Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (17:31):
The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 seeks to impose a compulsory student amenities fee-that is, a compulsory levy for university students for non-academic services. This legislation is based on a complete misapprehension of what voluntary student unionism is and on a complete misunderstanding of the effect of the Howard government’s voluntary student unionism legislation.
I want to make clear at the outset what the Howard government’s VSU legislation did not do. The VSU
legislation did not ban student unions. It did not ban student associations. The Howard government’s legislation did not ban the collection of fees by student unions. It did not ban the collection of fees by student associations. What the VSU legislation did was prevent the levying of compulsory fees for non-academic services. Note the word ‘compulsory’. The VSU legislation ensured that membership of student unions and associations was no longer a prerequisite for university enrolment. We used to have this ridiculous situation whereby a non-academic service, membership of a non-academic organisation, was a prerequisite to undertaking academic activities. It was a ridiculous nexus, and it was one that the Howard government broke.
The effect of this legislation, far from being the doom and gloom and catastrophe presented by those
opposite, was to put money in the pockets of students. It allowed students to decide what services they wanted to support and which organisations they wanted to join. That is all it was about: putting money in students’ pockets, giving students the choice and respecting the right, the capacity and the ability of students to make their own decisions.
Why is it that we think university students possess the critical faculties to decide which university to attend, which degree to undertake and which subjects are right for them but, for some reason, we think those critical faculties depart them when they are faced with the decision as to whether or not to join a student union or a student association? Why do we think their critical faculties depart them when it comes to determining whether those unions or associations are offering value for money for the services they provide? We on this side are of the pretty simple belief that students’ critical faculties do not depart them-that if they can make those important life decisions such as which uni to go to, which degree to take and what career to eventually embark upon then surely, for heaven’s sake, they have the capacity to work out what is value for money.
This legislation before us represents an election commitment which Labor has previously tried to break. In the 2007 election the then opposition promised not to reintroduce compulsory student unionism and not to introduce a compulsory amenities fee. A question was put by a journalist to the then shadow minister, Mr Smith: ‘Are you considering a compulsory amenities fee on students?’ Smith said:
No, well, firstly I am not considering a HECS style arrangement, I’m not considering a compulsory HECS style arrangement and the whole basis of the approach is one of a voluntary approach. So I am not contemplating a compulsory amenities fee.
That was Stephen Smith, the shadow minister for education and training, on 22 May 2007.
The amenities fee proposed by the government today is the same proposal that was put forward by student unions and sports unions as an alternative to the coalition’s 2005 VSU legislation. What Labor is seeking to do with this legislation is to circumvent the intention of the Howard government’s legislation by having the university act as the collection agency for a compulsory fee rather than the unions and associations collecting that money. Students will not technically be compelled to join a union under this legislation. Students would, however, be compelled by a participating university to pay a fee equivalent to a union fee, which would then be passed to the union or be spent by the university on services that the union previously provided. The effect is the same. It is really just a technical work-around of the coalition’s legislation. The reintroduction of a compulsory fee has been supported and championed by student unions since the implementation of voluntary student unionism in order to underwrite student unions that have been unsuccessful in attracting members.
Our colleagues opposite put this question: why not a compulsory fee for non-academic services? Our response is pretty straightforward: if unions and associations provide services that students want and need then students will willingly join those organisations and use those services. There are many service organisations in the community. There is the NRMA and the RACV, who provide valuable services. But they are not granted the capacity to compulsorily levy motorists for fees and nor is any other body given the authority to levy fees on their behalf. People who are convinced that NRMA and RACV provide a good service and it is worth signing up and paying the membership fees do so. Why should it be so different on campus?
The argument that I perhaps have the least amount of time for in favour of a fee for non-academic services is this idea that studentunions and associations are somehow a fourth tier of government and that therefore they should have the capacity to compel fees for nonacademic services. That is the taxation argument. It is the role of federal, state and local governments to provide the safety net for all Australians. No carve-out exempts universities. We have governments to provide that safety net for people. We do not need student unions and student associations as some fourth tier of government, even if they present themselves or see themselves in that role.
Let us be clear: financially stretched students-and students are financially stretched-are not assisted by having a compulsory fee levied on them. It is not an act of kindness. It is not something that will help them. The best way to help struggling students and assist them with their budgets is to allow them to keep more of their own money. This comes down to a fundamental difference between this side of the chamber and the other side of the chamber: we believe that individuals are in a better position to know how to spend their money than someone else, while those on the other side of the chamber are of the belief that there is always someone else who knows better how to spend an individual’s money than that individual.
The argument that is often mounted and which has been canvassed here today is that compulsory fees are needed to provide services such as child care, counselling and sport. The truth is, such services are often more conveniently accessed by students off campus, particularly for part-time students and for external students. If students have more money in their pockets, they can contribute those funds directly to the service of their choice, whether it be on campus, off campus, close to home or close to their place of work. Let them make the choice. Do not have someone else make that choice for them. Let them spend their dollars where they want to put them. Let them spend their money where it is most convenient for them.
The government has, I must acknowledge, conceded that paying a compulsory fee will be hard for students. The government has therefore proposed a loan scheme. The government is proposing to put students into debt to pay for a compulsory fee that students cannot afford. If you do that, you kind of have to come up with a loan scheme to help the students who you put into debt in the first place. Those opposite often draw analogies with HECS. That is not relevant. HECS is a scheme that is designed to partially fund tuition. The proposed compulsory fee is not for academic services. I will revisit Mr Smith, who also said this before the 2007 election: ‘I certainly do not have on my list an extension of HECS, either voluntary or compulsory, to fund these services, so I absolutely rule that out.’ That was the first election commitment that the current Labor government sought to breach.
Opposition senators interjecting-
Senator FIFIELD: It does indeed sound like the carbon tax lie. I fibbed before: I said that the argument that student union and associations were like a fourth tier of government was the argument that annoyed me most. But I fibbed, I must confess. The argument that is the most belittling and condescending to students is that a compulsory amenities fee is needed to ensure a vigorous campus life. Give me a break. I kind of think that if you have young people, clever people, curious people, energetic people, then you do not need a compulsory fee to ensure that there is a vigorous campus life. These are young, clever, curious, energetic students. I will let you in on a secret: put people like that together, and maybe even throw in a keg, and you are going to have a vigorous campus life. You do not have to have a compulsory fee to generate that. And some opposite have never left the university campuses.
Assurances by the government that money will not be used by student unions for political purposes are completely meaningless for the reason that funds are fungible. Every dollar that is passed to a student union by a university administration frees up a dollar that the union already had to then redirect to political purposes. Funds are fungible. It does not matter which particular accounts you have or what dividing lines you have between accounts. A dollar that is raised in one place frees up a dollar somewhere else that can be spent on a political activity. The argument that this does not help the political activities of student unions, which most students have no interest in, is completely fallacious.
The passage of the former coalition government’s 2005 Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Up-front Compulsory Student Union Fees) Bill helped lift a substantial financial burden from students in Australia. For the first time it empowered students to make their own decisions about the services they needed and it enshrined freedom of association on campus. The results were not surprising. Student unions, bereft of the power to force their members to pay their fees, had to radically cut the cost of membership and tailor their services to the demands of students. Thanks to VSU, students at campuses across Australia saved hundreds of dollars every year, which they were able to put in their pockets and spend as they saw fit.
I did mention the money wasted on extreme political campaigns, but ultimately this debate was never about whether student unions promoted left-wing causes or right-wing causes. Student unions should be free to engage in whatever political activities they wish, provided their membership and funding base is entirely voluntary. That is what we call freedom of speech. To many these changes did seem long overdue. After all, compelling Australians to join a representative organisation against their will is regarded as objectionable in every other part of society. Workers long ago won the right to freely associate and, today, no government-well, maybe not this government-would even think of making union membership compulsory in the workplace. But for some reason university administrators and the Australian Labor Party believe that student unions should be the exception and that, for some reason, the services they offer and the value they provide to their members are so high that students should be forced to join them. If an organisation offers value for money, it has nothing to fear. If an organisation offers the services that students want, it has nothing to fear. They will have members and they will succeed.
With this legislation Labor, on or after January 2011, plan to slug Australian university students with a new tax of up to $250 per year. It will rise annually, with automatic indexation, and students will be struggling. The policy is a clear breach of a commitment, which is something that, with this particular government, we have become extremely familiar with. The idea that this is not a return to compulsory student unionism is nothing more than a con and a sham. Sure, students can choose under this package not to belong to a union, but they still have to pay the fee as though they were a member. To quote former National Union of Students president David Barrow:
Unis get the fee, students get the services, but student unions get screwed.
That is his view of what the current government is proposing. But, in reality, back when the consultations took place in 2008, he was doing what any good unionist would do: he was making an ambit claim. Student unions are secretly delighted at again being able to levy a compulsory fee, despite the fact that they say, ‘This is not adequate and this is still lousy legislation.’
Ordinary students cannot afford this and nor should they be forced to put their hand in their pocket to give the money to the institutions as a mechanism to pass the money on to student unions. The ones who tend to get forgotten in the debate on university fees are the parttime students, those who work several days a week to support themselves. In many cases they will be charged the same as wealthy students living in colleges on campus with family support. Mature-age students with young children, who may only ever attend campus for classes, will pay the same. There are also students who study off campus, online or at a small regional branch of the university, and they will be slugged the same amount as students who can easily access the services on the main campus. It is these students, the ones who most need the support, who will be hit by these fees.
They are the students who struggle financially; they often do not have the time to enjoy the benefits of union funding of a club or a society and do not have the time to attend the free lunchtime beer or take advantage of the barbecues or band sessions. Those students who have the time, those who have the financial security to do so, hardly need other students to subsidise their experience.
In one sense this bill is a relatively small matter. People often say, ‘Why on your side of politics do you get so excited about this legislation? What really turns on voluntary student unionism?’ Partly, the explanation is that it matters so much because it is a relatively small thing. If a government cannot protect freedom of association, or cannot protect freedom of speech, or cannot protect the right of an individual to keep their own money in their pocket in a university environment, if a government cannot do these things in what is a fairly small area of public policy, what hope do we have to expect government to protect those things in the wider community.
This is bad legislation. The former Howard government did nothing to obstruct a vigorous campus life. It did nothing to obstruct student unions. It did nothing to obstruct student associations. All it did was usher in freedom of choice-the freedom to belong to or not to belong to a student union or association, the freedom to keep your money in your pocket and buy the services of your choice, if that is what you wanted. This legislation seeks to remove that freedom of choice. This is bad legislation. It should be opposed. On this side of the chamber we will always stand up for freedom of association. We will always stand up for the right of an individual to join or not to join.