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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2484

Mr HARTSUYKER (11:41 AM) —The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 is very important legislation because it goes far further than just the simple issue of a services fee. It goes to the very heart of the ability of an individual to choose. It goes to the very heart of proper funding for universities, particularly regional universities. The coalition opposes this legislation for a number of reasons. It opposes this legislation because it is undemocratic, because it is nothing more than a tax on students and because it is the first step in returning down the rocky road to compulsory student unionism.

As members would be aware, the coalition introduced voluntary student unionism back in 2005. The voluntary student union legislation opposed the use of the higher education providers as fee collectors. It opposed a compulsory payment of a fee to a student union and it opposed the listing of items on which any fee could be spent. The 2005 reform provided students with the fundamental right to choose whether they wanted to be a member of a student body and, at the same time, it gave the student unions the opportunity to be more representative of the wider student community.

Just 15 months into the term of the Rudd government, we have now got the return down that rocky road to compulsory student unionism. It is important, when one considers the Labor Party, to look at what they do and pay very little attention to what they say. Prior to the 2007 election we had the then shadow minister for education, the member for Perth. He had a range of things to say about VSU. He said:

I am not considering a HECS style arrangement. I’m not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.

So there we had it from the then shadow minister for education. His words were: ‘I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.’ And what happens? Fifteen months into their term we have good old student unionism back on the agenda.

That was only in May 2007, so Labor went to the last election with no policy to abolish voluntary student unionism, no indication that hundreds of thousands of tertiary students were going to be slugged with a new student tax. Yet here are in early 2009 and compulsory fees are on their way back, the student unions are back in town and all of those things which they spend money on will be back in vogue very, very shortly.

This legislation attacks a fundamental right and that is the right to choose—to choose whether you wish to purchase a particular service and therefore pay a fee for that service, as opposed to Labor’s approach of levying students for services which they may not want and certainly do not wish to buy. The Rudd government wants to take us back to an era when you were compelled to pay a fee regardless of whether you used that service or not.

Importantly, these new fees will apply regardless of whether the individual has a capacity to pay. It is a tax which will hit low-income earning students, it is a tax which they will struggle to pay and it is a tax which has no place in our current system. As I said earlier, it is a matter of properly funding universities, not taxing students. In the 21st century, where human rights are front and centre of the daily news agenda, it is breathtaking that this government can legislate to make it compulsory for struggling university students to pay additional fees for services they probably do not need. Where is the consideration of student rights? I would have thought that a very basic right for a student who is gaining an education, who perhaps will become a leader in whichever field they choose to go into, is to at least be entrusted to make their own decisions on which services they want to buy and which services they do not. It is a fundamental right to choose, as opposed to press-ganging students into paying fees. None of this was on Kevin Rudd’s watch because we have a proposal before us today that comes from another era. It comes from bygone days, if you like—the bad old days where students were slugged a fee, money was diverted to student unions and it was used for many purposes with which those students did not agree. This is old Labor at its best.

Whilst it is appropriate for the House to debate the principle of compulsory fees, we should not forget the financial costs involved here. The government like to call these new charges a fee but really it is nothing more than a tax. We have a stark contrast between the opposition and the government: the opposition stands for lower taxes and the government stand for higher taxes. We see this new fee as just another Labor tax. Not only are they running up huge deficits before our very eyes, they are also increasing taxes on those who can least afford to pay. Since the Rudd government were elected in 2007 we have seen ministers sneakily increasing charges in a number of sectors. Diesel prices were increased on transport operators through the effective increase in the excise on fuel and the government increased charges on the tourism industry at a time when international tourism is collapsing. When regional areas, which are so very dependent on tourism income, most needed it, what did the government do? The government actually increased the taxes on the tourism industry. True to form, they are continuing that trend and are now going to increase the tax on students.

These charges amount to an extra impost on either individuals or the business sector. The government can call it whatever they choose—a charge, a duty—but, whatever they want to call it, it is a tax. No matter how they window-dress it, it is just more of Labor’s increased taxes. Student union fees are no different—they are an additional tax on students who do not have the capacity to pay. They will have to pay for it even if they study externally and even if they never actually put a foot on the campus. They will still have to pay the tax if they only attend night classes and have no need for the student services. Effectively, they will have to pay regardless of whether they have the capacity to pay.

Certainly, the students that I speak to from Southern Cross University in my electorate are very concerned at this additional burden. They are very concerned at the fact that it is difficult enough to raise the funds to get through a university course without being slugged for an additional $250 for services they may not wish to buy. This tax will hurt students with low incomes the hardest. Many students will struggle to pay their way, yet they are being lumped with this tax. As I said earlier, it is really about proper funding of universities. Let us fund the universities adequately to provide the services which are important, not tax the students for services they do not wish to buy.

Like so many things that the members opposite do, one should never listen to what they say but rather look at what they do. This certainly applies to this piece of legislation because this legislation provides that funds raised from the compulsory fee can be used for services which will be detailed in the Student Services and Amenities Fee Guidelines. Furthermore, higher education providers will need to comply with the Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines. The real concern here is that the detail of these guidelines will not be debated in this parliament. According to the legislation this will be finalised after the bill has been passed. So parliament will not get to scrutinise what these fees will be spent on. It will actually be done after this bill is passed.

Of equal concern is that the final guidelines will be determined by the federal Minister for Education. That is right, the federal Minister for Education—none other than the member for Lalor—will have the final determination as to what those fees can be used for. It is akin to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. The member for Lalor will be in charge of deciding how these compulsory fees can be used. She expects us to trust her that she will not allow these funds to be diverted to some ratbag student union organisations. She would have us believe this $250 tax on students will go towards providing ‘vital services’—that is what she would like us to believe.

We all know what the reality is here. If you look at the draft guidelines—and I emphasise the word ‘draft’—for these services, there is a long list of services: food and beverages, sport and recreation, health care and housing. There are in fact 17 uses in all that the original fee can be used for. But tucked away among these clauses are some very interesting items. One is student media. That is essential—to have our students paying for student media. What exactly is student media and how does that actually benefit students? You could understand that a student coming to a campus may enjoy visiting a cafeteria, but perhaps they may not necessarily agree with a production on the life and times of Karl Marx, or the benefits of communism or whatever it may be.

What does student media mean? One does not have to be a rocket scientist to know that that is the green light for distributing propaganda by the student union. Just above student media, on the list at No. 10, is ‘audio visual media’. One can only speculate that that would have a similar use. Student unions, in particular, have a poor record when it comes to truly representing the views of students. Usually the student union is hijacked by radical individuals who have their own political agenda. I am reminded that in the past the Australian Union of Students—as has been mentioned by other members—has had links to organisations such as the PLO and the Communist Party of Malaya. I know that they are really acting in the best interest of students by diverting funds in that direction!

It has also been brought to my attention that the current student union at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology produces a radio program on 3CR called Blazing Textbooks—a show which promotes itself as providing an ‘anticapitalist perspective on current issues’. I do not know how funding of such a program is actually benefiting many students who just want a cappuccino down at the union or just want to get a cheap meal. This is hardly a good use of funds. In a modern democracy such as Australia, how can the student union justify such an expense on Blazing Textbooks, talking about an anticapitalist perspective? How does that benefit students? The student may well think that the capitalist perspective is an appropriate perspective. I certainly agree with those students who do. How does this program benefit students? The answer is: not much.

It is quite clear that you could drive a horse and cart through the guidelines. They are vague. Whilst they seem quite reasonable on the surface, there is ample scope for student funds to be diverted for purposes which are certainly inappropriate—diverted for purposes which those who are paying the funds would not agree with.

In conclusion, when members consider this legislation, they should ask themselves: what type of message are we sending to our next generation by compelling people to pay fees for services they do not want and have no intention of using? We on this side of the House believe in the ability of markets to provide. We on this side of the House believe that, if a student union was to provide a quality service at the right price, students would of their own volition purchase those services. We do not believe that they should be compulsorily required to pay for them. We do not believe that they should be compelled to pay a particular fee so that the market has no place in the transaction. If student unions were providing what students wanted, they would have a large membership, they would have a strong membership and the various facilities that they offered would be well patronised. What we are seeing here is a failure of service delivery by the unions not meeting the needs of the people whom they are supposed to represent.

It is a principle very dear to this side of the House that, where there is a market in operation, that market allocates resources appropriately and that market would result in students being able to choose. We believe that students know how best to spend their money. We believe that students are the best people to decide where that money should go. We do not believe in Labor’s new student tax. We do not believe that it is appropriate for the 21st century. Certainly, I will be further voicing my strong opposition to these proposed changes.