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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2493

Mr WINDSOR (12:17 PM) —I congratulate the member for Ballarat for her contribution to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I think she encapsulated some of the very real issues that are out there. On the point that she made about regional universities at the end of her speech, I was at a conference yesterday where that was discussed, and the vice-chancellor of the Ballarat university was one of the speakers. There are some very unique issues for regional universities and the various cost structures et cetera.

I would like to take this opportunity to recognise a staff member of mine who has been running my Tamworth office, at both a state and federal level, since 1991—Mr Leigh Tschirpig. He is not in this building very often but I thank him for the work that he has put in over all those years and I hope that he is with me for a few more.

As the member for Ballarat commented—and it has been quite extraordinary listening to this debate—a lot of people still seem to be at university even though they are in this parliament, and they are reliving some of the crimes that they committed during their student days. That is all very nice but after university you have to grow up a bit. In a parliament, particularly, we have to look at how services are provided to our young people. I listened to the member for Higgins and I have heard various comments on both sides of the parliament. It seems as though the old debates have never left them—the Rights and the Lefts and the indifferents. I was at university for four years and I was probably one of the indifferents who was not involved in student politics terribly much, but I appreciated the opportunities and some of the services that were there, that others were using and that I occasionally had to use.

One of the points that I would like to make concerns the voluntary student unionism issue that was raised a few years ago when the government abolished the mandatory student unionism arrangements. At that time, I moved an amendment that removed the capacity for political activities to be funded through the general fee. I have heard many members of the coalition, and some members of the government, saying today that they are in support of the general thrust of services being provided to students, but they are not in support of money being used to fund political activities. Neither side supported that amendment of mine in 2005 and, as I read this bill, it precludes the use of the general service fee for political activities, but most of the debate has been about old political activities. The member for Ballarat made a very important point in terms of the member for Higgins’s contribution about where he honed his skills in political debate because there was a capacity at university for people to have different views and to have the time and the capacity to debate those views and argue for their particular causes.

I do not have a problem, even if some of that money did happen to leak into that area, because universities really should be about not only learning how to be an engineer or a doctor, but learning other life skills as well. It should be about having the capacity to access various services if they are required. I have had two children go to university and hopefully another one will attend next year. Hopefully they will not need some of these services at university that may well help them with legal, housing or social problems that they may have difficulties with. But, if they did, I would be more than happy to make a contribution so that those services actually do exist in universities, particularly in our country universities where the students may well be many hundreds of kilometres away from their relatives.

So I do support the legislation today and I find it a bit odd that neither side supported essentially the same legislation by way of amendment back in 2005. I believed then that what the government was doing, because of members of the former government reliving some of their university days, was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They wanted to starve any political activity at university, which I would disagree with anyway—I think that is, as I said, part of what we should be doing at university. We need people to engage in the political process not starve their access to it. But, even given that issue, there was the capacity to ban the use of the general fee for political activities and still provide the other services that this legislation in fact brings back into play.

I would also like to congratulate those people who played a role during the 2005 debate. It was a very close debate and the numbers were very tight in the Senate. I would particularly like to recognise Tom O’Sullivan, Greg Harris, Steve Griffiths and, more recently, Don Knapp for their advocacy on behalf of student activities, particularly some of the student sporting activities, and particularly for their concern for the impact on country universities. I would like to single out Senator Barnaby Joyce as well. Even though he is going to be a candidate against me at the next election, I have to recognise good when good is seen to be done, and I congratulate Senator Joyce for the stance that he took when the voluntary student union debate was on. I know at the next election when we are head-to-head we will have some common ground in some of the issues that we have fought on in the past and I look forward to sharing that time with him and reminiscing about our camaraderie in some of the issues, this being one of them.

I was also interested to hear the member for Cowper, who, in his deliberations about people making their own choices—

Mr Hartsuyker interjecting

Mr WINDSOR —It is an important issue, he says. He must be still supporting Work Choices. He made a statement which I found a little bit at odds with what actually happens on the ground—that university students can decide how best to spend their own money. In a lot of cases it is not their own money. But the alcohol industry does quite well out of quite a lot of them, I think, and in some cases we should have services there because quite often they will perhaps not have the money left over at the end of the week to access the services that they may not have thought that they would need. I think that is part of a caring society—to make sure that we look after the provision of services to those kids who may not have that capacity after a big weekend.

The other issue that I would like to raise briefly is the issue that the member for Cowper raised in relation to the guidelines in this legislation. I think he used the term: ‘You could drive a horse and cart through them.’ It reminded me of the Regional Partnerships arrangements that the member for Cowper was part of in this particular parliament. It was quite obvious that the guidelines that had been designed under that arrangement were designed to have a horse and cart driven through them. Members of the recent inquiry, and the minister for regional services, who is with us today, would be well aware of the issues in the Financial Management and Accountability Act—the breaches that actually took place and are recognised by the Audit Office. A coalition member starts criticising guidelines, when some of the breaches—of their own guidelines—occurred on their watch! Competitive and neutrality issues, a whole range of issues in terms of accountability, were breached. As I said earlier, even if there was some leakage into student activities of a political nature—and I do not think this legislation will actually allow it; maybe I am wrong—I would have thought that is something that we should actually encourage at university and make people think about the structures that are out there.

Yesterday I was with the vice-chancellor of the Ballarat university and members of the National Tertiary Education Union from all over Australia, who were representing some of the specific regional issues as they saw them. I should not let this opportunity go by without raising a couple of the issues that were raised. It is obvious that in country areas a much smaller percentage of country children go to university. The other figure that was quite revealing was that those who do come from the country and go to a country university tend to work in the country. From time to time we have heard the debate from those who have been educated in country areas about medical schools and the retention rate of doctors et cetera. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that, even though there are cost disadvantages not only to the students and the parents of children at country universities but to the administration, we must make sure that we maintain proper expenditure in those areas so that those young people will learn their skills in the country and return to the country with those skills in the future. I talked about the arrangements for doctors. We are very pleased that the University of New England has a medical school where you can see those very things happening as I speak.

One of the other issues raised—and I am pleased to see that the minister responsible for a lot of the training activities is here as well—which really does need to be looked at in terms of the future of young people at university is the youth allowance. Young people often do not go to university the year after school because their parents cannot afford it, in some sense, so they go out to work and then meet all the guidelines to be able to access the youth allowance. I am not suggesting that everybody should go to university straight after school but I think we are developing a framework that now makes that almost the norm rather than the exception. We have to have a close look at the way in which those guidelines are put together. One of the other things that were mentioned at yesterday’s conference was that to encourage people to go to country universities there may well be a need to reduce the HECS debts that are repaid on the conclusion of the degree.

I bring those few points to the debate and in conclusion say again that I support this legislation. I think what occurred in 2005 was unfortunate for student activities, particularly those in the country, and it was driven by an ideological perspective in that a lot of people who are still in this place were reliving their university days and settling old scores. That was unfortunate because they overlooked the very valuable services that were being provided. As I said then, and say again now, we all hope that some of these services are not needed by our children, but if those services are not there they cannot be accessed. I am more than happy to make a contribution for those people who may need those services into the future, particularly for those in regional universities where they may be many hundreds of kilometres from their families.

Debate (on motion by Mr Gray) adjourned.