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SELECT COMMITTEE ON THE SCRUTINY OF NEW TAXES
09/12/2010
Proposed student fees

CHAIR —Welcome. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Miss Uher —I would like to start by thanking the committee for the opportunity to contribute to this important Senate inquiry. As the committee would be aware from our submission, the Australian Liberal Students Federation, the ALSF, strongly opposes compulsory student services fees. I think it is extremely appropriate that student services fees and the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 be considered by the Senate Select Committee on the Scrutiny of New Taxes, for this legislation is a tax. It represents a $250 poll tax on students. All students will be forced to pay this fee, each charged the same amount regardless of their income for the life of their university study.

There are four broad reasons why the ALSF opposes this legislation. I will not go into a great deal of detail because you can find it in our submission, but I will outline them briefly. Firstly, this legislation and compulsory fees in general are inequitable. Every Australian university student will have to pay this fee, regardless of their income or ability to use the services provided. It is a fallacy to suggest that all university students, or even the majority, utilise the services their union provides. There are many students who attend university simply to gain an education and get their degree. They do not participate in clubs and societies, debates, university sports or other similar activities. This is clearly evident with students who study part time and rarely set foot on campus or those who study by correspondence and pretty much never set foot on campus. Under a compulsory fee system, these students are forced to contribute the same amount to student unions as those who regularly utilise the services their union provides. This is clearly inequitable and results in the activities of a few being subsidised by those who never take part in them. It is also students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are hardest hit by this fee, as these students often have to work multiple jobs to fund their education. They do not have the time to sit around on campus and drink subsidised beer. It is not fair that they are forced to pay for the activities of those who have the time to regularly engage in extracurricular activities.

Secondly, compulsory fees breed inefficiency, as student unions become reliant on compulsorily acquired funds, whether or not students like the services they are providing or the services are of a decent quality. This means that union office bearers have no accountability to students, as they can provide substandard services and promote extremist political causes without any risk of insolvency.

Thirdly, compulsory fees are completely contrary to the core Australian value of freedom of association. Compulsory fees and this legislation specifically represent compulsory student unionism, despite not forcing students to become members of their student union, because they are still forced to support their activities financially. This is almost worse than the old system of CSU because students are forced to hand over their money but do not receive any of the benefits of membership. For example, at the University of Sydney, my campus, the current fee to join the union is $99. If you wanted to receive any of the benefits of membership you would have to pay your $250 compulsory fee plus an additional $99, so $350 in total.

Finally, there is nothing that will prevent this money from being spent for political purposes, despite what the NUS and other proponents of this fee have argued. This is detailed in our submission, in paragraph 54. The bill explicitly prevents this fee from being spent to support the candidature of someone for local, state or federal government and also prevents money from being handed over to political parties. But it does not prevent money from going to third-party political organisations like GetUp!, unions or even my organisation, the ALSF. Although this bill provides a list of services that the fee can be spent on, this only applies to universities. Once they hand that money over to student unions then they become unregulated.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Miss Uher. The National Union of Students has just argued that this student tax is in fact not a tax, that it is like a HECS fee. What would be your comment in relation to that? Do you think that this student services fee is equivalent to a HECS fee?

Miss Uher —It is absolutely a tax. We have outlined this from paragraph six to 10 of our submission. I heard you defining it earlier and I agree with your definition. In the dictionary it says:

A tax is a financial impost placed on an individual or body by the state through legislative authority. Unlike a price or charge, it is a mandatory transfer of money from private to public hands on the basis of set criteria without reference to specific services …

As most tertiary institutions that were founded by legislation receive large sums of public money, they are in effect an arm of the state. So with the government, through legislation, levying a fee which universities collect for students, this is in effect a tax.

CHAIR —The National Union of Students has just suggested that lower income students are protected because the fee can be deferred. What would be your response to that?

Miss Uher —I think that is quite irrelevant. Despite the fact that it can be deferred, you still have to pay this money. So over the four years, on average, that a student attends university they would have to pay a minimum of $1,000 back after their degree. That is a computer. It is a substantial sum of money for students who have just graduated and are looking to go into the workforce.

CHAIR —In relation to part-time and external students, who may never have the opportunity to utilise student services, it would seem quite unfair for them to be forced to pay this tax, wouldn’t it?

Miss Uher —Absolutely. I heard the NUS arguing that student unions could if they wanted to charge them a different amount of money, but this has not been the case in the past. In the past, under compulsory fees, they had to pay the same amount of money as everyone else.

CHAIR —One of the criticisms of compulsory student unionism in the past has been the fact that student funds are used to support political causes. The government has argued—and indeed the NUS has argued this morning—that its legislation provides appropriate protections against that. You touched on it in your opening remarks, but can you go into some more detail on the reasons why you believe this legislation does not prevent the use of students’ money for political activities that they may not support?

Miss Uher —I have a copy of the legislation here. It states in section 19-38:

(1) A higher education provider must not spend an amount paid to the provider as a student services and amenities fee to support:

(a) a political party; or

(b) the election of a person as a member of:

(i) the legislature of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory; or

(ii) a local government body.

(2) If a higher education provider pays a person or organisation an amount paid to the provider as a student services and amenities fee, the provider must make the payment on the condition that none of the payment is to be spent by the person or organisation to support—

and it goes on to list those same things. So it explicitly states that if they hand over this money to a student union they must do it on the proviso that the student union does not spend the money on those things.

However, when it is talking about the itemised list it says, ‘A higher education provider must not spend, for a purpose other than that specified,’ but it does not talk about what happens when they hand it over. So, obviously, as implied by the bill, once this money is handed over to student unions, as long as they do not give it directly to a political party or to a candidate, they can spend it on pretty much whatever they want. That is the first problem.

The second problem is also unregulated profits, which Senator Williams touched on before. With the additional money that they are getting, if they start making more profits those profits can then be used for political purposes. Also, if they are running a healthcare service which is costing them $10,000 a year—and this applies to the itemised list—they can then use the money that was being spent originally on health care. That $10,000 can go to funding political activities now, through voluntary membership fees. Then they can use the additional funds they are getting from compulsory fees to make up that $10,000 that was being spent on health. So it is not providing extra revenue for these essential services; it is providing additional money to spend on political causes. Considering that the office bearers of student unions are generally student politicians and are highly political, this is what has occurred in the past and I am certain it will continue to occur in the future if this legislation is passed.

CHAIR —The NUS was unaware of any political campaigns it had supported in the past. Can you provide us with some examples of political causes that you are aware of that the NUS or its associated bodies may have supported in the past?

Miss Uher —Absolutely. I found that quite humorous. Only a couple of months ago, during the federal election, the National Union of Students ran a campaign across all universities called Abbott’s Heaven, Your Hell. The basic message of the campaign was that Abbott wants to send women back to the Dark Ages; he does not like women. They had a number of stunts on campus where girls were running around in chastity belts. This was clearly a politically motivated campaign to disadvantage the Liberal Party during a federal election. Incidentally, National Union of Students President Carla Drakeford is a Labor Party supporter. I am not sure if she is a financial member at the present time, but I am sure she has been in the past. So, clearly, that campaign was politically motivated. The same thing happened in 2004, I think, before VSU came in. The NUS was able to spend $250,000 campaigning against the Howard government.

CHAIR —In the context of compulsory student unionism, if you have a fee that applies to everyone, all students contribute funding to those sorts of campaigns, irrespective of whether or not they agree with the causes being promoted.

Miss Uher —Yes. That is absolutely correct. This is not a Liberal ideological hatred of unions, like many Labor senators have indicated in their speeches on this bill. I do not dispute the right of student unions to exist. I do not even dispute the right of student unions to be highly political if they want to be, provided that membership and financial support of that union is voluntary. If students know what their union is doing and they have the choice to support those activities then it is their right to join. For example, I joined my student union this year because under VSU it has remodelled itself into an organisation that actually provides benefits to students. I am involved in clubs and societies, so it is worthwhile for me to join my union. It is not an ideological hatred of unions.

CHAIR —But what you do not want is for your fees to be spent on causes that you do not support. You want to be able to choose which cause you are part of.

Miss Uher —Absolutely. The vast majority of students are apathetic to political causes and do not want to see their hard earned money being spent on things that either they do not care about or they are completely opposed to.

CHAIR —So this is what has happened in the past, even though the NUS did not seem to remember. Do you think that this could still happen in the future if this legislation became law?

Miss Uher —Absolutely. Nothing has changed about the nature of student union office bearers. They are still student politicians and they are still highly political.

CHAIR —What was the campaign, again, that they ran before the last election?

Miss Uher —Abbott’s Heaven, Your Hell.

CHAIR —And there were NUS people doing what?

Miss Uher —There were NUS representatives on campus in chastity belts saying that Tony Abbott was going to send women back to the Dark Ages if he was elected.

CHAIR —And if this bill were to become law, could it be that student funds could contribute to a campaign of a similar nature, in the lead-up to the next election?

Miss Uher —Absolutely. As I stated earlier, this money can be used to fund political causes. In 2004, the NUS spend a quarter of a million dollars campaigning against the Howard government. This year they could not spend as much because they do not have as much disposable income to play around with, but that could happen. I would bet money that it would happen.

CHAIR —The NUS has expressed concern that conflicts of interest or loss of independence has arisen from a shift from universities exercising broad regulatory control over student organisations to micromanaging student service delivery either through the establishment of university companies to deliver services or detailed service level agreements with student organisations. They link that back to the introduction of voluntary student unionism. Do you share their concerns?

Miss Uher —I think a little bit of scrutiny on student unions is not a bad thing. In the past you have seen countless incidents of waste and mismanagement of students’ money, corruption; all these sorts of things. I do not think it is necessarily a problem if the university are taking a greater role in monitoring what student unions are spending student money on.

CHAIR —Second last question: in your submission you suggest that in most cases where specific services or student unions have collapsed in recent years that this has been a result of student union mismanagement or incompetence rather than voluntary student unionism. Could you elaborate on that for us?

Miss Uher —The National Union of Students argues that there are certain services that student unions provide that are extremely vital to students. If that was the case then there would be a large number of students who would be willing to pay financially for these services if they provided a benefit to them. There is absolutely no reason why under VSU student unions cannot survive because there should be a broad support of certain services. Obviously, student unions are not going to survive if they are providing services that students do not want.

CHAIR —Nearly final question: has the ALSF done any research or are you aware of any research into how much student support there is for this tax?

Miss Uher —A couple of years after the introduction of VSU, the Democrats conducted a youth poll of students and their opinions of VSU. I think about 60 per cent supported VSU and the current arrangements. I would argue that that is in fact a lot higher.

CHAIR —In Western Australia there has been a tradition of voluntary student unionism for some time. How has that impacted on the quality or otherwise of student services in that state?

Miss Uher —I think at the University of Western Australia union membership is up around 60 per cent. They have operated under VSU for a longer period of time, so the unions there know that they need to provide services that students want. The unions there are pretty decent. The average student wants to join because they gain a benefit out of it. Their membership numbers are quite high, and VSU has been largely responsible for that.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Senator CAMERON —Miss Uher, you have said plenty about student unionism; you have not said much about the bill. Do you want to start addressing the bill that is before parliament; and can you talk about item 5 under schedule 1—that is the facilities that would be provided? Do you want to just go to that?

Miss Uher —Of the bill?

Senator CAMERON —Yes.

Miss Uher —Is this the itemised list of services you are referring to?

Senator CAMERON —Yes. Before I go to that—and I will come to that—why would the chancellors and vice-chancellors be supporting this bill?

Miss Uher —Firstly, student unions create a lot of noise on campus. In the past student unions have—

Senator CAMERON —Miss Uher, I am asking you about the bill; I am not asking about student unionism. You have been going on about student unionism since you have been here. This bill is not about student unionism, so can you concentrate on the—

Miss Uher —With all due respect, I completely disagree with you: this bill is all about student unionism.

Senator CAMERON —No, it is about services. If that is your mindset, I suppose that is your mindset. I am trying to deal with the bill, so could you deal with the bill?

Miss Uher —We will start with this: universities collect this money. I can promise you in the vast majority of cases, if not in all cases, they will hand this money over to student unions. This is why I am referring to student unions specifically—just to put that on the record. To answer your question more broadly: student unions create a lot of noise on campus. They create a lot of headaches for vice-chancellors if they are not getting the services and the fees they want. In the past—

Senator CAMERON —If that is the case, why do the chancellors and vice-chancellors support this legislation? If you are saying—

Miss Uher —Because they want student unions to have the money to keep them quiet. That is one of the factors.

Senator CAMERON —That is the motive, is it?

Miss Uher —Obviously, if a student union has incompetent office bearers and they are not able to manage their union properly and it collapses, they do not want to have to then prop up the services. That is a second reason. But the students should not be burdened with that if the union office bearers cannot effectively manage their organisation. If a service is vital to the completion of students’ degrees then it is the university’s responsibility to ensure that that is being provided to students. Student unions are not always the most effective body to be providing these services.

Senator CAMERON —I want to keep reminding you that this is not about student unions; it is about services.

CHAIR —I think Miss Uher has established the link quite well.

Senator CAMERON —I do not need your help, Chair.

CHAIR —I am chairing this meeting.

Senator CAMERON —I do not need your help. It does not look as though you are chairing the meeting.

CHAIR —I am chairing the meeting, Senator Cameron.

Senator CAMERON —I am entitled to ask my questions.

CHAIR —Indeed, you are.

Senator CAMERON —And you have a responsibility to allow me to do that and not interrupt me unnecessarily.

CHAIR —I think the witness has explained the link.

Senator CAMERON —If you would come back to these points. Is it appropriate that the fees can be spent on providing food and drink for students on campus?

Miss Uher —I do not know whether you were here earlier when I said these specific items here can be circumvented by clauses in the bill. As I have said, there is no reason why these things cannot be paid for by voluntary fees.

Senator CAMERON —That is not what I am asking you. To have voluntary fees is your predilection. What the parliament is looking at is a bill that will effectively provide these services. Are these services worth while or not?

Miss Uher —You would have to ask each individual student that. I guess it would be different on each campus.

Senator CAMERON —I am asking you. You have come here purportedly representing students. You have made lots of claims about how students feel. You cannot pick and choose when you have your point of view. I am asking you—

Miss Uher —No, but my point is that the university experience is different for each student. It is not the right of the government, me or you, to state that these are the things students need on campus. Because some students do not use any of those services; some use all of them. It is not our right to determine what the university experience is. That is why voluntary student unionism is effective because it is a user-pays system. If you want those things, you pay for them. If you do not use them, you do not pay for them.

Senator CAMERON —What about providing legal services to students and care for children of students? Are these worth while?

Miss Uher —You will find that the majority of childcare services are run by private operators on campuses, anyway. Legal services exist on most campuses, anyway, even though VSU is in. Counselling services still exist on campus. I do not think it is necessary to hit students with another tax to prop up services that already exist.

Senator CAMERON —I think you said earlier that student unions—because that is all you have really spoken about—act politically. Do you act politically?

Miss Uher —Yes. But, again, I do not think that students should be supporting my political activities if they do not want to.

Senator CAMERON —Just let me ask a question. Just calm down.

CHAIR —Let the witness answer.

Senator CAMERON —But I am asking the question. Is part of the Liberals’ political agenda on campus to defeat this bill?

Miss Uher —It is not a political agenda. I do not know whether you were here earlier when I was saying that it is not about the right of student unions to exist. They have every right to exist and they have every right to be political, if they want, provided that membership and financial support is voluntary.

Senator CAMERON —You said earlier in your submission that this is a poll tax on students. We have had advice from the Clerk of the Senate that it is not a tax. Can you tell me in terms of the Constitution how this is a tax?

Miss Uher —Again, I explained that earlier when Senator Cormann asked me this question. We have stated this in our submission, in No. 6. If you look at the definition of what a tax is, you will see it states: ‘A tax is a financial impost placed on an individual or body by the state through legislative authority. Unlike a price or charge, it is a mandatory transfer of money of set criteria without specific reference to services rendered.’

Senator CAMERON —So the Clerk of the Senate got it wrong.

CHAIR —Well, that is not exactly what the Clerk of the Senate said.

Miss Uher —I am not exactly sure what the Clerk of the Senate said, but in my personal opinion I would argue that this is a tax.

Senator CAMERON —The NUS have outlined this in a great deal of detail. Have you seen their submission?

Miss Uher —Yes, I have briefly looked at it.

Senator CAMERON —You briefly looked at it—just briefly. You did not think it would be important enough, given that they have set out a counterposition to many of your arguments about the effect of voluntary student unionism. You did not think it was important to read it?

Miss Uher —I am well aware of the arguments of the NUS. I have heard them on countless occasions over the past four years. I am highly sceptical of the arguments that the NUS make—

Senator CAMERON —No, it is not their arguments. I am asking you—

Miss Uher —and I am familiar with their submission. If you were going to refer to something specific in their submission, I may not be completely familiar with it but I have read it.

Senator CAMERON —In part 2 of their submission they do a campus by campus breakdown of the problems arising from voluntary student unionism. You have read that, have you? What do you say about Charles Sturt University and the arguments they have put there?

Miss Uher —As I said, I cannot rattle them off from the top of my head, but if you read them I can address them.

Senator CAMERON —Thirty staff were made redundant. There was a loss of independent academic rights advocacy. It goes on and on. There was the loss of a second-hand book service and increased prices in retail outlets on the university. Are you saying that is not correct?

Miss Uher —I am not completely familiar with the experience there.

Senator CAMERON —So you do not—

Miss Uher —However—

Senator CAMERON —Let’s just keep going. Never mind ‘however’. I am asking about specific aspects of this. At Macquarie University, independent student representation was curtailed and there was a loss of independent academic rights advocacy. Can you comment on Macquarie University?

Miss Uher —The Macquarie University student association collapsed due to corruption which occurred there a couple of years ago, so that was not the result of VSU.

Senator CAMERON —Were there charges laid?

Miss Uher —I am not sure if there were charges laid, specifically. I could take that on notice.

Senator CAMERON —If there was corruption, were there police charges?

Miss Uher —There was something specifically related to that. I can take that on notice, though.

Senator CAMERON —Okay, because it is a big thing to say ‘corruption’ if there was no legal action against people, so you have to be careful about what you say. At Southern Cross University 200 jobs were lost. Is that correct?

Miss Uher —I am not sure.

Senator CAMERON —You are not sure.

Miss Uher —Unfortunately, we do not have the resources of the National Union of Students in knowing these figures, but the jobs that have been—

Senator CAMERON —So in terms of their resources they are in a better position to put a submission to us than you are. Is that what you are saying?

Miss Uher —No, absolutely not.

Senator CAMERON —What are you saying?

Miss Uher —They can rattle off certain figures like that which they slant to their advantage, but they are grossly out of touch with the average student on campus, who we speak to and communicate with every day.

Senator CAMERON —Let’s go to some of this rattling off of figures that they put to us in their submission. At the University of Newcastle there was a reduction in sports and club membership, a severe reduction in the subsidy for participation in inter-university sport. There were fewer social and cultural events, the funding for postgraduate students was reduced, the parents room closed, print services were cut, the second-hand bookshop closed, emergency loans were cut, the weekly barbecue was reduced, there were increasing food costs on campus and the grievance officer was cut to part time. Is that correct, or is that just a rattling off of their prejudices? What is that?

Miss Uher —You are looking at it from the wrong point of view. What you need to do is look at why these services are collapsing in the first place.

Senator CAMERON —No—

Miss Uher —Yes—

CHAIR —Please let the witness answer the question. Senator Cameron, you have asked a question. Let the witness answer it.

Senator CAMERON —I want an answer to my question; I do not want the rattling off from that side—

Miss Uher —This is an answer to your question.

CHAIR —Senator Cameron, it is now up to the witness to answer the question. Please have the courtesy of letting the witness answer the question.

Miss Uher —You need to look at—

Senator CAMERON —Keep it short, because I have more.

Miss Uher —You cannot just say, ‘All these services have collapsed—it’s so terrible.’ You need to look at why these services are collapsing. In the vast majority of cases, they are collapsing because students do not want them or they do not use them. If they wanted them, if they were willing to pay for them voluntarily because they believed it would provide a benefit, the services would survive. This is the bottom line. You said that participation in university sport has decreased. Well, that is not the fault of VSU; that is because the students there did not want to engage in university sport.

Senator CAMERON —The National Union of Students, the chancellors and vice-chancellors are all saying that these are appropriate services to have in place. It is only the Liberal students that are saying they are not appropriate.

Miss Uher —You will find the vast majority of the average student will say that as well.

Senator CAMERON —If you could just let me finish.

CHAIR —Miss Uher.

Senator CAMERON —You seem to be the only body—and you are a political organisation—who want to try and destroy this legislative approach. Why are you the only group that are running this line, yet the chancellors, vice-chancellors and the NUS, who are the biggest student representative group, are supporting it?

Miss Uher —Because we are the only body that does not stand to gain any financial benefit from this legislation being passed. The National Union of Students will gain a vast amount of money from this legislation coming into effect. Student organisations on campus will stand to gain a vast amount of money from this legislation being passed. Universities will gain more money from this legislation being passed. This is why they are in favour of this fee. This is why we are taking a more impartial road and looking at what the average student actually believes. If you ask the average student on campus, they do not want to pay this tax. They believe that they should be able to choose how they spend their money and what their university experience is.

Senator CAMERON —Are you seriously trying to tell me you are taking an impartial view?

Miss Uher —Yes.

Senator CAMERON —You are?

Miss Uher —Yes.

Senator CAMERON —Okay, let us go to the University of New England. Their staff has been reduced from 94 to 56 since 2006, they have no direct staff support for student representation, student advocacy services are gone, student representation has been de-prioritised, they have lost the publication of the student newspaper, loss of transport for external students, loss of external student social receptions, loss of student barbecues, minimal support for clubs and societies. Does this show that VSU is operating effectively? That does not seem to me that it is operating in New England. I have been there and had a look at it and it is just terrible.

Miss Uher —I have also been to the University of New England and it is a campus that I am quite familiar with. I completely disagree with that assessment. I will rattle off some of the services that they have at UNE. They have a second-hand bookshop, they do have advocacy services, they have employment assistance, they have accommodation assistance, they have tax assistance, they have a student radio station, numerous parties and events at the bar, counselling and career services, student financial assistance, a chaplaincy, an Aboriginal centre, international student office, a medical centre, clubs and societies, student elections, as well as various sporting clubs and sporting facilities.

Senator CAMERON —Did you have a look at the facilities that are lying empty and not being used when you were there?

Miss Uher —When I was there the facilities were being used and the students there were saying that they have actually improved since VSU.

Senator CAMERON —What facilities?

Miss Uher —They have an indoor heated pool, squash courts, tennis courts, fields.

Senator CAMERON —What about the bar facilities.

CHAIR —Are you saying this is funding bar facilities?

Senator CAMERON —No, there are social facilities there. I am sure you have been to university. The facilities were used for dances and all sorts of things. The lot are basically locked up.

Miss Uher —I am not sure when you were there but as far as I am aware the bar is still used—

Senator CAMERON —Twelve months ago.

Miss Uher —and parties still take place.

Senator CAMERON —So, you do not really know much detail.

Miss Uher —I think I just gave you a comprehensive list.

CHAIR —She just gave you a list.

Senator CAMERON —Can you just let me ask the questions.

CHAIR —How can you say the witness does not know?

Senator CAMERON —You are not asking me questions. You took up most of the time as the chair.

CHAIR —I have had 15; you have taken 20.

Senator CAMERON —You have taken up most of the time as the chair.

CHAIR —You have been on for 20 now.

Senator CAMERON —I may have some more questions on notice that I might send to you. Thank you.

Miss Uher —No worries. Thank you, Senator.

Senator WILLIAMS —Senator Cameron said the vice-chancellors of 39 agree with this student levy being introduced. Didn’t the 39 vice-chancellors also agree with the now Prime Minister and former education minister’s change to the independent youth allowance?

Miss Uher —I am not specifically aware of the youth allowance.

Senator WILLIAMS —They wrote to all of the senators saying to support the changes—

Miss Uher —Which disadvantaged rural and regional students.

Senator WILLIAMS —which we blocked in the Senate and we finally included the outer and remote regions into the old scheme of independent youth allowance. Unfortunately we could not get the inner regions in. The vice-chancellors supported that change which made it harder for regional students to get to university. The point I make is that the vice-chancellors are not always correct. Would you agree?

Miss Uher —Absolutely. Like I said earlier, there are a variety of reasons why the vice-chancellors are supporting this legislation and a large one is the level of noise that student unions do make on campus. I pointed out an example earlier where the student union at Murdoch or Monash—I will take on notice what university it occurred at—bought an axe and used it to try to break into the vice-chancellor’s office. They jump up and down and create a lot of noise if they do not feel they are getting the right amount of money or support. It is very much in the interests of the vice-chancellor to keep them quiet and happy, first of all. Certainly, in the minority of cases where student unions have not been able to remodel themselves under VSU they have had to then provide services to students that are essential for the completion of their degree. There is that financial issue too.

Senator WILLIAMS —I have a distinct interest in the University of New England as I live at Inverell near Armidale. It was the Country Party and National Party that started the university. During the abolition of the compulsory student levy $85 million was collected by the government—I expect through Senator Barnaby Joyce—and it was distributed to those universities that may suffer some loss, and $6 million went to the UNE. That was the greatest amount that went to all universities in Australia. Are you familiar with that?

Miss Uher —No, I am not.

Senator WILLIAMS —So $6 million was given to the University of New England and I believe they built a new grandstand at one of the sporting facilities with some of the money. Senator Cameron says that at the University of New England things like dances are no longer carried out. Do you really need a student union body to organise a dance? Can’t students in leadership roles organise a dance? Why do you have to have a levy to have a dance?

Senator CAMERON —That is why you are a farmer!

Senator WILLIAMS —I will show you my wedding dance soon.

CHAIR —I am sure Senator Williams would have organised a great dance in his day.

Miss Uher —This is correct, and this is part of my point. It is a fallacy to say that a student union is always the best organisation to be providing different services. Sometimes the private sector is the best—

Senator CAMERON —Chair, I have a point of order. This inquiry is not about student unionism; this inquiry is about the bill. All we are getting from Miss Uher is a constant venting of her spleen against student unionism.

CHAIR —Senator Cameron, there is no point of order. I think Miss Uher has very eloquently established a link between this legislation and student unionism.

Senator WILLIAMS —Are you familiar with the report by the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations that was tabled on 10 March 2009? It states:

The committee majority recommends that universities, in taking responsibility for the management of the fee levy, be required to accept the advice of student representative bodies in regard to expenditure priorities and disbursement of funds ...

The Labor senators are saying in that that, when a levy is collected, the administration must abide by where the student union says the money must be spent. Are you familiar with that?

Miss Uher —Yes. Although the bill is slightly different this time around and has this itemised list of services, I explained earlier how that could be overridden. I will explain it again. It specifically bans this money from going to a political party or to a candidate for local, state or federal government. It states that, with reference to higher education providers, they cannot hand over that money to a student organisation—so, presumably, a student union—if they are going to spend that money on those purposes. It then talks about the itemised list of services. It says that higher education providers cannot spend it on anything else other than these items—whatever they are—but it does not make any reference to those items once they are handed over to student unions. So they cannot spend it on a candidate for local, state or federal government or a political party, but then they can pretty much do what they want with it after that.

Senator WILLIAMS —Which means that they could print how-to-vote cards, core flutes and political pamphlets and buy T-shirts and caps and then students could go down to the polling booth and represent one particular party on election day; is that correct?

Miss Uher —They could not do it specifically for a candidate, but they could do a broader range campaign against the government. For example, they could have supported the Work Choices campaign or they could have given money to a trade union or to GetUp! for the various campaigns that they organise, or they could simply be there campaigning against a candidate but not in favour of a candidate.

Senator WILLIAMS —Senator Cameron gave an example; I believe there is not a bar at the University of New England now. Could the student body say, ‘We want money out of this levy to establish a bar’? Could they do that?

Miss Uher —Yes.

Senator WILLIAMS —Okay. Then the profits of that bar—the takings, the net profit—could then go into the NUS or whoever is running the bar, okay?

Miss Uher —Yes. The profits will be completely unregulated.

Senator WILLIAMS —Then the NUS could decide where they would distribute their profits—nothing to do with this levy. So it is a roundabout case that they could raise funds and use those funds for whatever they like.

Miss Uher —That is correct.

Senator WILLIAMS —Do you know if the NUS has ever made any political donations? Have you ever heard anything about that?

Miss Uher —I am not sure about a specific political donation but, as I stated earlier, this year they ran a campaign called Abbott’s Heaven, Your Hell during the federal election this year, clearly against the Liberal Party, stating that Tony Abbott was sexist and that he was going to take women back to the Dark Ages. They had girls running around in chastity belts on campus and student money was spent on this campaign. In 2004, before VSU and before they had tighter scrutiny on their money, they were able to spend a quarter of a million dollars campaigning against the federal government.

Senator WILLIAMS —That is amazing. Did they donate to GetUp! do you know?

Miss Uher —I am not sure about that. But the affiliation fees of university unions to the NUS is massive. At Sydney University last year I think it was about $94,000.

Senator WILLIAMS —So in summary, Miss Uher—and I do thank you for your attendance today—the legislation says that none of the fees collected can be used for political donations, but surely it is the case that the student body, the student union, could set up a bar or a coffee shop, reap the profits out of that retail business and then donate however they like as far as political campaigns go.

Miss Uher —That is absolutely correct.

Senator WILLIAMS —That would be very concerning for many.

Miss Uher —Absolutely.

Senator WILLIAMS —You would see a compulsory levy, in a roundabout way, coming back to source profits that could be then donated to any sort of political campaign.

Miss Uher —This is the point with compulsory student services fees in general, which this inquiry is looking at. There is really no way in which you can prevent them from being spent on political activities, for the reason you have just stated: profits are unregulated.

Senator WILLIAMS —I am familiar with it, because in January 1970 I went shearing in the Flinders Ranges. We had just had a state election in South Australia where the then Premier, Don Dunstan, said, ‘unionism is not compulsory’. A rep came into the shed and said to me, ‘It is not compulsory. Either buy a ticket or leave the shed.’ So I have been familiar with compulsory unionism in a roundabout way myself. Thanks for your time.

CHAIR —In the two minutes left, Senator Cameron put to you that you were a political organisation. Of course you are. But do you force students on campus to pay a fee to support your political cause?

Miss Uher —Absolutely not. Membership of our organisation is voluntary.

CHAIR —And what you are opposed to is not political activism on campus. Whatever the views, what you are opposed to is people being forced to fund causes that they might not support. Is that right?

Miss Uher —Absolutely. Like I said earlier, I believe in unions funding whatever political causes they want, provided that membership is voluntary and financial support of that organisation is voluntary. Then it is the student’s right to decide whether that is something that they support or not. Even if the ALSF was running a student union, I would not support compulsory fees to it, because I do not believe in forcing students to sign up to my personal beliefs. It is all about freedom of choice.

CHAIR —What is the beneficial effect of voluntary student unionism for individual students across campuses?

Miss Uher —Firstly, it is the freedom to choose how they spend their money. Secondly, student services then become demand oriented, and they have also got that level of accountability. So student unions have to provide services that students want in order to survive. So you see better quality services, less money spent on political campaigns and activism that students do not care about, more money spent on clubs and societies, greater food outlets on campus with greater choice, better quality, more vibrant parties, more vibrant clubs and societies—

Senator CAMERON —Point of order, Chair. Time is just about up on this, but I must say, Miss Uher, that that completely contradicts the evidence that you gave me. You do not know these things and you should not be giving contradictory evidence.

Miss Uher —I know the vast majority of campuses—

CHAIR —That is not a point of order. I asked Miss Uher a very specific question as to what the benefits are.

Miss Uher —That is the case on the vast majority of campuses and it is what the vast majority of students currently in Australia experience.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your very good presentation to the committee today.

[10.00 am]