area where some 80 per cent of national rowers have a connection with a university club. Evidence in that review showed that there has been, since the introduction of the policy of VSU, a 17 per cent reduction in student participation in sport. There are 12,000 fewer students participating in sport at university than was the case before VSU. The Olympic committee provided evidence to that review along these lines:

Given the importance that the university sports system has on elite level sport, these trends will have a direct and real impact on Australia’s ability to maintain its hard won international standing in sport.

I also want to address briefly the scare campaign being run by the other side about the reintroduction of compulsory student unionism. The government is not changing the prohibition in the Higher Education Support Act which prohibits a university from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation. New provisions prohibit the fee that universities are now able to charge being used by a higher education provider to support activities which support a political party or candidate for election to Commonwealth, state or territory parliament or local government.

Further, this prohibition must be imposed on any person or organisation to which the higher education provider pays any of that fee revenue. There is no freedom of association issue here, let us be clear about that. Rather, it is about a collective contribution for the provision of services which this side of the House see as being an inextricable part of higher education campus experiences. This is about a collective contribution that spreads the cost in an equitable manner and ensures the survival of those services. This is not a novel concept.

For the first time, this bill will ensure that higher education providers receiving funding for student places under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme must meet national benchmarks in relation to the national access to services and national student representation and advocacy protocols. Higher education providers must ensure that students are provided with information and access to basic support services of a non-academic nature. The providers must ensure that students have an opportunity to participate in university governance structures through democratic representation as well as access to independent advocacy services. Those benchmarks are to be developed in consultation not only with the university but also, importantly, with students.

To further improve the quality of these services and campus life generally the bill also permits universities, from 1 July this year, to implement compulsory student services and amenities fees capped at $250 per student per annum, which, as best my memory serves me, was about the union fee that I paid in the late 1980s. It is a fee, which is indexed annually, to provide services and amenities above and beyond the national benchmark standards that I just referred to.

There are specific services that that fee can—and can only—apply to: food and beverages, sport and recreation, clubs and societies, child care, legal services, health care, housing, employment and financial services, visual arts, performing arts, debating, libraries and reading rooms, student media, academic support, personal accident insurance, orientation information and support services for overseas students. Those are the purposes to which that fee can be put and it can be put only to those services. It is hardly the basis for a socialist revolution.

Equitable access is a major focus of this government in education generally and in this area in particular. Eligible students will have the option of taking out a HECS style loan to cover this fee, to be called SA HELP. Guidelines under the provisions will also ensure that part-time students are not forced to bear more than their proper share. This is a practical, balanced approach to reinvigorating our campuses and ensuring that students have access to vital support services without terrifying those opposite, with their hysterical reaction to the ‘u-word’.

There are many, many third-party endorsements of this bill that range across higher education providers, student advocacy bodies and many more. I do not propose to go through all of them, but I have noted that the Group of Eight supports this bill, as do Universities Australia and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations. As I said earlier, the Australian Olympic Committee endorses it, as do Australian University Sport and many, many more.

David Barrow, a very talented young man who is now President of the National Union of Students, has urged Senate support. As he has explained it:

These guidelines rebuild and protect the life enriching experiences and crucial support services fundamental to a university experience … particularly at regional campuses.

This bill rights a significant wrong perpetrated by the previous government on young Australians, when most of the members of that government were able to enjoy the rich, full and diverse campus life that was underwritten by over 100 years of university unionism. This restores vital student services and will protect representation and advocacy rights in a fair and balanced manner that will benefit students without imposing a financial burden at a time that they cannot afford it. I commend the bill to the House.