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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 4981

Senator RYAN (1:06 PM) —I am proud to rise today to speak against the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. Indeed, it is an issue I raised in my first speech in this place and in rising to speak I join my colleague Senator Fifield, who spoke earlier on this bill. However, it does not give me any pleasure to speak against this bill because, contrary to what Senator Crossin has just said, this particular bill represents an explicit breach of a commitment given by the Labor Party before the last election. I will read out the words of the then shadow minister for education and training on 22 May 2007:

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

So there we have it. We actually have the then shadow minister, representing the Labor Party, saying months before the election that there would be no compulsory amenities and services fee and specifically ruling out the HECS type approach that we see in this legislation.

Having been privileged to serve on the Senate committee that considered this bill earlier this year, I wish to cover two ranges of issues today. The first are practical ones that relate to the specific provisions of this bill and the second are the philosophical objections which the coalition has to this bill. Firstly, I would like to address a couple of issues raised by Senator Crossin. Senator Crossin referred to nearly $180 million that had been ripped out of student services. I would prefer to describe that in another way. That is $180 million that stays in students’ pockets. That is $180 million that has not been compulsorily acquired from them for services that they may choose not to use or they may be unable to use or they may simply not have the time to use. Senator Crossin talked about how a number of students at one of the universities in the Northern Territory were quite keen to establish a student union. There is nothing in Australian law today that prevents a group of students getting together to do just that. This bill has nothing to do with students seeking to form an association. It has nothing to do with students seeking to represent their own interests. It has nothing to do with student sport. It is about some students forcing other students to pay for their hobbies, be they political, sporting, recreational or otherwise. It is a fallacy to argue and it is misleading to the Australian people and to students to argue that this bill is about helping students represent their own interests. This bill represents a compulsory tax and it is a return to compulsory student unionism. It is the equivalent in the workplace of a bargaining fee: ‘We’re going to charge you the money and we’re going to hand it over to a student union’—or an association or a guild or whatever it describes itself as—‘and you’re going to have no say in it. If you don’t pay it you can’t come to this university.’ I will go into some of the those issues later but I will first turn to the flaws in this bill.

Firstly, for people who campaigned against student contributions to their own education to say, ‘Well, we’ll oppose actually increasing HECS to fund university education but we’ll add on nearly $1,000’—when you consider the indexing—‘onto most students’ HECS bills’—or HELP bills, as they are called now—‘to pay for services that aren’t directly related to their education,’ is utterly hypocritical. It will add $1,000 or close enough to it onto the costs of someone doing a three-year degree. To those doing a five-year degree it will add over $1,500 to their costs because of the additional indexation to add to the HECS bill or the HELP bill. I do not understand why on earth those people who opposed access to education based on financial grounds suddenly think the only fee that should be compulsory at a university—and I speak to the crossbenchers here as well—is the student union fee.

It always struck me when I was at university in the nineties—I sat on the National Union of Students executive for a year and I know what the money was spent on—that hundreds of thousands of dollars was spent on flying people around the country and on election campaigns. I know what the student unions spent their money on. At the University of Melbourne alone, with 30,000 people on a campus less than a kilometre square, they managed to lose a quarter of a million dollars on catering, with the food being more expensive than that from the independent coffee shop on the other side of the building. These were not student unions that provided cheap services. They were featherbedded and they provided funding for people’s pet political causes. I do not understand why we trust our students to choose what degree they wish to enrol in, to undertake a vocational course and to choose their career but we do not trust them enough to allow them to decide whether or not they want to join a debating society or a footy club. We have to tax them and we have to put that power to decide who gets what in the hands of someone else.

One of the other problems with services under arrangements like these is that they are set up in such a way that not all students can access them. I will turn to one of my favourite particular institutions at the university that I attended, the University of Melbourne. I refer to the Mount Buller ski lodge. It did get a subsidy through the student amenities fee in the days before 2005, through the sports union. It was used by graduates and it was used by students. Why should the thousands of part-time students and the thousands of mature-age students who do not like skiing be forced to subsidise the Mount Buller ski lodge? I declare my interest in this. I did play sport, particularly badly, at Melbourne university. In the first year of any sports club at Melbourne university in the nineties—and this is interesting—you did not receive any support from the sports union. You had to prove you could do it yourself for a year before you got access to any funding for any form of insurance or access to footy ovals. Yet our club managed to prosper, albeit not on the sporting field. As Senator Fifield pointed out, there is no need whatsoever to replicate the structures that voluntary organisations can provide for themselves. Why is it that the Essendon District Football League, where my office is, manages to survive, obviously with support from local governments, but we do not trust our students to be able to the same? That shows what the real agenda of this legislation is: to ensure that there is a pot of money for a small, noisy minority.

This bill does nothing to prevent moneys being used for political purposes. Yes, section 5 of the bill prevents them being used to support a candidate in an election campaign, and I challenge anyone in this place to define ‘political activity’ so narrowly. As Melbourne university did several years ago, you can still use the money from compulsory student fees to fund the legal costs of someone who was arrested by the police and charged with a particular offence at a protest that turned violent. Under similar legislation in Victoria many years ago, a student union paid for an axe that was used to take out the vice-chancellor’s office door. There is nothing in this bill that prevents that happening again. That is because of the narrow definition of ‘political activity’. It prevents money being spent on a sticker that says, ‘Vote for Kevin Rudd’. It does not prevent money being spent on a sticker that says, ‘Vote against Kevin Rudd’—or any other person in this or the other place.

As Senator Fifield said, money is fungible. If money is coming in the door to be used to subsidise a student service—let us say, for example, for a revenue-raising service such as catering—then there is nothing to stop the money gained from selling that service being used for political activities. Why on earth would we set up a system whereby we charge students for a service whose providers do not need the money so that we can take money out at the other end to spend on political purposes? Why is the government not honest about what this bill is intended to achieve? When student unions say they have had a tough time over the last three years, I do not particularly feel for them. Some student unions have prospered, particularly in Western Australia, where they have proven that they are responsive to students. But those student unions that have failed have been the ones that have sought to continue to pay six-figure sums to the National Union of Students, which does not provide a service to students on campus. There are no welfare or sports services or any such services coming out of the NUS. But what it does do is ensure that all students are going to pay more for their education.

Unions, guilds or associations already have a privileged position on university camp-uses. There are no competing student unions at any Australian universities that I know of, yet with that privileged position on campus including, at many universities in Victoria, rent-free arrangements on university land or in university buildings, they still cannot get people to join their associations. In any other part of our country, we would say there was something wrong with an association that cannot sell its product, something wrong with an organisation with a captive market that cannot convince people it is worthwhile to join. The problem is not with the students that are not choosing to join, but this government has said just that the problem lies with the students. It wants to compel students to fund that organisation, which in many cases in the last three years they have chosen not to join.

Senator Crossin talked about university being more than home, bus, lecture, bus, home. This is one of the main reasons this bill is so inequitable. For many students today, university is more than that; it involves a part-time job or two, it involves paying your own way, having a bit of economic independence at university. Yet, to those students who work, to those students who study part-time or those students who prioritise other aspects of their life, we are going to say: ‘You’re funding the debating society. You’re funding the footy club. You’re funding the Mount Buller ski lodge. It doesn’t matter whether you want to; we’re going to make you pay anyway.’ To apply a tax to the people that do not actually have the time, inclination or means to spend all day at university is blatantly unfair. Students will have no say in how this money is spent because a small university election—not all of which have passed the same probity tests as we have expected from the Australian Electoral Commission over the last 20 or 30 years—does not mean students have control. Why are we replacing the ultimate level of student control—their own wallet, what they choose to spend their time and money on—with a collective approach that ensures a noisy minority will once again be able to capture students’ interests and students’ moneys?

I would now like to turn to the philosophical objections to this bill. As I said earlier, it is a farce to say that this bill does not reintroduce compulsory student unionism. It simply uses a new legislative form to achieve the same ends as the situation which was in place prior to 2005. If a student is being forced to pay money that will be handed over to a student union, association or guild, the mere passage of it through the hands of the university does not make it clean. It is still compulsory unionism. If I was at work and my boss took money out of my pay to pass to the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association or any other union, that would be treated as unionism. I do not see why it is different for university students. In fact, there was no suggestion whatsoever in the bill or the committee hearing that this money would not be handed to student unions—there is every expectation that it will be. But, at the same time, there are no safeguards against it being used to support facilities or activities that are used for political activities, whether they be audiovisual facilities, legal services or any other.

There is no arrangement in place to ensure that value for money is provided by these; we are only trusting the universities and the student unions. There are no tendering arrangements, or similar style arrangements, to make sure that the cost is as low as possible; we are just handing over money and hoping the universities keep student unions efficient. In the last 30 years, the debate in this country has shown that student unions are not, in the main, the most efficient providers of services, and the lack of competition on university campuses is a reason for this. In fact, in the committee inquiry that was conducted, our attention was brought to a youth poll conducted by the Australian Democrats in 2008 that showed 59 per cent of students opposed the reintroduction of compulsory amenities and services fees. This bill represents compulsory membership through financial support, nothing less. I mentioned earlier the irony of how we hear, from those particularly on the crossbenches, that education needs to be cheaper, but that this is the one fee that they support and has been for many years at university level. Our society no longer tolerates compulsory membership of any other association and no argument has been put as to why it should do so for students, other than to try and cloak it in the guise of services. This is nothing more than a Trojan Horse argument.

I would also like to put to the Senate that universities should have grievance procedures, they should have counselling services. But why should students be compelled to pay extra for these? Students contribute a significant financial amount to their education these days, and that is a good thing. Yet we seem to see that universities, benefiting from extra revenues, do not see the provision of these services as part of their core responsibility. In my view, students already pay for them; they are legitimate expectations of attending a tertiary or post-secondary institution. But this bill allows universities to avoid that responsibility. They can avoid it by simply charging an extra amount of money and handing it over to a third party. In the main, these third parties have not been very effective providers of such services in the past, and there is nothing in this bill to suggest that they will be in the future.

Senator Fifield raised issues like dental services and health services—child care is another service that falls into this category. These are services and safety nets that are legitimately provided by Commonwealth, state and local governments around the country. In Senator Fifield’s words, universities are not an island. Nor should they be treated as such, but I fail to see why we should be charging some students—not based on means, not based on their ability to pay—for services that benefit other students. Not all these services are in any way welfare services. I hark back again to the Mount Buller ski lodge. I fail to see why a part-time student working a few jobs—as a number of friends of mine did, and I had part-time jobs while at uni—should be forced to subsidise the hobbies of others. There is simply no justification for it.

Many of the services listed in the student services and amenities fees guidelines that have been tabled by the Minister for Education are irrelevant to the direct educational purposes for which students attend university. They are often not open to distance education students—a growing part of universities—or the growing numbers of part-time students, and particularly mature age students, that may have other responsibilities such as work and family. Most are replicating services that, where they are necessary, should be provided by Commonwealth, state and local governments. There is no justification to charge students for this range of services which are not necessary to an education. Those services that are necessary should be provided by governments and by universities themselves.

This bill should be rejected for what it is, a Trojan Horse for compulsory student unionism. In a classic Labor way, the government has simply given an age-old objective a new name. It contains no benefit for students, it increases the costs of their education, it once again forces them to fund minority activities. I say again, there is nothing in Australian law at the moment that prevents the formation of any student union, student association or sports club. The opportunity to do so already exists. This bill is about some being able to force the many to pay their way.