BILLS;Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010;Second Reading – 19 Sep 2011

It is with pleasure I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. This bill delivers on the Gillard government’s election commitment to rebuild important university student services and to ensure that students have representation on campus. This bill is a component of the Gillard govern­ment’s education revolution, which will not only help ensure the delivery of quality student services but also help secure their futures. I listened quite carefully to the previous speaker, and I do not think she actually understands the content of the bill. What I heard for a good half of her speech was a lot of vitriol but no substance—just more negativity about this government. I do not think she has actually spoken to too many students. It is shameful that coalition members still do not understand that university support services can help ease the stress for many students. It is shameful that they do not understand that these support services can make a significant difference between students completing their studies or not completing them. It is shameful that the coalition remains in an ideologically extreme position while the Gillard government advocates a new and balanced way forward.

This bill is the result of extensive consultation with the higher education sector in 2008—extensive consultation. I doubt that those on the other side even spoke to students. Those consultations found that approximately $170 million had been stripped from funding for services and amenities in the higher education area.

Senator Cash interjecting

 Senator BILYK: Who was responsible for stripping that $170 million from the higher education area? It was the Howard government. It is a shame that Senator Cash was not a member of the Howard government; she might have actually stood up and supported the students, because she has got this born-again fervour about what she believes students want. I doubt she would know a student if she tripped over one, let alone consulted with one. As I said, those consultations found that approximately $170 million had been stripped from funding for services and amenities in the higher education area. It is shameful that members of the coalition believe that it is acceptable to undermine the quality of our higher education institutions, because all students suffer when universities are forced to shift funding away from teaching and research. This obviously has a negative impact, compromising the service for which the money was originally meant.

What services and amenities are we talking about here? I heard the previous speaker mention child care. What she did not mention was that the reduction in funding by the Howard government stopped students from being able to access child care at university. We did not hear that from the previous speaker. She did go on for quite a while about child care but she did not seem to want to throw that into the argument. Other services that we are talking about include dental services, Centrelink advice services, legal services, welfare services and athlete support programs. These are all fundamental services to help students through university life and to help them participate in the university community. There is a community at university, and I do not think those on the other side have ever found it.

This bill has support from organisations that matter. I did not hear that in the arguments of those opposite. Universities Australia, the peak industry representing the university sector, said:

Universities have struggled for years to prop up essential student services through cross-subsidisation from other parts of already stretched university budgets, to redress the damage that resulted from the Coalition Government’s disastrous Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.

On 3 November 2008 the Group of Eight, the coalition of leading Australian universities, stated:

The Federal government’s decision to allow universities to support essential student services through the collection of a modest fee is a sensible compromise that will enhance the quality of Australia’s higher education system.

Studies conducted by Universities Australia in regard to voluntary student unionism showed that universities struggle to prop up essential services, and this is because of the need, as I have mentioned, for cross-subsidisation. This is a direct negative result of the Howard government’s disastrous VSU legislation. Cross-subsidisation has resulted in budget cuts in teaching, learning and research budgets. Add to that the degrading levels of public funding for higher education from the former Howard government and it is no surprise that staff to student ratios have risen from 1 to 12 in 1990 to 1 to 20 today. They are figures that were given to me by people I did consult with on this issue—the National Union of Students.

Whilst this bill ensures access to vital campus services at threat from VSU, the bill is not a return to compulsory student unionism. This bill will require higher edu­cation providers that receive Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding to comply with a new set of Student Services, Amenities, Representation and Advocacy Guidelines. Under the new National Student Representation and Advocacy Protocols, students will have access to advocacy support services to support student appeals, and help for students who may need extra assistance on matters that can be at times overwhelming. The national access to services benchmarks will ensure important health, welfare and financial services.

In addition, the National Student Representation and Advocacy Protocols will ensure an opportunity for student organisa­tions to have an independent voice. Through these protocols, student organisations should be able to have the opportunity to voice their concerns though national bodies such as the National Union of Students, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations and the National Liaison Committee for International Students in Australia Inc.—who present the true student view to the state and federal governments as well as education, welfare, immigration and public transport depart­ments, parliamentary committees, peak sector bodies and the media.

The Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Upfront Student Union Fees) Act 2005, as implemented by the previous Howard government, prevents a compulsory fee for facilities, amenities and services that are not of an academic nature. It is obvious that universities have been dealt a great blow from the previous Howard government’s VSU legislation. The Gillard Labor govern­ment is committed to restoring essential medical, health and dental centres, advocacy and support services, shops, car parking facilities and accommodation facilities at a reasonable price to students. As I have said, VSU has resulted in services which were once provided at an affordable price, rising to a cost well above the consumer price index. We must remember that universities are not a private club, nor are they an industrial relations setting. Student unions do not have signs on the door saying ‘members’ only’—and nor should they. They should be inclusive and welcoming to all students. Yet many students are suspicious of the word ‘union’, as are all those opposite. This suspicion has only been encouraged by the former Howard government, with its obsession to destroy the union movement and any organisation that might have the word ‘union associated with it.

Student unions strive to independently represent students throughout their student lives. It is the backbone of student life and the Gillard Labor government is keen to restore it. Unfortunately students are the ones that have paid the ultimate price for the Howard government’s VSU legislation, financially, vocally and culturally.

The global financial crisis has reminded Australians of the need to maintain strong economic performance. Australia is fortunate in that we have a skilled and educated workforce. However, compared with other OECD countries Australia’s higher education ranking fell from seventh in 1996 to ninth under the previous government. It is shameful that, while Australia prospered from the resources boom, the previous government saw fit to make life more difficult for many people across Australia to access university.

In February 2008 the government undertook consultations and invited stake­holders to lodge a formal submission on the impact of the then current VSU policy and findings were published in TheImpact of Voluntary Student Unionism on Services, Amenities and Representation for Australian University Students summary report. The report found that: the abolition of fees had the greatest impact for student organisations at smaller and regional universities and it forced student organisations to rationalise services; many universities gave assistance but had to redirect funds from teaching, learning or research through service level agreements; VSU had a lessening effect of the vibrancy, diversity and, to an extent, attractiveness of university life; and VSU again resulted in a reduced capacity for student advocacy and democratic student representation. In some cases some universities reported the dissolving of their student union, which I know would make those on the other side happy.

Opposition senators interjecting

 Senator BILYK: I can see Senator Cash nearly jumping out of her seat with excitement over that. At other campuses outlets such as cafes have had to become self-funding or profitable. Discounted lunches are a thing of the past with an average lunch special at a uni cafe or refectory costing more than $6, rising from as cheap as $2.50 almost overnight after 1 July 2006. And you have the gall to come in here and tell us you care about students.

The first funding rationalisations were obviously job cuts. Jobs were slashed at a rate of at least 20 per cent across the country, and there was no exception within my home state of Tasmania in the University of Tasmania, or UTAS, student organisations. At the two UTAS student organisations 10 jobs were lost. You care about students, you care about people, you just do not care if you slash their jobs. It is part of that Work Choices program you have on the backburner ready to drag out. The former student association also faced a loss of at least three staff prior to its merger with the TUU. Budgets for expenditure and capital works were slashed as well with some facilities either closing or continuing to operate in a dismal state of affairs.

UTAS has worked hard to keep the cultural life of the university alive through an enthusiastic student activities focus and the inevitable merger of the two student unions. As student groups folded across the country the TUU and the SA worked hard to keep student life alive prior to VSU. One of the challenges was the ownership of student services. Both the TUU and the SA felt that the student union should be student driven. Students over the years have realised the importance of student activities. It is simply amazing to note how many comedians got their start in a university review, how many athletes participated in university games and sporting endeavours, how many politicians from an array of political parties were once student politicians and how many journalists started off editing the campus newspaper or producing student radio. Indeed, the Tasmanian government’s Premier, Lara Giddings, once performed in the Tasmanian uni revue. Charles Woolley first put pen to paper when he wrote for the UTAS publication, Togatus.

There have been many comments made from those on the other side and, as I said, I found their views fairly limited. They did not actually care about the students. What they cared about was political point-scoring against the Gillard government. They did not once mention the $170 million that they cut from services and amenities in the higher education area when Howard was in government. They have a paranoia about anything to do with any type of union or anything that has the name ‘union’ associated with it.

These funding cuts have been the result of the hatred of student unions by the former Howard government. You hate the student unions and you were going to do whatever you could to get rid of them. What the Howard government did not value was the fact that student activities had enormous public benefits following on from teaching, learning and research activities. Student activities’ participation such as being an active member of a society or simply being involved in a robust campus life is very important. The impact of the VSU alone was enough to seriously damage those student activities.

In my home state of Tasmania the TUU Societies Council has limited funding, decreasing from $141, 411 in 2004 to $80,000 in 2006 and then to a miniscule $10,500 in 2008. This year it is better with $24,000 but, when spread over about 90 societies, it is still not much compared to what it was in 2004. The TUU Sports Council is in a similar state of affairs. Pre-VSU, the Sports Council received $250,000 in 2004 and in 2007 it only received $45,000. This year the figure is $85,800 but about $60,000 of that is for ground use. And, of course, ground fees have increased enormously. UTAS sports clubs have lost preference for grounds to external hirers. The only thing the TUU can continue to offer clubs is insurance and even that is fairly risky financially.

The National Party has stated that they are willing to support this bill because it is providing funding for health and sporting services as well as amenities. I congratulate them for that. However, I call on the Nationals to realise that there is more to be done. Students do not always think about the what ifs. They are not planning for a major health issue or becoming involved in a legal dispute. They expect life to run smoothly and that it will all work out one way or another. The student and amenities fee will fund student health and legal services which, if needed, will be available without the cost of private services. Think about that, and ensure that these protective measures are in place for the times they are needed. I encourage all those in the Senate to vote to support this bill.

In the last few minutes I have, I want to reiterate that we are working to rebuild vital support services and amenities for higher education students and to secure student advocacy and representation. The bill allows universities to choose to charge a fee of up to $263 for student services and amenities of a non-academic nature for 2012. While students can pay the Student Services and Amenities Fee up-front if they wish, most will be able to take the option of deferring payment through the HECS system until they are earning a decent income. This will ensure that the fee does not act as a barrier to accessing higher education. It is estimated that the Student Services and Amenities Fee will provide universities with more than $250 million over four years for much-needed student amenities and services.

The Gillard government recognises that students have a clear interest in having a say on how and when their fees are spent. Universities will be required to consult with students on the specific uses of proceeds from any service and amenities fees charged. The National Union of Students has made a number of suggestions on the guidelines that sit under the legislation, with a view to ensuring that the consultations universities undertake with students are genuine and give students a seat at the table. I understand those concerns, and people are giving further consideration to how the guidelines can ensure that students have a proper say in how their fees are spent. In fact, just this afternoon I saw a media release by the minister relating to that exact issue.

We need to get on with it. We need to get the legislation passed, because there have been so many years of this ideological attack on students by those opposite. Students need to have access to better services when they start university next year. I commend the bill to the Senate.