PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: Mr TUDGE (Aston) (6.48 pm)—I rise to speak on the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010 having been a student leader myself back in the early nineties, having worked with Dr Nelson in the early 2000s—in 2005, if I recall correctly—to abolish compulsory student union fees and as a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment, which inquired very briefly into this bill and tabled our report in this parliament. It is an issue which I have thought a lot about over many, many years, and it is an issue which many people on this side of this chamber are very passionate about, as are many thousands of students across the nation.
I am strongly opposed to this bill, which in effect reintroduces compulsory student union fees. There are three primary reasons why I am against the bill. First of all, it is against the principle of choice. Second, there is the creation of inequity through the operation of this bill.
Third, if any type of fee is introduced, inevitably it will end up funding party political campaigns. Before making my substantive arguments, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some grave reservations in relation to the process by which the Standing Committee on Education and Employment undertook its inquiry into this bill.
The bill was referred to the committee on 21 October 2010 for inquiry, and the committee was originally instructed to report during the autumn sittings in 2011. The committee tabled the report on Monday, 15 November 2010. This gave the committee just three weeks to receive submissions from the public, Consider those submissions and report to the parliament. Thirty-six submissions from interested persons were received in this time, only 20 of which were received before the nominated closing date.
Given the wide impact this bill will have if it is passed into law, many more submissions ought to have been received and a more appropriate time frame ought to have been made available for the committee to consider all the evidence presented to it and to consult with relevant parties to come to a more rounded evaluation of the evidence presented and the issues involved. The short time frame did not allow any time for face-to-face hearings, as is usually the practice when bills as important and as contentious as this come before a standing committee. The committee itself would have benefited from the opportunity to conduct face-to-face hearings, but the government majority on the committee ensured that that could not take place.
I would also like to highlight the awkward timing of this inquiry, such as it was. The inquiry fell largely within the university examination period for many universities, meaning that many of the most affected parties—individual students—were not afforded the opportunity to give evidence either in writing or face to face. Those individual students who did find the time to make submissions to the inquiry are to be commended.
Why the rush? One person who put in a submission to the inquiry, Ms Arabella Haddon-Casey, put it as such:
The vast majority of students do not have a clue that the government is considering imposing compulsory fees upon them. If it was such a big issue, surely students around Australia would be demanding compulsory service fees?
I think she put that very well. Why the rush? There is no great demand for compulsory fees to be reintroduced. The vast majority of students are not aware that this bill is coming before the parliament. Yet we only gave three weeks to inquire into this process. I think that is unsatisfactory and I hope it is not an indication of what is going to come in the future.
Let me go to my substantive arguments. First of all there is a fundamental principle at hand here with this bill. That is individual choice.
Since Brendan Nelson when he was education minister introduced voluntary student unionism into this country in 2005, students have had real choice on campuses. They have had choices over what services to join, they have had choices over what political activities to be part of, they have had choice over whether or not they want to join the gymnasium and they have had choice over whether or not they want their own money to subsidise the food in the local cafeterias. These are everyday decisions made by grown-up adults. The students have relished this opportunity to make their own decisions for themselves.
Choice is fundamentally part of the DNA of every human being. We want choice in terms of how we live our lives; we want maximum freedom over our own decisions. But this bill overturns that choice. If it goes through, students will find they will be unable to enrol in the publicly funded universities unless they pay a compulsory fee for services that they do not want, unless they give money which will inevitably end up funding political campaigns.
The government contends that it believes in choice. These days it talks about it even in this parliament. But we know that we should not look at what the government says but what the government does. The National Broadband Network is a case in point, where the government wants to reintroduce a government monopoly and significantly diminish choice.
Under this legislation students will be forced to pay a compulsory fee for services that they may not want. They will pay a compulsory fee where inevitably some of that money ends up funding political campaigns. This is fundamentally at odds with freedom of choice.
Over the last few years students have voted with their feet. Sometimes they have agreed to join student unions or student guilds. Others have not, and that is fundamentally their choice.
In the case of one of the submissions to the inquiry, Cameron Sinclair had not been a member; he chose not to be a member in one particular year. Then in his third year in 2009 the Curtin Student Guild modified its membership fee structure in an effort to be more attractive to potential members.
For $99 students would receive a $50 food and drink voucher for on-campus outlets in addition to discounts, access to social events and the other services guild members can access. Finally, he said, guild membership provided value for money and he chose to rejoin. He says that this is the perfect example of how voluntary student membership encourages student organisations to attract members by catering to student needs.
I think that is a very good submission that Mr Sinclair has made and it perfectly encapsulates how he and thousands of others are quite happy to make informed decisions for themselves and, if a package is attractive enough, they will join the particular guild. In this case, in his third year he did decide to join that particular guild. He did not need to be forced to and, had he been forced to, the guild probably would not be providing the services that he, and thousands of other students, wanted. But by virtue of being voluntary the guild had to think through exactly what the students wanted and make their offer attractive to the students so that they would join the guild.
The second substantive argument is in relation to equity. This bill would create significant inequities for students across campuses in Australia. It would be levied on mature age students, on part-time students, on students who study by correspondence, students who live large distances from campuses and students who work to pay their way through university. None of these groups have the same opportunities to use the student services that many other people do.
Again I refer to a number of the submissions received which illustrate very powerfully this point and how individuals feel hard done by by the prospect of again having to pay a compulsory fee for services which they will not be actually able to use.
I go first of all to Dr Michael Ayling. He writes:
My concern relates to the possible relevance of such taxes to distance education students. I am enrolled at the University of New England for a Graduate Diploma of Economics in 2011 [as a distance education student]. …It is not my intention to ever visit the UNE campus in Armidale. …Yet it is still envisaged that I should pay the new tax.
How is a compulsory fee for Dr Ayling equitable to him when he is doing a distance education course and he will never step foot on campus? How is that equitable?
Here is another submission, this time by Alyson Richards. She writes:
I am currently studying an undergraduate degree part time. I work full time during the day and attend classes 2/3 nights a week. Due to me not being on campus full time and certainly not in the day time I do not have the option of using the amenities that this new compulsory tax is supposedly funding. So I will be forced to pay a fee towards facilities I do not even have the option of using!
There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of students in that same position: mature age students, low-income students who have to work tirelessly in order to fund their way through university, distance education students—all of these students spend very little time on campus other than attending lectures if indeed they are able to get there for those lectures. They should not have to pay a compulsory fee, because it is inequitable for them to do so.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)— Order! It being 7 pm, the debate is interrupted. The honourable member for Aston will have the opportunity to continue his remarks at the appropriate time.