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Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Page: 874

Ms KATE ELLIS (Minister for Youth and Minister for Sport) (9:23 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I rise today to deliver on the government’s election commitment to rebuild important university student services and to also ensure that students have representation on campus.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 outlines a robust and balanced solution that will not only help ensure the delivery of quality student services—it will also help, once and for all, to secure their future.

The government has consistently committed to ensuring that students have access to vital campus services and we make no apology for honouring this commitment here today.

Extensive consultations with students and the universities in 2008 found that $170 million had been stripped from funding for services and amenities, resulting in the decline and in some instances complete closure of health, counselling, employment, childcare and welfare support services.

These are fundamental services that help students to navigate university life, achieve success in their studies and participate in sport and the university community.

Subsequently, it is students who are being forced to pay the price of the $170 million—both directly and indirectly.

Through the consultations some universities indicated that they were forced to redirect funding out of research and teaching budgets to support services and amenities that would otherwise have been cut, while others highlighted price hikes for parking, food and child care.

This demonstrated that students were paying the price for the removal of government support for services and amenities on campus.

Universities Australia, the peak body representing the university sector, painted the picture clearly last year, stating:

Universities have struggled for years to prop up essential student services through cross-subsidisation from other parts of already stretched university budgets, to redress the damage that resulted from the Coalition Government’s disastrous Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.

In its submission to the review, the Australian Olympic Committee noted that there had also been a serious impact on sport:

… the introduction of the VSU legislation has had a direct negative impact on the number of students (particularly women) participating in sport and, for the longer term, the maintenance and upgrading of sporting infrastructure and facilities and the retention of world class coaches.

The bill aims to support universities and students to help undo the damage.

The bill makes amendments to require higher education providers that receive Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding to comply from 2010 with new Student Services, Amenities Representation and Advocacy Guidelines.

This means that for the first time universities will be required to implement National Access to Services Benchmarks for all domestic Australian students—in line with the current benchmarks that already exist for our international students.

These important benchmarks will ensure that all Australian students are provided with information on, and access to, important health, welfare and financial services.

The bill also introduces for the first time National Student Representation and Advocacy Protocols to formally ensure that students have an opportunity to participate in university governance structures.

Let me be clear—the bill is not a return to compulsory student unionism.

Section 19.37(1) of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (the act), which prohibits a provider from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation, is unchanged.

The new National Student Representation and Advocacy Protocols help ensure students have access to advocacy support services to support student appeals, and vital help for students who may need extra assistance on matters that can be overwhelming and unfamiliar.

They also ensure that universities provide opportunities for democratic student representation, so that student views are taken into account during the decision-making process.

This is a value that is reflected in the democratic rights that underpin our nation and community.

Over and above these basic services, representation and advocacy rights, the bill will also provide universities with the option to implement a services fee from 1 July 2009, capped at a maximum of $250 per year to invest in quality support and advocacy services.

Universities that choose to levy a fee will be expected to consult with students on the nature of the services and amenities and enhanced advocacy that the fee would support.

To ensure that the fee is not a financial barrier, any university introducing the fee must also provide eligible students will the option of taking out a HECS-style loan under a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program—SA-HELP.

The Student Services and Amenity Fee Guidelines will specifically outline what the fee can be used to fund.

The guidelines will be finalised in consultation with the higher education sector and other key stakeholders and will be tabled as legislative instruments in partnership with this legislation.

In addition the bill prohibits universities from allowing the expenditure of any funds raised from a compulsory student services and amenities fee to support political parties, or support the election of a person to the Commonwealth, state or territory legislatures or to a local government body.

We believe that this is a balanced, practical solution that enables universities, students and the government to work in partnership to rebuild important student supports and services and ensure independent student representation and advocacy.

The bill also amends the act to provide enhanced protection of the privacy interests of Australian students and improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the allocation of student places and Commonwealth scholarships through the higher education system.

Tertiary admissions centres play an increasingly important role in the Australian higher education system.

They are the first contact for most people who apply to become university students.

Tertiary admissions centres add to the efficiency and productivity of the administration of the higher education system by centralising and coordinating admissions procedures on a state-wide basis.

The act does not currently refer to or acknowledge the role of these tertiary admissions centres.

This creates the potential for aspects of the necessary functions performed by the organisations to appear to be unauthorised under the act.

This bill includes amendments that ensure that the roles and responsibilities of tertiary admissions centres are recognised in the legislation.

In particular, the bill amends the act to give tertiary admissions centres the same status and duty of care as officers of a higher education provider regarding the processing of students’ personal information.

This will ensure that student information may be shared between the department, higher education providers, VET providers and tertiary admissions centres as appropriate.

A student’s privacy will remain protected by the privacy protection provisions already in the act.

The amendments will assist tertiary admissions centres in continuing to play a positive role in the continuing development of efficient and smooth administration in the higher education system.

The bill will also ensure that students wanting to study diploma and above qualifications in the vocational education and training sector are able to access the training they choose without worrying about upfront fees.

According to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, the number of students training in diploma and advanced diploma qualifications in the public vocational education and training sector has declined by 16 per cent in recent years: from 197,300 students in 2002 to 165,900 students in 2007.

This government is committed to broadening and increasing Australia’s skill levels, and increasing the number of completions at diploma and advanced diploma level is a key element of this commitment.

For this reason the bill includes amendments to allow for future expansion of the VET FEE-HELP scheme by allowing loan fees and criteria related to courses and providers to be specified in the guidelines that support the program.

VET FEE-HELP assists students studying diploma, advanced diploma, graduate certificate and graduate diploma courses by providing a loan for all or part of the tuition costs.

In 2009, eligible students can borrow up to $83,313 (or $104,142 for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses that lead to registration as practitioners in those fields) under FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP combined over their lifetime.

Loans are not subject to income and assets tests, and repayments do not commence until an individual’s income is above a minimum repayment threshold, which for 2008-09 is $41,594.

The availability of VET FEE-HELP is expected to significantly contribute to the Council of Australian Governments’ target to double the number of diploma and advanced diploma completions by 2020.

The first students to access VET FEE-HELP assistance will commence early this year.

These initiatives are all part of the government’s commitment to ensuring that higher education plays a leading role in equipping Australians with the knowledge and skills to make Australia a more productive and prosperous nation.

The government will continue to work in partnership with higher education providers and students, and take responsible action to ensure quality and sustainable student services and representation into the future.

This bill is balanced and a practical solution to rebuild important student support services and amenities.

It will also help to secure the future of universities and the critical role they have in Australia’s education future.

Debate (on motion by Mr Billson) adjourned.