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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Page: 8983

Mr MARLES (Parliamentary Secretary for Innovation and Industry) (9:03 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This government is determined to deliver on our election commitment to rebuild essential student services and amenities on university campuses. We made this commitment because, unlike those opposite, we understand the critical importance of ensuring that students have access to vital campus services. And we make no apology for honouring that commitment by reintroducing these important measures today.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009 proposes a balanced, practical approach to funding campus services and amenities. Those opposite have been so blinded by ideology that they are simply unable to have a reasonable debate on this issue.

This bill does not allow for a return to compulsory student unionism. In fact the legislative provision which prevents a provider from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation remains unchanged. The government does not want to return to the past. We simply want to ensure that students have access to vital services and amenities on campus in the future.

By voting against this important legislation during the last sitting period, the opposition voted for the continued demise of student services including child care, counselling, health, sport and fitness services. The government refuses to allow this to continue. Following extensiveconsultations with students and universities in 2008, it was found that $170 million had been stripped from funding for services and amenities. This resulted 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, to achieve success in their studies and to enable them to 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.

Alarmingly, it was discovered that some universities had been forced to redirect funding out of research and teaching budgets to support services and amenities that would otherwise have been cut. 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.

Some universities highlighted alarming price hikes for parking, food and child care—in one case, a price hike in the order of 500 per cent annually. During the consultations last year it was discovered that childcare fees at La Trobe University, for example, had increased by $68 per week. The cost of parking at Monash University rose by more than 500 per cent. At least three universities have closed their welfare services, which gave students important advice about Centrelink access. Nine universities are no longer able to offer legal advice services. This shows us that it is all of our students who are literally paying the price for the previous government’s ideological approach to student services.

The Australian Olympic Committee has noted that there has also been a serious impact on university sport, saying:

… 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.

Since then, Universities Australia and other bodies that have the interests of the students at heart have repeatedly called on the parliament to pass this legislation.

If the opposition fails to support this important legislation once again, then it is Australian students who will pay the price. And the students who will suffer most as a result of this decision are those from rural and regional areas. University services and amenities in regional areas are not just used by students but the whole community. In regional areas the sporting facilities at the university are often the only major facilities in the area and the university provides a social hub for the community. And importantly support services offered at regional universities create much needed jobs in local communities.

The National Party indicated at their recent conference that they were willing to support this legislation so far as it will provide funding for essential health and sporting services and amenities. This is welcome news and I commend the National Party for their commitment to students from rural and regional areas. But I call on them to recognise that there are other essential campus services which are also in dire need of funding. These include, for example, critical legal and welfare services.

One of the arguments from the National Party in relation to these services is that if students think they are important then they will pay for them voluntarily. In response to that, I would ask the Nationals to consider this question: how many students do you know who go off to university at the age of 18 for the first time and who expect to become involved in a legal dispute with their landlord? How many students plan to develop a serious mental health condition that requires counselling? How many students plan to need access to an emergency loan to cover basic costs of living when they become sick and are unable to work for several weeks? The answer is none.

These important services are there to support our students when things don’t go according to plan. And when you are a teenager from the bush, living away from home for the first time, you are all the more likely to come up against some of these challenges.

These campus services and so many others are no less important than health services and sporting facilities are no less worthy of funding. It should be our universities, in consultation with their students, who make the decision about what they need in line with the different needs of their university campus and within the fee guidelines.

I call on the National Party to vote to support this legislation, because it supports the students at the University of New England, at Edith Cowan University, at Charles Sturt University, at James Cook University, at the University of Ballarat and so many others.

The last time this legislation came before the parliament, the Nationals bowed to the wishes of their coalition partners and failed to cast their vote to help students from rural and regional areas. The coalition did not vote against compulsory student unionism. The coalition voted for the continued demise and possible destruction of vital services and amenities on university campuses.

I know that the National Party recognise how important this bill is and I call on them to join with the government to rebuild essential services and amenities on our university campuses. This bill is in the best interests of Australian students, it is in the best interests of our universities and it is in the best interests of rural and regional Australia.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Haase) adjourned.