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Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 19/09/11

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 22 Sep 2011

 

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (20:03):

 

 I will try to keep my laughter at bay while I deliver my speech. I rise to speak to the government's second attempt to rebuild important university services through the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010. This is at least the second time-it could possibly be the third-I have risen to speak to legislation to restore student services on campuses since I was elected to this place some years ago. We still see the negative impact that the Howard government's regressive voluntary student unionism has on universities. it has slaughtered the advocacy, the support services and the creativity of universities.

 

 

 

It is not just me saying that; universities themselves believe that. Vice-chancellors who are as proud of their university campuses as anyone would be shake their heads at the types of attitude and argument put forward by the coalition against the restoring of student services. We know it plays a very important part in how university life is conducted, the services students access in order to complete their university degrees and the type of vibrancy that comes to a university campus-the experience young people have when they are getting their education and formulating their skills and their attitudes towards the rest of their careers. It is a very important time for us to be ensuring that they have access to the full suite of services they may need to complete that university career.

 

I am particularly concerned about the impact voluntary student unionism has had on regional campuses in our rural areas. I know this is an area that it is very difficult for the coalition to weigh up. The Nationals rightly believe and have advocated for some time that we need to return to having services on campus, because it is a very important part of ensuring that students in rural and regional areas get the same level of education and support for that degree as their city cousins. It is very difficult, of course, for any of those services to be delivered without that subsidy and support, because they are in those more regional and remote areas.

 

While the Greens are indeed supportive of the moves under this legislation to charge a levy to breathe much-needed life back into campus culture-back into the experience of the university career, back into the quality of education that young Australians who are embarking on their future learning will have-we remain concerned that student representation in the true sense of the word will not be fully restored under this bill. That is because we are not actually guaranteed, for all the fire and fury that has been thrown at us from the other side over there, that the money that is collected from students will go directly back to student representation. That is a concern that the Greens have. Students should be able to advocate for the services that they pay for. We believe that services are important and students should have a say in how those services are run. We believe that students should have a say in how the money that they pay is spent.

 

It has been almost six years since the introduction of VSU and campuses around the country-and indeed in regional areas-have increasingly felt the impact of the reduced cash flow. While the opposition will continue to whip up misinformation about what the bill actually does-and we heard a classic example from Senator  Ryan only moment ago-that does not deal with the crux of this legislation or the history of how important student unionism has been to our universities over many years. We heard nothing from Senator Ryan about the vibrancy of university culture and the services that add to the value of university degrees for students. Some of our universities have remained as some of the top ranking universities in the world because of that holistic university experience and service delivery.

 

We heard about none of that from the opposition, and we will not, because they are fundamentally opposed to the idea that young people may need services when not all of them have the ability to pay for them as they see fit. But that is the reality. This type of student services levy sets a capped amount that students pay. That ensures that they have access to the services and support that they need when they need them. It is all well and good for the people in the opposition, Liberal Party members who were members of the Young Liberals back in the day, because they could access whatever they wanted as they had the money and the support outside of the university-perhaps at home; perhaps from mum and dad. They could access those services. But do you know what? Not everybody is that lucky. Not everybody can just click their fingers and access the services and supports that they need. If we want well-trained, well-educated, strong and productive contributors to our economy we need to invest in their education and in their ability to gain that education right at the forefront-that is, on university campuses.

 

The opposition will continue to say that this bill does a whole lot of terrible things. But we must not forget the dire state that some campuses now find themselves in, and particularly in their ability to provide basic and essential services to their students. And this is solely due to the opposition. Almost six years ago, the opposition introduced voluntary student unionism in this place. There was a rubber stamp from John Howard. They cut services from students because they do not think that students should be able to access them. And some of them might vote for parties other than the Liberal Party, so of course they should not be helped through their university studies. That is the level of tripe that we have heard from the opposition tonight on this particular legislation.

 

Student advocacy services have traditionally been regarded by universities as a very important provision for campus culture and student life. In particular, they ensure that adequate processes for transparency are in place when dealing with university appeals. It is not just about ensuring that there are childcare and health services on campus, although they are very important. What about the student who is constantly failing to get the grades needed in their classes, not because they are not intelligent enough and not because they are not showing up to the tutorials but because they have not been able to engage with their lecturer or tutor in a productive way?
What about that student who gets marked wrongly on their exam? They studied hard and knew the answers, but the exam was marked inaccurately. What does that student do? Do they waste three or four years studying a university degree, pay exorbitant amounts of HECS and have to then sit back and say, 'Ah, well: no-one seems to care, so I will just have to start all over again'? This happens on university campuses, and who is standing up for these students? The opposition is not. It is very difficult to have a good transparent process and proper advocacy unless there is such a service provided to students and people who will stand up for them.

 

The loss of advocacy services following the implementation of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Act 2005, the famous legislation passed by John Howard had a devastating effect on campus culture. These advocacy services are particularly important for those least able to advocate for themselves in matters affecting university rules and decisions that adversely affect them. These are issues that are right of the heart of students getting a fair go at university.

 

Following the Australia-wide consultation process undertaken by Minister Ellis in 2008 as part of the government's election promise to restore campus amenities, services and representation, the Department of Education and Workplace Relations, in its summary report, stated that the abolition of upfront compulsory student union fees had impacted negatively on the provision of amenities and services to university students, with the greatest impact on smaller and regional university campuses. So for all of the criticism that is thrown from the opposition, what are we doing about students in rural and regional areas, who we know have been impacted the most by the introduction of voluntary student unionism and the stripping of services to these campuses?

 

We know the devastating impact that VSU has had on campus culture. In my own state of South Australia-and a number of us in this place first cut our political teeth in student politics-we have seen firsthand the devastating impact that VSU has had on our three universities. The University of Adelaide, where I was student president in 2003, has seen the absolute destruction and dissolution of the student association and the postgraduate student association. Who is standing up for the postgraduates at the University of Adelaide? It is very difficult for them when they are without a representative body to advocate for their needs. And, while the sports association, the clubs association and the overseas
students association have continued to exist, they have lost their professional, administrative and policy support staff. So they are nowhere near as capable of advocating for their fellow students, for their peers, as they should be and once were.

 

Some of the visible impacts this has had on Adelaide University students have been the loss of $3 million in annual revenue; the diminished capacity for effective representation on university decision-making bodies; and the increased social isolation experienced by international students. We know about the significant impact on the international student sector, not just in Adelaide but around the rest of the country. International education is our third-highest export industry, following iron ore and coal. It has suffered extremely badly because of the introduction of voluntary student unionism.

 

Senator Cormann: That has nothing to do with it. It is the incompetence of this government.

 

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yes, it absolutely is true. The impacts on student services include a 40 per cent drop in participation in sporting clubs and the closure of arts and crafts centres. Flinders University, another wonderful university in my home state, arguably the hardest hit by VSU in South Australia, has seen the six student controlled organisations dissolved-the student association, the sports association, the clubs and societies association, the international student association and the postgraduate student association. That is basically the entire student population directly impacted by the callousness and lack of foresight of this opposition policy, which was introduced six years ago.

 

The services that have been affected by the former government's regressive policy have seen millions of dollars lost. Incomes now come only from commercial operations and from the introduction of a user-pays system to access services. This means that many students are paying more than they can afford or are opting out of accessing services. At Flinders University we have seen the closure of quality and affordable childcare services. The collapse of the international students association has increased the social isolation experienced by international students. That is not me making that up; that is what international students have said to us. There is also the loss of student media-the ability of students to get those important add-ons that put them a cut above the rest once they graduate from university. Not just a bit of paper but the proof to say, 'I know how to apply this.' These are the things, beyond advocacy, that students have lost under VSU.

 

The University of South Australia, which is home to the largest tertiary international student population in my state, has seen funding of sports clubs reduced from $140,000 a year right down to only $21,500. It has had a significant impact on the ability of students to work as a community, because of the impact on their sporting clubs. It has diminished the ability to pay affiliation fees to maintain state and federal coordinating and representative structures. This means that students at the University of South Australia do not get the benefits of coordinated access and advocacy that a nationally run, coordinated student representative body would be able to offer them. So, when legislation like this comes to this place my constituents back in South Australia do not have a representative body to advocate for them at a federal level. It is no surprise that it has taken over three years for this legislation to come before the parliament to a point where it can be voted on, because there is no-one who is able to lobby and advocate for the rights of students. That was the sting in the tail of the opposition's entire strategy. It was: 'Let's cut student services, let's cut advocacy, let's rip out the heart of university campuses and student life and, ah, once we do all that no-one will be able to advocate otherwise.' It absolutely undercuts the ability of our future leaders to advocate for what is best for them.

 

These examples of the loss of services experienced by universities in South Australia are only a handful of the examples of the devastating impacts this policy has had on student welfare and support. The opposition carry on and on about how they are opposed to student services simply because they are opposed. It is no different from anything else. They are after all the party led by 'Dr No'. Of course they are going to say no and oppose for the sake of opposing.

 

This is about advocating for the future leaders of this country, students who are now paying more than ever for their university degrees and deserve to be able to do their degrees with the support of a well functioning, well supported, fledging university campus. We know that, unless we start funding student services to do that, this is not going to happen.

 

 We know that VSU has had a significant impact on the ability of our Australian universities to compete in the global market. This is the case for international students as well as for the abilities and skills and added extras that make our Australian students better equipped, more resourced and better networked to compete in the working world after they graduate. It does not just have an impact on students now. It has a significant impact on their ability to compete with their peers once they graduate. There are a couple of amendments that I moved when this bill was first introduced, and the amendments have been circulated. I need to withdraw the first two amendments on sheet 6183, which was circulated some time ago. I understand that today, after extensive consultation with students and the university sector, the government have announced that they will be amending the guidelines to ensure that higher education providers must have a formal process of consultation with the democratically elected student representatives as well as representatives from major student organisations on how proceeds from any services and amenities fees are spent. That is a welcome development and one that I hope will ensure greater transparency in how the student fee would be spent.

 

The Greens have a proud tradition of supporting accessible and affordable higher education. In keeping with that principle, we support moves to remove the Howard government draconian VSU provision and to allow universities again to fund a wider range of services and facilities to ensure that the university experience of our students today and tomorrow is what it should be.

 

 

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