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

The Liberal and National parties have an obsessive hatred of all things union, and that obsessive hatred drove them to inflict major damage on student services in higher education when they abolished compulsory student union fees in 2005. I support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009 because it provides a framework for reversing the trail of destruction left by the previous government’s voluntary student unionism legislation—perhaps I should say ‘so-called voluntary student unionism legislation’. In particular, this bill will help reverse what has been noted as the ‘lessening of vibrancy and diversity’ on university campuses and will give essential service delivery back to students. The legislation fulfils the election commitment the Rudd Labor government gave from opposition to rebuild essential services and amenities on university campuses. It is an election commitment which we have already attempted once to honour with legislation that passed through this House in February and was rejected by the Senate in August.

The Liberal and National parties have an obsessive hatred of all things union, and that obsessive hatred drove them to inflict major damage on student services in higher education when they abolished compulsory student union fees in 2005. I support the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009 because it provides a framework for reversing the trail of destruction left by the previous government’s voluntary student unionism legislation—perhaps I should say ‘so-called voluntary student unionism legislation’. In particular, this bill will help reverse what has been noted as the ‘lessening of vibrancy and diversity’ on university campuses and will give essential service delivery back to students. The legislation fulfils the election commitment the Rudd Labor government gave from opposition to rebuild essential services and amenities on university campuses. It is an election commitment which we have already attempted once to honour with legislation that passed through this House in February and was rejected by the Senate in August.

There should be no doubt that the so-called voluntary student unionism legislation was a direct attack on university students. When the regime was introduced by the Howard government in legislation in 2005 it imposed an annual reduction of some $170 million on essential campus services and amenities. That annual reduction of $170 million affected services such as the provision of food outlets; buildings; meeting rooms; toilet facilities; stationery; second-hand bookshops; childcare services; legal services; welfare services; accommodation assistance; funding to student groups on campus, including clubs and societies; support for campus theatres; student representation; educational advocacy; short- and long-term student loans; student newsletters; and student newspapers. It is evident from this long list of services provided under the previous model of university services that had existed for many decades and that were enjoyed by all with a university education in this country—a very large proportion of whom are members in this place—that the services were broad ranging and essential to the maintenance of a rich university experience.

I spoke in February on the previous version of this legislation and I do not want to repeat the comments that I made then about the immense value of a full range of services being available to students. It was very good to hear that the member for New England, the previous contributor to this debate, understands the importance of the broad range of services being provided to students. He supports this legislation because he understands the need to put in place a compulsory fee system to be able to raise the necessary funds. He understands the disastrous impact that there has been from the former government’s legislation on students from regional areas in particular. It is an understanding which, regrettably, those opposite and their colleagues in the Senate appear to have not yet reached. I hope very much that those in the National Party to whom the member for New England directed his comments pay close attention to what he had to say about the disastrous impact of the current regime—the regime this government is determined to replace to honour its election commitment—on students from those areas that the National Party, at least, purports to serve.

It is worth mentioning a few other effects of the regime introduced by the former government with its so-called voluntary student unionism legislation. The Australasian Campus Union Managers Association, which is the peak body representing student unions, reported a loss of over 1,000 jobs on campuses just one year after the introduction of so-called voluntary student unionism. In fact, some 25 out of 30 student associations experienced significant job losses, much of which came in the area of professional academic and pastoral support to students. Student advocacy also experienced a significant blow from the regime introduced by the former government. Advocacy is now mainly conducted by the university or a company representing the university rather than by independent student service providers. This means that students facing academic exclusion or those wishing to appeal against results may not have access to independent ombudsmen or independent representation. As part of the same survey, some 13 out of 18 student organisations reported that they had made substantial, or near total, cuts to departmental or portfolio funding.

The broad range of clubs and societies which exist at higher education institutions across our country should be encouraged for the great services that they provide to students. I certainly look back very fondly at the range of services I was able to access at the University of Melbourne when I attended that great university in the 1970s—from the chocolate appreciation society right through to sporting clubs, bushwalking clubs and all the other essential services that should be taken to be part of university life. These clubs and societies diversify and enhance learning in our universities as well as provide important social avenues for students to unwind and enjoy life at university apart from their studies.

The opposition does seem to have an obsession with destroying all things union and tearing away at all things that they perceive to be connected with the union movement. We saw that in their attack on the industrial relations system in this country with the Work Choices legislation. Regrettably, that same obsession was manifest in this regime that was introduced to Australian higher education institutions by the former government. It is an obsession which seems to stem from an irrational fear of trade unions and perhaps from the perception of the power of trade unions. But, regrettably, it has blinded those opposite to the true role that student unions have played on university campuses around our country. It has blinded them to that role, even though student unions are unique in the way in which they facilitate and enhance university life and provide essential services. So intent was the former government on tearing out and striking down anything they regarded as being associated with the union movement that they were prepared to visit destruction on the range of university services; they were prepared to visit extreme damage on the fabric of university life as it has been known for many decades in our country.

I would remind the House, just to take a single example, that the current Leader of the Opposition, the member for Wentworth, was once the president of the student union at the University of Sydney. It has been interesting to hear contributions not only to the current form of the legislation but also when the previous version of this bill was debated in the House in February, in that those opposite made almost no mention that some of those sitting opposite—indeed, many former people occupying frontbench positions opposite—were directly and very actively involved in the student union movement.

Regrettably, those opposite have persisted in the contributions we have heard thus far with the same kind of obsessive attack on all things union that we heard when the Senate rejected the previous version of this legislation in August. Those speeches in the Senate reflected not the slightest attempt to understand the legislation but were simply filled with statements bordering on abuse and condemning the legislation as what was treated by various Liberal and National senators as compulsory student unionism. We saw from Senator Birmingham the statement that it was a move ‘to a form of compulsion through compulsory student unionism’. We heard from Senator Cash this sort of statement:

… the Liberal Party will continue to stand up for the rights of university students …

There were multiple references in speeches in the other place to freedom of association. We heard from Senator Cash:

Freedom of association, including the freedom not to join an association, remains one of the Liberal Party’s core beliefs.

It is a pity, in fact, that those sentiments about freedom of association were not expanded to trade unions—true trade unions. But I digress.

Perhaps the most intemperate comments heard in the other place were from Senator Bernardi, who, as with so many of those opposite, seems to have not read the former form of this legislation. Again, it seems that those opposite have still not grappled with the way this legislation works. Senator Bernardi had this to say:

… compulsory student amenities fees—which is just compulsory unionism dressed up under another name. I am yet to hear a university student say, ‘I’m not going to attend university because they do not have the social and creative outlets that I want there.’

I would pause there to say that he clearly has not spoken to very many university students, because it is in fact something I have often heard from university students. They directly compare the range of facilities that are available at particular universities. The academic standards, the type of courses that are provided at universities, are only one of the matters that university students take into account in deciding whether or not to attend a particular institution. Particularly these days there is a great range of choice of the universities that one might choose to attend. But to return to Senator Bernardi’s comments, he said:

A university is meant to be a place of higher learning. It is meant to be a place where you broaden your experiences and you learn to become an independent adult operating in the world. It is not necessarily a place just for slush funds to divert money in support of non-conservative governments or to support left-wing student unionists. That is not what it is about. Sure, we accept that there is a hotbed of socialism in some of our universities, which many of us reject, but we should not be paying for them to pursue their left-wing tendencies.

That is as far as I will take it, quoting from Senator Bernardi. It is hard to believe that that is a senator speaking in the Australian parliament in 2009, seemingly misunderstanding the way this legislation is structured and misunderstanding the limitations that are placed on this legislation—not only the form of legislation that is directed merely at permitting universities to compulsorily collect a fee to provide services at universities but also omitting to see that there are very, very direct limitations involving any engagement in political activity.

Far from this legislation being a return to supposed compulsory student unionism, it is a modest measure designed to repair the damage caused by the former government’s legislation. I would hope that, when this legislation returns to the Senate, opposition senators—guided by wise counsel such as from the member for New England about the disastrous effect that former government regime has had on student services—change the position that they adopted when the former form of this legislation was before the Senate. The former government very much seems to have intended to not only pursue its attack on unionism but also directly suppress the political activity and debate which has been and should continue to be a very important aspect of university life in this country.

We say it is completely appropriate to require all students to contribute to the services that are provided for their assistance. I am happy to be able to say that Universities Australia have argued very directly for the same view. I will quote from the submission that Universities Australia made to the Senate committee inquiry into the former form of this legislation in February 2009. They said:

… not all students may use these services during their study, but [Universities Australia] is firmly of the view that it is better for all students to contribute to the provision of the services, which are then available to all, than to not have the services available to those who need them. Additionally, such services will provide a safety net for those students who had begun their study with no need for the services, but whose situations change for the worse during the course of their study.

It is not different from the approach that successive Australian governments have taken to such matters as the Medicare levy, which is a levy imposed on all, even though everybody here and the entire Australian community would understand that not all members of the Australian community, happily, have need to avail themselves of the services provided and funded by Medicare, by that levy.

Students have experienced indirect costs caused by the so-called voluntary student unionism regime of the former government because universities have had to redirect funds that would have otherwise been spent on other aspects of university activities. Universities have had to redirect funds which otherwise would have been spent on research and teaching to fund services and amenities that, because of the voluntary student unionism regime of the former government and the reduction of funds available, would otherwise have had to be cut. The process will work in reverse. The reintroduction of a student amenities fee will help universities provide those services and allow them not to have to divert essential funds from research and teaching activities.

Again, I will quote from something Universities Australia said on the subject. It is the peak body representing the university sector. It 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 … legislation …

It is also worth quoting from what the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations said in November last year:

… this bill becomes an effective measure to restore and sustain quality student services for postgraduate students that are sustainable into the longer term.

It should be noted that the student services and amenities fee will not present a financial imposition on students because they will have the option to take out a HECS style loan as a new component of the Higher Education Loan Program.

The reintroduction of this vital legislation shows this government’s commitment to all Australians, including students. It shows a commitment by the Australian Labor Party to be the party which provides for and nurtures student learning. It meets an election commitment, which was to restore campus amenities, services and student representation—the effect of the Howard government’s legislation being that all of these were heavily cut. The bill will go a long way to reversing the disastrous change in the administration of our tertiary sector which began in 2006 with the coalition’s obsessive desire to destroy all things union.I commend the bill to the House.