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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 4973

Senator FIFIELD (12:31 PM) —The passage of the former coalition government’s Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005 helped to lift a substantial financial burden for students in Australia. For the first time students were empowered to make their own decisions about the services they needed, and it enshrined freedom of association on campus. The results were not surprising: student unions, bereft of the power to force their members to pay their fee, had to radically cut the cost of membership and tailor their services to the demands of students. At my alma mater, the University of Sydney, union membership fees dropped from $590 in 2005 to $99 in 2008. The University of Melbourne dropped its fees from $392 in 2005 to $99 in 2009. RMIT went from $500 to just $80 three years later. Thanks to VSU, students at these campuses have hundreds of dollars back in their pockets that they can choose to spend as they see fit.

Many students were sick and tired of seeing their money wasted on extreme political campaigns. But ultimately the debate was never about whether student unions promote left-wing or right-wing causes. Student unions should be free to engage in whatever political activity they wish, provided their membership and funding base are entirely voluntary. That is freedom of speech.

To many, these changes seemed long overdue—after all, compelling Australians to join an organisation against their will was regarded as objectionable in every other part of society. Workers long ago won the right to freely associate, and today no government would ever think of making union membership compulsory in the workplace. But, for some reason, university administrators and the Labor Party believed that student unions were the exception. For some reason, the services they offered and the value they provided to their members was so high that students had to be forced to join and forced to fund them. Aside from the obvious logical fallacy that if an organisation offers its members value for money it should not require compulsion to have high membership, there are also a myriad double standards.

These students, who are supposedly incapable of choosing whether to purchase union membership, are called upon to vote in elections, electing political leaders who will chart the course of the nation. They are allowed to drive, purchase alcohol, join the Army, own a firearm or take out a loan. They are even expected to be able to choose their course, their subjects and their future career paths. But the same students who possess the faculty to make these important decisions suddenly become incapable of looking out for their own interests when it comes to student union membership.

Labor’s plan is to slug Australia’s university students with a new tax of up to $250 per year, and that will rise annually with automatic indexation. The government will establish a new loans scheme to assist some students to defer their fee payments. This is an admission, if one were needed, that students do not have the capacity to pay. This policy is also a clear breach of Labor’s pre-election commitment to Australia’s students. In a doorstop interview on 22 May 2007 the then shadow education spokesperson, Mr Stephen Smith, said:

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

That is pretty clear. Fast-forward to less than two years later and Labor introduces a compulsory amenities and services fee, with a HECS style loans scheme. When considering their vote at the last election, no doubt some university students were swayed by Labor’s assurances that they would not seek to return to the days of compulsory union fees.

Senator Cash —Just like the economic conservative argument.

Senator FIFIELD —Indeed, Senator Cash. Labor have now betrayed the trust those students placed in them, with this sneaky return to compulsory student unionism. In her second reading speech to the House, Minister Ellis said that this bill, the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 was ‘not a return to compulsory student unionism’. This is nothing more than a con and a sham. It is true to say that the fee is levied by the university rather than by the union. Students can choose not to be union members under this package. They just have to pay the same fee as if they were a member of the union. If students refuse to pay the fee the university can decline to offer them academic services and prevent them from graduating. It is just like the old union fee. That would be like telling a construction worker that he does not need to join the CFMEU but he had better pay his union dues if he wants to work on the building site. It is, again, a no fee, no start policy, and it is wrong.

A portion of the money will still end up with student unions or with the university providing services previously provided by the student unions. It is a technical workaround of the colation’s legislation. Minister Ellis boasts that students have had a say in the bill through the consultation process she undertook prior to its introduction. Unsurprisingly, student unions and universities, who have a direct financial interest in seeing a return to a compulsory fee, slammed VSU. One of the most extreme and ridiculous arguments I have heard from anti-VSU crusaders was made by Glenn Withers from Universities Australia. Withers, in an interview with ABC radio’s program PM, hinted that VSU was perhaps responsible for recent violent attacks on students. He said:

... things like advice on employment services, advice on health and counselling. Advice from student organisations themselves on safety and feedback to universities, to other education providers, to police, on problem areas in safety, have all been compromised by the absence of a good campus way of representing students in providing services.

What utter bunkum! In reality, there is no connection between a university amenities fees and late night violence at train stations and in Melbourne’s outer suburbs This was just shameful opportunism. Ordinary students do not want to see a return to the policies of compulsion—pre VSU. In an Australian Democrats youth poll in 2008, 59 per cent stated that they did not support the abolition of VSU. It is to be expected that unrepresentative student unions, more worried about their own idea of what students should have rather than the interests of ordinary students, would demand a return to a guaranteed income stream. It does not require them to worry about pesky and annoying things like delivering value for membership or supplying the services that students want and need. National Union of Students President David Barrow highlighted this anti-student attitude perfectly when he said:

Universities get the fee, students get the services and student unions get screwed.

In reality, Barrow was doing what any good unionist would: he was making an ambit claim. Student unions are secretly delighted at being able to again levy a compulsory fee, using the university as their proxy. But ordinary students cannot afford this. The inclusion of a loan system in the package is a tacit admission that students cannot afford a compulsory upfront fee. Each semester, many students struggle to cover the costs of their books, rent and food, let alone their tuition. Most choose to put their academic fees through the FEE-HELP system and pay them back when they earn a full-time wage. Yet Kevin Rudd has called student debt in Australia a ‘national disgrace’.

For a student starting a four-year undergraduate degree in 2010, the government’s package will add up to $1,000 of debt, plus inflation. And it could not come at a worse time for students, with Australia’s graduates facing a post-study employment market weaker than any in recent years. Many of the large firms that hire graduates will take on a significantly reduced number or even zero new employees in 2010. Inevitably, some students will struggle to find work. Yet the Rudd government is happy to slug students with more debt. This is not the best way to help struggling students. They do not need to be hit with a new tax to fund services they may not want or need. The best way to help students is to allow them to keep more of their own money and let them decide what academic services they need.

The new fee also fails to take into account capacity to use the services provided or the ability to pay for them. Part-time students, who work several days a week to support themselves financially, will in many cases be charged the same as wealthy students living in college on campus with family support. Mature age students with young children, who may only ever attend campus for classes, will in many cases pay the same fee. Students who study off campus, online or at a small regional branch at the university, are likely to be slugged the same amount as students who can easily access the services on the main campus. In fact, it is the students who need support the most who will be hurt by this fee. Those students who struggle financially typically do not have the time to enjoy the benefits of union funding such as clubs and societies, or attending the free lunchtime beer, barbeque and band sessions. Those who have the time and financial security to do so hardly need other students to subsidise their experience.

The government also appear to equate compulsory union membership with an active campus culture. What rubbish! Students at TAFE or in high schools do not need compulsory unionism to have fun, nor do adults in the workforce. So why on earth should thou-sands of eager, young, curious and enthusiastic 18- to 25-year-olds on university campuses need an amenities fee to have a good time? The government have assured students and the public that, under their proposed model, students’ money will not be wasted on political activities. They specifically prohibit the support of a political party or the election of any person to the local, state and federal branches of government, but this pol-icy has been in place in Victoria for years. It did not stop the Monash Student Association from donating to the Southern Oil Workers Union in Iraq, a known anti-coalition forces group. It did not stop the Monash Stu-dent Association donating to the legal defence fund of an accused G20 rioter and it did not stop Melbourne University Student Union donating to the defence fund of an accused Palm Island rioter. It certainly did not stop student unions donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the National Union of Students, who ran a ‘Make Howard History’ campaign prior to the 2007 federal election.

Also, money is fungible. A dollar of compulsorily acquired money spent on a legitimate student service frees up a dollar for political activity. Unfortunately, students can have no confidence that their money will be spent on strictly non-political activities. Many critics of the former coalition government’s VSU policy noted that student unions provided welfare services to needy students. They pointed to reduced counselling or dental services on campus as evidence of the failures of VSU. But there are two important points to keep in mind. Firstly, the vast majority of universities still provide access to medical and counselling services on campus. Typically, these are university run and free or privately managed but with bulk-billing. Secondly, in the rare event that a campus does not have these services, it is important to remember that universities are not islands. Governments at a state and federal level provide medical services across the country. Student unions are not some fourth tier of government. Student unions, with election turnouts typically less than five per cent at even the most politically active campuses like Melbourne and Sydney universities, lack the popular mandate of any tier of government. Ultimately, it is up to federal, state and local governments to provide a social safety net for the whole community, students included.

The viability of university sport is often cited as a concern by opponents of VSU, but the claims do not withstand scrutiny. Thousands of voluntary community sporting clubs exist all over the country. They are mostly funded by participants and run by volunteers. Community sporting clubs survive and prosper because they offer something people want at a price they are willing to pay. Elite sport already receives generous taxpayer support throughout Australia, particularly at an Olympic level. These athletes often go on to earn handsome financial rewards for their sporting success, so to claim that they need compulsory funds acquired from their non-sporting classmates is simply unreasonable.

But do student unions really need these funds? Judging by the financial position of one of Australia’s unions at the University of Sydney, the answer is no. The union in Sydney have an art collection—good luck to them—valued at more than $2 million, which would rival many top-listed company art collections in Australia. They also have a set of silverware worth more than $100,000.

Let us look at what some student unions do when they actually have the money to fund the services they say are crucially needed on campus. At the University of Melbourne, the union receives close to $1 million per annum in transition funding from the university. Unions often claim that funding is needed to support a vibrant campus life and that clubs, societies and campus activities cannot exist without these essential funds. At Melbourne university, the student union wanted to increase its donation to the extreme National Union of Students, and it was not going to let campus activities get in the way. The union moved to slash the budget of the clubs and societies by nearly 25 per cent, increasing the budgeted funding to the National Union of Students from $50,000 to $65,000. The previous financial year, the union slashed the activities budget to increase funding for the arts department. Among other events, the arts department ran an exhibition entitled ‘From Beards to Badges’—a history of student unionism on campus. If unions really cared about student services and not about their extreme political agenda, they would have funded services properly when they had the capacity to do so.

What about the unions that actually have improved and prospered under VSU? The University of Western Australia Student Guild has long had voluntary membership, thanks to the policies of the former Court government. It boasts high rates of union membership, a low yearly fee of $120 per year and offers services that most students want. The University of Queensland Student Union actually says that VSU has led to improved services on campus because it has forced the union to supply the services students actually want rather than the services student unions think students should want. In its submission to the Senate inquiry into this legislation, held last year, the union noted:

Since its enactment in 2006, the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005 has had a profoundly positive effect not only on the operations and service capacities of the University of Queensland Union but most importantly the entire UQ student body. VSU has been a very practical way of easing the financial burden on UQ students who had previously struggled to meet the upfront cost of union fees in addition to other daily living expenses such as rental accommodation, food, utilities and textbooks.

Ultimately, however, VSU is about a straightforward concept—an individual’s right to choose. It empowers students to make their own choices about what sort of university experience they want, rather than forcing them to subsidise the choices of others. There is an important principle at stake that must be defended: no-one should be forced to support or join any organisation against their will. If this legislation is passed, that right, that choice, will effectively be taken away. It is my hope that this legislation is defeated.