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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4879

Senator MASON (1:40 PM) —It is simple: the coalition opposes the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009 because we do not believe that students should be forced to pay for services that they will not or cannot use. For the opposition this has always been a very important matter of principle. Yet those who sponsor this bill do not seem to understand that the university world has changed under their feet. Changing demography and culture mean that most students today simply do not have the time, the inclination or even the opportunity to use the services offered. Universities have changed enormously since the issue of voluntary student unionism was first raised back in the 1970s, over 35 years ago, yet the mindset of the government is stuck back in the 1970s. The universities of today are mainstream. They are not elite. They are no longer, if they ever were, finishing schools for the genteel middle class. Today more students are older and many more study part-time and in the evenings due to competing work and family commitments. Many more take advantage of greater flexibility and competition as well as opportunities that new communications technologies bring to study externally.

The government, the sponsor of this bill, assumes that universities are filled with 18- to 22-year-olds who are studying full-time on campus. This is wrong; it is totally wrong. Today mature-age students are reskilling and attending at far greater rates than when I was at university. I will refer quickly to page 70 of the Bradley review report, the report of the Australian Higher Education Review in December last year, and to table 8. It shows for 2007 mature-age students—that is, students 21 or over—constitute 66.2 per cent of the total student population. That is nearly two-thirds over 21. Full-time students now are only 46.7 per cent of the total student population, considerably less than half. The world has changed. Moreover, the government’s own push—it is even a noble push—for greater student access and equity will ensure that there will be many, many more students from disadvantaged backgrounds coming to university. That is a good thing, but they too will be juggling work and study and yet the government, who says it represents them, will expect them to pay for the rent seekers and those that believe their interests should be subsidised by everyone else. It will have the disadvantaged students, whom it wants to come to university, paying for other people’s services. From the government there is no sense of hypocrisy or paradox at all—none. The university world has well and truly changed. We live today in a credentials culture. Today’s students see their higher education much more as a way to gain credentials rather than as a way to chalk up the so-called university experience on their personal development CV. Just as people go to work not to socialise, students go to universities to gain education, not to while away their free time on extracurricular activities.

The government seems to assume that students today live among the dreaming spires in some sort of re-run of Chariots of Fire or Brideshead Revisited. That is not what happens on modern university campuses. It certainly does not happen at the University of Western Sydney. It does not happen at the university where I taught—Queensland University of Technology. The world has changed. Young people do not do that anymore. In my own office I have four students—all studying part-time and working full-time or part-time. Not one of them has any access to the services that this bill will make them pay for.

Again I refer to Bradley review commissioned by the government. Professor Bradley concludes on page 49:

In 2006 nearly 71 per cent of full-time domestic undergraduate students reported working during semester.

Seventy-one per cent!

On average these students were working about 15 hours per week. One in six of the full-time undergraduate students who was working during the semester were working more than 20 hours per week.

Yet the government expects them to pay for services that they cannot and will not use. This trend will only continue. More students will be working while they are studying and more will be older. Increasingly, students do not have the time to access the student services that they are expected by this government to pay for. Even those students—and it is a minority of students now—aged between 18 and 22 are a very different group than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago, when I was at university. Generation Y, which accounts for the bulk of university students at the moment, is less collectivist, less committed to institutionalised civil society, whether inside or outside the walls of the university. That is a great comparison, in contradistinction, to their parents, the baby boomers. They would much rather and much more readily join a group on Facebook than a group at university. They are still interested in sports, hobbies and activities, but they are more inclined to organise and customise their own free time than to rely on student unions to do it for them. Social networking is easier and less formal than it once was. Generation Y does not need student unions to organise their time for them. That is a huge change. Universities have changed. The government does not appreciate this. The culture and the demography of universities have changed. Students at universities have changed. They are older; they are more mature; they work. They cannot take advantage of these services, which they are supposed to pay for.

The old debate about forcing students to pay for services they will not or cannot use is grounded in an understanding of universities that is not one but now two generations old. It is absolutely outdated. It totally misunderstands the life of the modern student in Australian universities. Government is still pushing this outdated, collectivist claptrap from the 1970s. Believe me—I taught at a university—the world has changed. The profile of the average student today has changed totally in the last 20 years. Most students, unlike student politicians, are not interested in student unions or the services student unions provide. Fifty-nine per cent of students voted against compulsory fees in a poll commissioned by the Australian Democrats. At most only five per cent of students ever even vote in student union elections. This debate is totally an insiders’ debate. The only ones interested in it seem to be Labor politicians who cut their ideological milk teeth at university. No-one else is interested in it: Ms Gillard and Ms Ellis, who introduced this bill in the House of Representatives—what a coincidence! They learned something, anyway. They were socialists then, became economic conservatives but now what are they? Reborn social democrats. At least they learned about ideological promiscuity, if nothing else!

Services and activities provided by the student unions are superfluous. These services already exist and are being provided first by the universities themselves, second by the government and third by the non-government voluntary sector. Many of them are free, others are heavily subsidised and all of them are available to university students without prejudice or discrimination. Whether it be cafeterias, child care, welfare advice, medical services, legal services, counselling or sporting activities—everyone is entitled to use them. When people outside of university need help, they go to Centrelink or to legal aid or any number of non-government organisations such as Lifeline. When people outside of university are interested in a pastime, an activity or a sport, what do they do? They join a club, they pay some money and they all contribute money to the common pool towards their club or their association. That is what everyone does in this community. But somehow students are supposed to be treated differently to everyone else. Students do not expect everyone in their suburb, for example, to be forced to pay a levy or a tax so that they can enjoy beer appreciation or rugby union. Students do not expect to be treated differently to anyone else. A compulsory fee forces students to pay for often a second-rate duplicate of services that already exist.

The government’s bill is premised on a false analogy. Proponents of compulsory fees like to use this analogy: that universities or student unions are really akin to local government. They provide valuable services at the local level and therefore need to tax everyone within their catchment area to pay for these services. In other words, services provided on a university campus are paid for not by the users of that service but by everyone enrolled at the university. The argument is self-serving and it is patently false. In Australia we only have three tiers of government: federal, state and local. There is no fourth tier of student union government. Just as all of us here in parliament, whether we are Liberals, socialists, economic conservatives or former economic conservatives, we all recognise that only the state should have the monopoly on the legitimate use of force in our society. So we should all recognise that only the state should have the monopoly on taxation. Student unions might produce a disproportionate number of Labor Party politicians, but it does not make them governments nor does it give them the right to tax every student at a university.

But it gets worse. If you look specifically at the legislation, despite all the rhetoric and all the talk from the government over several months now about how this bill will clean up the use of student funds, the system still remains open to political abuse and is devoid of effective enforcement mechanisms. That is the problem. Even on the terms of the government’s bill, while it is true on the face of it that the bill prohibits student groups from spending in support of political parties or political candidates, there is nothing at all to prevent the money being spent on political campaigns or political causes per se whether the students whose money is being spent agree with it or not.

Senator Cormann —That is what it is all about.

Senator MASON —Indeed; that is right. None of us here have a problem about giving money to any group, but I do not want my money spent on a group that does not support my interests. I repeat: there is nothing to prevent money raised compulsorily from students from being used in support of political causes. Nothing in this bill does that; nothing. Under this bill, using student funds for, for example, the Your Rights at Work campaign would be fine; that would be okay. You could not give the money to the ALP, but you could give it to the Your Rights at Work campaign. What does that mean about this bill? It means that this bill does not do what they said it would do. Money will be creamed off from students who have no interest in it and be given to groups who will use it for political purposes. You can even give the money to a union if you want to under this bill, because they are not a political party of a candidate. We could give it to the AWU, the SDA or the CFMEU. There is nothing in the bill to stop that or prohibit that. That is a distinct failing of this legislation.

I agree that while money compulsorily acquired from students could no longer be used for the PLO, as it was in my day—I am sure that Senator Conroy remembers those days; I suppose that is Hamas today—because the argument might be made that Hamas is a terrorist organisation. But what is to stop money compulsorily acquired from students being given to one of those very trendy but very violent anti-globalisations groups—those groups that go around smashing Starbucks and McDonald’s while wearing hoodies and so forth; those sorts of groups? What is to stop money compulsorily acquired from students being used for those purposes? I will tell you the answer: nothing. Sure, you cannot give it to the ALP, the Liberal Party or the National Party. But you can give it to trade unions, the Your Rights at Work campaign and all other manner of political causes. This bill does not fix that mischief, and that is its great failing. The bill missed the problem. The issue was never ever about giving money to political parties; it was all about giving money for political causes—extreme and minority causes at that.

But even with a prohibition on the direct support of political parties and candidates, one has to wonder how this prohibition will actually be policed. Neither the bill nor the guidelines made pursuant to the bill provide any credible enforcement or sanction mechanism. The bill merely states that it is up to the universities to ensure that the money is not spent on political parties and candidates without providing universities with any powers at all to enforce it. So the bill fails again. Not only does it not stop money being used for political causes but even when money is given to political parties directly there are no enforcement mechanisms for universities to enforce it. On the face of the government’s bill, it is a double failure. Even if the very narrow terms are breached, what is the process by which the bill is enforced? What are the sanctions? Who policies it? The act and the guidelines are silent on that. That is an appalling legislative failure.

Put simply, the bill does not reflect the nature of modern student life and the modern student. Except for a few aspiring Labor politicians, I know very few students who hang around universities all day in the student union. They might have 20 or 30 years ago, but they are too busy these days. Every young person I know who is studying at university is working; they have jobs. The make up of the student population today is very different. They nearly all work and they are much older.

Senator Chris Evans —Much older?

Senator MASON —Much older. There is a fundamental problem with the bill. The argument has been going for 30 years and it has always been about stopping money compulsorily acquired by student unions from being used for political causes. And the problem is that this bill still does not prohibit that. There is nothing to stop money being compulsorily acquired from Australian students being used for, for example, trade unions, for the Your Rights at Work campaign or for those very trendy anti-globalisation groups—the hoodie wearers who run around trashing McDonald’s and Starbucks. There is nothing at all to stop that money, which is compulsorily acquired, being used for those purposes. That is the great failure. Even under the terms of the bill, there are no effective enforcement mechanisms or sanctions—none at all. The bill fails firstly to enforce itself, as there are no sanctions, and, secondly, it certainly does not stop the compulsory acquisition of student money for political causes. After 35 years, this lot have learnt nothing. They are still mired in the mid-1970s with this collectivist sludge.