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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 3

Dr NELSON (Minister for Education, Science and Training) (9:11 AM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

In its first term of office this government extended the principle of freedom of association to the Australian workplace. Freedom of association is a basic right that should be available to each and every Australian.

At present that is not the case, Mr Speaker, with students at Australia’s higher education institutions still denied the right to freedom of association. Students have fewer freedoms than other Australians, because almost all of them must join a student organisation when they enrol at university. They also must pay for amenities, facilities and services that they do not use and in many cases do not want.

Mr Speaker, this bill will give students the right to freedom of association, allowing students the right to join student organisations but, equally, the right not to.

From 2006, no student will be compelled to join a student organisation, union or guild, unless they choose to. In addition, no student will be compelled to pay a fee to an institution for non-academic amenities, facilities or services unless they choose to pay a fee to make use of those services.

This bill now before us will amend the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to insert additional ‘fairness’ provisions into the quality and accountability requirements that apply to all higher education providers. These fairness requirements will ensure that institutions cannot require a student to be a member of a student association, union or guild. They will also ensure that students are not required by their provider to pay any fees to it or any other entity for the provision of an amenity, facility or service that is not of an academic nature.

These fairness requirements are a condition of the grants that are made to higher education providers and a condition of continued approval as a higher education provider under the act.

Mr Speaker, the government’s intentions are clearly articulated in this bill. Higher education providers are not to require their students to join a student association, and they are not to require a student to pay for amenities, facilities and services unless a student has chosen to use them or join them.

The bill provides that institutions that receive grants under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme may have their grant reduced if they are found in breach of these conditions.

The bill does not intend to disrupt normal university operations. This bill will not impact on institutions’ ability to collect fines and penalties for breach of the institutions’ statutes, by-laws and regulations. It will also not impact on institutions’ ability to collect fees for goods or services essential to a course of study but that are available for purchase through other providers, for example musical instruments, stethoscopes and artwork.

What this bill will do is put non-academic services onto a basis that allows them to operate without forcing students who do not use them to subsidise them.

Students will purchase or organise in support of the services that they want. Commercial enterprises, as in the rest of the Australian community, will be effective providers of services for which there is demand. Many voluntary organisations and cooperatives thrive based simply on mutual support for agreed objectives. Sporting clubs operate on this basis throughout the country.

Australian students currently pay between $100 and $590 a year in union fees as a condition of enrolment. This is a significant sum. These fees are unconnected to students’ academic courses and are charged with little regard for their ability to pay. Ironically, it is those that regularly and vigorously oppose changes to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme who argue so passionately for the right to compulsorily require up-front fees from their fellow students for services they may not need nor want.

Student services are an essential part of university life, but why can’t these things be funded by choice?

For example, why is a single mother who is training to be a nurse paying for the canoeing club or the mountaineers? Every year—indeed, every month—I receive letters from students and their parents rightly angry that they have no choice in paying union fees. Even angrier is the growing army of fully online students who don’t even set foot on campus but who also have to cough up for student ‘services’.

Many students believe, as the government does, that no student should be forced to become a member of a student union. Nor should they be forced to financially contribute to a student or service organisation when they are either opposed to its activities or indifferent to its services.

The government is committed to the principle of freedom of association. Australian higher education students should enjoy the same rights on campus as they enjoy off campus. This bill will give them those rights.

There will obviously be a debate ensuing on this bill. I expect that in parts it will be emotional and uninformed in some quarters. I will read into Hansard an excerpt from a letter sent to the member for Cook by a constituent. It says:

I also write as a concerned parent of a daughter who is doing her nursing degree at Uni of W Syd. As a single parent pensioner with 2 children and a mortgage left to her by an adulterous husband she is finding the going very tough. However, always wanting to be a nurse from way back she took the opportunity.

When enrolling this year she was asked for $300 Student Union fees. When she objected due to lack of money she was told she wouldn’t get her exam results or be able to do her clinical training. Reluctantly she paid although the benefits seemed very minimal ...

It turned out that of the 6 universities in Sydney 3000 students couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. They received notification that if they didn’t pay their $300 PLUS a $100 fine they would be dis-enrolled from the university.

This seems monstrous and I would like to know how a Student Union can dictate to the university. I was under the impression that this government encouraged voluntary union membership. What has gone wrong?

Another correspondent to the Prime Minister said in part:

Some of the things that my money has been spent on in the past year include a bus to Woomera for a protest, a sausage sizzle and balloons to protest the Tampa incident and bail for those arrested for the aforementioned Woomera protest. How is this furthering my education?

Indeed, how does any of that further the education of those students? This is the 21st century. Those of us who live on planet commonsense fail to understand why it is that, in this century, in a climate where services are made available in a free, open and competitive society, students wanting an education are compulsorily required to join a union, to be represented in a way or to receive services that they may neither want, expect or use. The government is extremely committed to making sure that the choice in Australian universities is no less than applies in the rest of Australian society.

The good news for the National Union of Students and for the Australian Labor Party is that all of those students who are clamouring so loudly, supported by the members opposite, to see that student union contributions continue will be able to continue to pay their fees. There is no law banning any Australian student from making a contribution to a student union, but it is long past time that those students had a choice. I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Snowdon) adjourned.