Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (3.07 p.m.)-On three occasions this parliament has had legislation introduced to give effect to freedom of choice and freedom of association, to end the practice whereby universities, student unions, student guilds or student associations can compel someone to join an organisation against their will and pay a fee for services that they may not want. At the heart of this bill is the principle of freedom of association. No-one should be compelled to join an organisation against their will. The classic instance of where institutions will embrace the technicality of freedom of association but not embrace the principle of freedom of association takes place in Victoria. Under the Victorian legislation you do not have to join a student union against your will, you can opt out of a student union but you have to pay exactly the same fee. That is a con and a sham. It is time for universities and student associations to embrace the principle of freedom of choice.
What is the fear? The fear is that we cannot trust students. We can trust students to choose their university, their course and their subjects but their critical faculties depart them when it comes to the decision of whether or not to join a student union or association. If you can choose your course, your subjects and your institution, you should have the capacity and good judgment to decide whether you want to join a student union or association and whether you value the services that are paid for by those fees.
Those opposite have an incredibly pessimistic view of today’s students. I do not know if students have changed since I was at university, but I will let Senator Lundy in on a little secret: if you put a couple of thousand 18- to 23-year-olds together who are curious, frisky and energetic, you are going to have a vibrant campus life. You do not need a compulsory fee to generate a vibrant campus life. The onus should be on student organisations to convince students of the value of the services they provide. Motorist organisations like the NRMA and the RACV do not have the capacity to compel motorists to pay their fees; they have to convince motorists of the value of the services that they provide. It should be the same on university campuses. University unions and associations have the capacity to convince students of the value of the services they provide, and students have the capacity to determine for themselves whether they think that is value for money.
Senator Troeth and I took part in the Senate inquiry into the voluntary student unionism legislation, and what I found incredibly disheartening were the attitudes of some of the vice-chancellors. There was a very paternalistic attitude towards university students. In particular, the vice-chancellor of Swinburne University of Technology, Professor Ian Young, said:
This is a rather condescending comment, I am afraid, but when you have a group of 18- to 22-year-olds the reality is that their focus is very short term. They are interested in the here and now.
My response to the vice-chancellor was, ‘Yes, Vice-Chancellor, that is very condescending.’
Students have the capacity to determine what is in their interests. If as a year 12 student you are capable of deciding that you want to study medicine and that you want to become a medical specialist, you are taking a long-term view about your future. If you are capable of making those sorts of decisions as a year 12 student, surely you have the ability when you are at university to decide if you want to join a student union and whether you value the services that they provide. Students should have the right to decide.
We know why the ALP supports the sort of legislation that exists in Victoria; it is because we see things like the National Union of Students spending $250,000 of compulsorily acquired student funds at the last election on a party political campaign to put the coalition last. That is why senators opposite support a limited services fee model, because they know that money is fungible. Money collected compulsorily from students for one purpose will ultimately end up being spent on another purpose. It might be put into the amenities account but $1 in one account is the same as $1 in another account. (Time expired)