House of Representatives Speech- Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009

I rise in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I support this bill because it will reverse the destruction of the established fabric of student life that was caused by the former government’s voluntary student unionism legislation. To start off with, it is worth considering what was attacked by that legislation when it was introduced by the former government in 2006.

I rise in support of the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I support this bill because it will reverse the destruction of the established fabric of student life that was caused by the former government’s voluntary student unionism legislation. To start off with, it is worth considering what was attacked by that legislation when it was introduced by the former government in 2006.

A snapshot was taken by Universities Australia, formerly the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, of student organisations in 2005. It is recorded in a discussion paper which was published in February 2008. This found that in the final year before voluntary student unionism was introduced universities collected some $172.8 million from student services and amenities charges. The snapshot found that the funds were distributed as follows: 71 per cent went to student organisations, 14 per cent went to universities to run their own student services and 15 per cent went to other bodies, such as privately run student advocacy organisations.

Universities Australia said that examples of the services that were provided by student associations under the model operated before the introduction of voluntary student unionism included the provision of food outlets, buildings, meeting rooms, toilet facilities, stationery, second-hand book shops, childcare services, legal services, welfare services, accommodation assistance, health services, employment services, funding to student groups—including clubs and societies on campus—support for campus theatres, student representation, educational advocacy, short- and long-term student loans, student newsletters and student newspapers. We can see from that long list of services provided under the model which existed before the introduction by the former government of voluntary student unionism just what a broad range of services were provided and what a contribution those services made to the rich fabric of student life.

The voluntary student unionism legislation of the former government was seemingly driven by an obsession to destroy all things union and to tear away at all parts of the union movement, even things that are only peripherally related to the union movement—student unions, it has to be said, stand in a class of their own. But, even at the cost of destroying and tearing away at the essential fabric of university life, the former government was intent on tearing at and striking down anything that they regarded as being associated with the union movement.

I am a proud graduate of the University of Melbourne, an institution that I attended for some 5½ years in the 1970s. I look back very fondly at the myriad of activities that I was able to participate in as a student at the university. Indeed, I served on the union council at the University of Melbourne for some years. I look back very fondly at the range of services that I was able to access as a student at the University of Melbourne. I am talking about various clubs and societies. There are a whole range of those at the University of Melbourne, from the chocolate appreciation society right through to sporting clubs, bushwalking clubs and all of the other essential services that should be part of university life.

Because I attended the University of Melbourne in the 1970s, I am also able to remember—and establish—just what a longstanding obsession of the Liberal Party this has been. Students associated with the Liberal Party in the 1970s—notably including Mr Robert Clark, now the Liberal member for Box Hill in the state parliament of Victoria—went so far as to engage in litigation against the university, so concerned were they about aspects of the collection of fees and the student union’s activities at the University of Melbourne.

Partly, then, this was an attack on unions and partly also it seems to have been an attempt by the former government to suppress the political activity and debate that have been and should continue to be so much a part of university life in this country. Those objectives of attacking the union movement and suppressing political activity and debate were much more important to those opposite than ensuring that the experience of university life was a rewarding one and that the full set of services that should be available to students was in fact available. Those opposite did not care about the loss of services which followed on from the introduction of their legislation in 2006. I want to dwell for a moment on what the effect of the former government’s voluntary student unionism legislation was, first of all, on sport, and then I am going to look briefly at the impact on regional campuses and then some other impacts.

The 2008 review of the impact of the previous government’s approach found that sport at universities across the country had been very seriously affected. Evidence was given to the review by a range of sporting organisations, from the Australian Olympic Committee to individual sporting clubs, and every single one of their submissions and all of the evidence was to the effect that sport had been an innocent but nevertheless a very real victim of the 2005 changes. The statistics included these: that direct funding for sporting clubs had been cut by 40 per cent; that there are now 12,000 fewer students participating in sport at university across the country, which is a 17 per cent reduction since 2005; that funding for intervarsity sport had been cut by half and participation by women in the Australian University Games had been reduced by almost 10 per cent; that six universities had shut down their elite athlete support program altogether and eight universities had discontinued funding of sports scholarships; and that 30 per cent of the spending of the sector, in real terms, on the maintenance of buildings and playing fields had been cut away, severely affecting the long-term viability of sporting, social and cultural infrastructure.

It is worth repeating what the Australian Olympic Committee had to say about this, and I will read from their submission. They said:

For a number of our Olympic Sports, the university sporting clubs system is a key component in the elite athlete pathway. The best example of this is rowing where approximately 80% of national representative rowers are members of or connected with a university club.

They went on:

Given the importance that the university sports system has on elite level sport, these trends will have a direct and real impact on Australia’s ability to maintain its hard won international standing in sport.

To continue with a bit more from the Australian Olympic Committee:

… the introduction of the VSU legislation has had a direct negative impact on the number of students (particularly women) participating in sport and, for the longer term, the maintenance and upgrading of sporting infrastructure and facilities and the retention of world class coaches.

There has been almost universal praise for this legislation. I note that Australian University Sport, on 12 February 2009, had this to say:

The proposed legislation provides great hope throughout the tertiary sport sector. Many campus sporting programs and clubs continue to struggle in the post VSU environment. The passage of this Bill will be welcomed by the hundreds of thousands of student-athletes and members of the community that regularly use university sporting facilities in the pursuit of health and well-being.

It is an extraordinary thing that, by introducing the legislation that it did in 2005 in its obsessive attack on all things union, the former government damaged sport and damaged participation in sport in the university sector at the very time that all governments in this country should recognise that engaging in preventive health measures, and encouraging people to participate in sport, should be the direction in which we are headed.

There was an equally disastrous impact of the voluntary student unionism legislation on regional campuses and regional students. The 2008 review found that students who attended regional campuses were more severely affected than were students attending metropolitan universities, and that is because regional students, generally speaking, are heavy users of services and amenities on campus. Often they have come from some other city or part of Australia to attend the regional university and thus lack the support that people who are attending tertiary institutions closer to home can expect from their families. A good example was the closure of the dental service at Southern Cross University, which until 2006 had been subsidised by student non-academic fees. Some 2,100 students at Southern Cross University accessed the service in 2005, but two years later it was forced to close. At James Cook University the Centrelink services at the Cairns campus were closed down, and the legal service was also closed down. Indeed, I can say that legal services closed down at a number of other universities around Australia, including the University of Technology, Sydney, and La Trobe University.

There is a long list of direct and detrimental effects that the introduction of voluntary student unionism had on the tertiary sector across the country, with closures of dental services, loan schemes and legal services. I have already mentioned the cut in funding for sport in all respects at universities. It has to be said that overall there has been a very direct decline in the opportunities for participation in university life—in the opportunities to enjoy university life, because all of us would recognise that attending a tertiary institution is not simply a matter of attending lectures and studying for the course in which one is enrolled. There are other, perhaps intangible, benefits of university life, including socialising and participating in extracurricular activities with other students, that are in a very real sense education for life just as much as are the formal courses that a student is enrolled in.

There has been overwhelming support for this legislation. The Group of Eight, which is the coalition of leading Australian universities, in November last year had this to say:

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

Universities Australia, which is the industry peak body representing the university sector, on 3 November 2008 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.

Also in November last year, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations said:

We certainly welcome the recognition by Government of the importance of student services and representation. Since the onset of “VSU” we have seen a dramatic decline in services and representation for postgraduates on most campuses.

There have been some suggestions by speakers opposite that, because the scheme being introduced here permits universities to impose a capped fee of up to $250 and because it further provides for students to borrow and thus increase their debt in order to pay that fee, this is in some way imposing an additional burden on students. I say to those opposite who have made this suggestion that students are already, and have been for over two years, paying the cost of voluntary student unionism. They have been paying because the facilities and services that were previously available to them either were substantially reduced or had been cut completely, leading to the situation where, in order to obtain those services, students who had previously been provided with them collectively were paying for them themselves. Students have been hit with increased prices for child care, parking, books, computer labs, sport and food. They still need all of those services as people attending tertiary institutions. The fact that services have not been provided collectively has not relieved students of their need to access such facilities and services.

Students have experienced indirect costs caused by voluntary student unionism because universities have had to redirect funds that would have been better spent on other aspects of university activities. They have had to redirect funds that would otherwise have been spent on research and teaching to fund services and amenities that, because of the introduction of voluntary student unionism and the reduction of funds available, would otherwise have had to be cut. In addition, it should be clear to all that the reintroduction of a student amenities fee will help to rebuild important student services and amenities. The paying of this fee by students will not be a financial barrier because students will have the option to take out a HECS style loan as a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program.

This legislation will, as I said at the start of this speech, reverse a disastrous change in the administration of our tertiary sector. It will go a long way towards restoring the provision of services to students. The only striking thing about the debate in this House has been the number of speakers opposite who have persisted with their obsessive desire to continue to destroy all things union. I commend the bill to the House.