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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 2772

Ms GRIERSON (5:29 PM) —I rise to give my support to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. It is about time we were able to do so; it is a wonderful time to be able to do so. This is a very responsible policy approach from a government that is determined to restore integrity to student services in our universities. This legislation sounds the death knell for the Howard-Costello legislation which allowed the government to wield its ideology over common sense and provided tertiary institutions with very little choice and reduced their autonomy. Rather than good common sense and decency prevailing in our most important institutions—the universities of this country—they were made to slavishly follow an imposed ideology.

I am pleased to say that over the past 15 months we have heard the ringing of a few death knells, each signalling the end of that ideological legacy left over from the previous government. Work Choices was another one that was woven into the fabric of universities wherever it could be. Fortunately, it has found its place on the scrapheap. We do also hope that the era of our country ignoring the urgency of climate change will be over.

It is important that when we look at the Rudd government reforms we can feel some pride that our government’s approach to university services will replace one that caused great harm. The previous government’s approach caused a serious decline in, and in some instances the complete closure of, vital health counselling, employment, childcare and welfare support services. Unfortunately, these extremes, disguised as reform, took an ideological sledgehammer to universities that saw $170 million stripped from valuable student services, all because they suspected that universities were a hotbed of incubating dissent. I would hope so! I would hope they incubated challenge, inquiry and dissent. I think the previous government pursued the provision of student services in all the wrong ways. Instead of doing the hard yards of consulting with students, consulting with the sector itself, listening to student representatives and working to find a balanced and measured approach, they pushed on with legislation that was more to do with their own prejudices. But now common sense, decency and the future of this nation do dictate the legislation before the House.

The bill imposes requirements on higher education providers that receive funding under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme. They are not requirements to be followed slavishly according to ideology. They are actually about goodwill and the needs of students. They are about ensuring that there is information on and access to basic student support services and that there is provision of student representation and advocacy. I am particularly impressed that for the first time universities are required to provide opportunities for democratic student representation and to take student views into account in institutional decision-making processes. How appropriate this is when revenue from student enrolments represents well over 50 per cent of the budget of all universities! It would seem to me to be very important that students’ voices are heard.

From 1 July 2009 higher education providers will be able to charge a compulsory student services and amenities fee. That fee will be capped at $250. It is negotiable—it can go down—and each university can set their own level. That fee is distinctly for helping to provide student services and amenities within the set guidelines of this legislation. The legislation will allow eligible students the option of a loan, should they not be able to afford that upfront fee, through the establishment of a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program, which will be called the Services and Amenities-HELP—or SA-HELP—scheme.

These are important reforms and the students of Australia’s higher education institutions were certainly crying out for them. In fact, it was not just the students that felt the brunt. I know that during the process of consultation undertaken by the government last year there were strong indications that universities too were finding it difficult to adjust. Some universities indicated that they were having to redirect funding out of research and teaching budgets to support student services because they could see that without those funds, their students would not be as successful and certainly would not contribute what they were capable of. They did that to maintain their commitment to student services and student involvement in the running of their university. No doubt other universities found it convenient to look the other way. But most universities did not choose to do that; they did have to find funds to carry on with essential services for students. I am proud to say I have a daughter who was once a student president at the University of Newcastle. I remember debriefing her many times on the support she gave to students. They included fairly difficult cases of conflict resolution and social welfare. So I do know of the contribution that student representative organisations make to individual students and to the strength of the student body itself.

For those on the other side of the House who claim this legislation is indulgent, I would say that, if it indulges student services in a way that strengthens the ability of students to complete courses, that is a good thing. There is certainly an indication that the other side considers this some sort of quasi-compulsory student unionism. That is totally incorrect. These services are not indulgences; they are important. They help our students navigate their time at university and often, for many students, that is a time of personal challenge, particularly as most students today have to work as well as attend university. So these services provide for them systems of support and advocacy.

Our own universities have recognised this, with some redirecting their funding to support those services. In my own electorate of Newcastle, both the Newcastle University Students Association, NUSA, and the Newcastle University Postgraduate Students Association, NUPSA, secured service level agreements with the university, albeit at lower than previous levels. This was not the case at all universities and I am pleased that my university did support the student organisations. But there was no requirement for institutions to provide that financial support, and this invariably meant that either services were cut or charges were increased at the time. In the case of the University of Newcastle, both NUSA and NUPSA were able to continue providing services, but the funding that could be provided in that way was limited.

Whilst the cooperation and good faith negotiations between student associations and the University of Newcastle meant that some services could continue, services did suffer—so much so, in fact, that when the current Minister for Education visited my electorate early in 2008 I remember us being at the end of the student protest. Students chose to exercise their democratic right to protest and they certainly were concerned for all students. I think it was perhaps the first time the minister had ever experienced a student protest that she had not organised herself when she was a student representative, but she was at the receiving end and we found it a healthy thing for those discussions and that protest to be taking place.

The experience of student associations under the previous legislation was a genuinely difficult one. Student services lost included $300 emergency loans—and I know many students who had taken advantage of those. They lost vouchers for textbooks and food, and if you have ever attended a university on a day when the subsidised food was available you will know it was a good thing to see students being able to benefit. At our university, NUSA went from having seven full-time staff down to two. The former full-time grievance officer now works only a 14-hour week. Opus, the newspaper of the university students, decreased from seven issues to four and the printery was closed. The printery provided an at-cost service to students. It allowed them to print off their important theses et cetera, and that was a huge loss to students. The second-hand bookshop was also closed—again, what a waste of a wonderful resource for students. The director of NUsport at Newcastle University at the time of the service reduction said:

NUsport’s current position under VSU is that there has been a significant reduction in employment, less student representation especially women at University Games and in University Clubs, and most significantly, NUsport has had to freeze new infrastructure projects and without ongoing maintenance, our buildings are deteriorating.

Many cultural and artistic programs and festivals also suffered. Many student organisations subsidise the attendance of their students at these collaborative cultural festivals, and as a result the attendance and viability of those festivals suffered. Newcastle experienced that firsthand. We host the This is Not Art festival. It is the largest youth festival in Australia. It includes a youth writers festival and a digital arts festival. It is a great example of the coming together of talented artists, activists and other real talent, but attendance was subsidised by student unions at different universities all around the country, and I am very sorry to see that under the present system that has suffered tremendously. Universities are the incubators of leadership, the people of the future who are going to solve the problems of the world and those who are going to nurture and enrich the souls of their communities.

I would submit to the House that the human cost was too high for the sake of reform. I am pleased to see that the Rudd government is committed to responsible, considered and measured reform. This legislation is not a return to compulsory student unionism. It will ensure that universities provide vital services in health, child care, welfare, counselling and employment. In my office I try very hard to give relief work to students from the University of Newcastle. The Graduate School of Business and the School of Law are just across the road from me, and it has been very valuable to share firsthand with students their experiences at university. One case I am aware of is a couple raising their baby in the city without their families. I know how important those services were to them.

The Student Services and Amenity Fee Guidelines which are part of this legislation set the parameters for what sorts of services can be supported by the levy imposed by universities, and they were formulated through consultation with the sector. There are quite a few services. They cover employment, housing, health care and academic support. One would think that would be rather important. They also cover personal accident insurance for students—something they cannot normally afford or even contemplate. They cover the many clubs and societies that enrich the experience of university, such as sport and recreation and student media—that communication need that binds students together. Orientation information—a very important week in all universities—and support for overseas students are some of the other services that are covered.

Ensuring that the levy is spent on areas of genuine student need will require a commitment by universities and student bodies to negotiate in good faith. That is the expectation of this legislation.

The government are committed to ensuring that students have a voice in universities, and that is why we have introduced the National Student Representation and Advocacy Protocols. These protocols set out a framework that ensures that the voice of students is enshrined in universities. They will allow for the interests of students to be considered in institutional decision making and ensure that advocacy services are made available. I recollect my daughter being a student union representative on the university council. I remember how much work she put into representing her constituency with regard to student services and university decisions that were being made. I think it is very important that universities incorporate this into their governance. Students have a very valuable voice to contribute.

At the heart of this package, though, is the need for consultation. The government has ensured that student representation is enshrined and the consultation between individual institutions and their student bodies will now decide the success of this program. This is a chance for all those stakeholders with an interest in this issue to discuss the best framework for this policy. That includes, of course, university executives, government and student unions. I would like to think that in the future there will be a level of representation and participation that is genuine and inclusive and that training in governance is provided for students. It is a wonderful place for them to learn about democracy and board and management type responsibilities. I think it is really important to make sure that as many students as possible have these advocacy experiences.

As this consultation takes place, it is a good time to ask just what we do require from our higher education institutions. That, of course, is good governance procedures so that students see the best behaviours modelled. There is a strong role for student unions in protecting and advocating for the rights of students. I was very pleased, as were many of my colleagues, to meet David Barrow, the head of the student union movement at the moment. It is good to see that this generation is engaged, interested and keen to hold us all to account. The student union movement is keen to represent the interests of students. We should support that engagement and encourage it in every form.

As a government we should help to create and sustain a strong, transparent and responsive higher education sector that helps develop the future scientists, doctors, social scientists, teachers, leaders of this country, artists and performers.

I would also say that one of the things that this legislation says cannot be done is the funding of political campaigns. What is meant by that is party political campaigns. I hope there is never any need for us to distinguish in universities between students being involved in other sorts of political campaigns. I think of the human rights advocacy that student bodies have taken up, the work on social inclusion and the work on economic models—what a time to challenge economic models of the past. I can remember past protests on such issues. You think, ‘Gee, they may have been right in many of their social equity approaches.’ When we look at the times we live in—and, looking at the people in this room, we have experienced extreme change in the time we have lived in this world—it is important that student voices are listened to and that students are encouraged to analyse how this society works and how it can be improved.

I also note that there has been some concern expressed by members on the other side of the House regarding the cost to students of this fee. I say to you: that is a concern that I always share. Recent media coverage showed that about a third of the students of the University of Newcastle are drawn from the lowest level of economic advantage. They come from a low socioeconomic base. We have one of the highest ratios in the country. Perhaps that is a tribute to the university’s inclusiveness. It runs some of the best second-chance programs around the country. It also shows not just that these students may struggle to pay the fee but, more importantly, that they are students who will genuinely benefit the most and have the highest need for the services that these fees will provide. That is part of the dilemma that this legislation seeks to address. Students will be able to access a loan program, and universities will be able to set a fee, capped at $250. The benefits that will flow to students at the University of Newcastle, who are drawn from lower socioeconomic groups, will be extremely important, and they will certainly be of benefit to everyone.

I recommend this legislation to the House. I have been very happy to support it. It is a reform that has been very necessary. I hope it restores some autonomy to the student-university relationship, because that is a relationship that I think we should not interfere in too much except to protect the freedoms and democratic rights that we think are essential in any institution in this country.