Oct 13, 2005

Voluntary Student Unionism – Higher Education Legislation Amendment

Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2005 Measures No. 4) Bill 2005 and the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment Bill 2005 – (VSU)

13 October 2005

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (9.31 am)—I rise today to speak in opposition to the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (2005 Measures No. 4) Bill 2005 and the Education Services for Overseas Students Amendment Bill 2005, and I speak in favour of the amendment by the member for Jagajaga which calls for the withdrawal of the voluntary student unionism bill. As we saw yesterday, the Minister for Education, Science and Training was forced to delay his extreme attack on student services. The minister’s boyhood dream appears to have been shattered by Senator Barnaby Joyce. It appears that backflip Barnaby has found his footing just in time. The delay to this legislation is an enormous victory for students on university campuses around this country. It is a victory for student organisations, regional communities, sporting groups and the arts community. These are members of our community who vehemently oppose this legislation because they know what the VSU bill would do and how much damage it would inflict on student services and student life around this country.

The minister should listen to his parliamentary colleagues and drop this bill altogether. A delay will not change their minds, nor will it change the minds of those groups and communities that have fought so hard against it. Indeed, the National Union of Students and student organisations around the country have vowed to continue the campaign against this legislation until it is off the minister’s agenda forever. It is time that the minister listened to reason rather than pandering to fringe elements and extreme voices in his own party. The VSU legislation is motivated entirely by conservative political ideology. As the Leader of the Opposition rightly pointed out recently, instead of real reform and support for the higher education sector Minister Brendan Nelson has offered only his own ideological indulgences.

The government continues to paint itself as a reasonable reformer. It continues to assert that this debate is a matter of black and white and that the abolition of universal student unionism will be a simple matter of changing only a student’s enrolment options. By clouding the debate in its favourite rhetoric of ‘choice’, the government hopes to disguise the real outcome of the introduction of VSU. It is deeply misleading to assert that this legislation will not abolish student organisations. Funds will not miraculously appear to replace student contributions nor will private enterprise suddenly jump to fill the voids left by defunct catering outlets and other services, including child care, run by student organisations. Universities will not be able step in and fill the $161 million nationwide black hole that would be created by this legislation, given the government’s cuts to university funding in general.

In reality VSU means the closure of thousands of essential services. It will take choices away from Australian students. The arguments for VSU are spurious. The debate surrounding this issue has been shallow, slogan ridden and full of misconstrued facts. The government is muddying the waters of truth by asserting that it is this bill that will ensure freedom of association, when the vast majority of campuses already have opt-out or conscientious objection clauses. Membership is only available to those who have been accepted to study in a higher education institution, and, most importantly, students are made fully aware of student union fees prior to their enrolment. No breach of freedom of association occurs—a fact reinforced through judgments made by both the Victorian and South Australian Supreme Courts in 1999.

The government is ignoring these facts. It is an arrogant government set on using its newly acquired Senate majority to implement a policy that has not only been opposed time and time again by the Senate; it also proved disastrous when it was introduced at the state level. Both at home and abroad there are clear examples of the failure of VSU, the subsequent reduction in student services and the inevitable closure of student organisations. In 1994 the Victorian state government’s Tertiary Education Amendment Act 1994 prohibited universities from collecting fees from students on condition of enrolment but allowed institutions to voluntarily collect amenities and services fees. In 1994 the WA state government introduced the Voluntary Membership of Student Guilds and Associations Act, which prohibited universities from making students join a student association a condition of enrolment and from imposing fees that were not directly related to their curriculum. In 1999 the Howard government tried to introduce the Higher Education Legislation Amendment Bill through the then education minister, The Hon. David Kemp. This was overwhelmingly opposed by the Senate and the Australian community.

The experience in Western Australia illustrates the disastrous effects of VSU. By 1999, the membership take-up rates by students were as low as six per cent on some campuses. The student guild at Edith Cowan University was forced into voluntary liquidation the same year. Even WA’s sandstone university, the University of Western Australia, was forced to slash its clubs and societies program, and the disabled student department was closed.

Let us not pretend that VSU does not mean the death of student organisations. New Zealand is the only other country in the world to allow VSU, legislating for universities to hold individual referendums in 1999. Only two campuses voted for a voluntary system. The University of Waikato reverted to universal membership a year later, citing a decline in student services and representation. The University of Auckland still charges a fee for student services which are now provided by the university. If the government’s argument of choice was anything other than shallow rhetoric, this legislation would implement campus referendums like those used in New Zealand. This would be a real choice for students. Instead, choice is only a slogan bandied around by the education minister to justify the closure of student organisations and to silence dissent.

Unlike the education minister, our international competitors recognise the value of universal membership of student organisations. Across England, Europe and, yes, North America, the universal levying of fees for student services and representation is the norm; it is a given. In the United Kingdom, membership of student unions is a condition of enrolment. Even the Thatcher government, while urged to take action to stop compulsory student union membership, rightly decided against it. America’s most prestigious institution, Harvard University, charges $US1,900 in an annual universal student levy. This fee does not include residential or health costs but goes in its entirety towards the provision of student services and representation. This kind of a fee is far from the $100 to $500 fees charged by Australian student organisations. If the education minister really wants our universities to be amongst the top 20 in the world, alongside the likes of Harvard, Oxford and Yale, then examining the student structures that these institutions protect and foster would be a valuable exercise. If our institutions are to continue to compete on an international stage, let alone rise to be amongst the top 20, then Australian students must not be denied the provision of similar welfare, study support, campus experience and personal development opportunities as enjoyed by students studying overseas.

The international reputation and competitiveness of our universities will suffer under the restrictions of VSU. It will act as a barrier in the free trade of higher education. In 2003 international students contributed approximately $1.7 billion to higher education institutions in tuition fees, an amount which adds up to 13.8 per cent of total revenue. Recently, concerns have been aired regarding the stalling of the international student market. While there are a number of contributing factors to this potential downturn, the introduction of voluntary student unionism will leave our institutions out in the cold. Australian universities market themselves internationally on the extracurricular opportunities available to students. Especially considering the emerging competitiveness of our neighbouring Chinese universities, with robust and vibrant campus cultures, international students will choose to stay within their region, or opt for an American or European institution, rather than bringing their scholarship and tuition fees to our shores.

This is not a debate about students being compelled to join trade unions. Student unions are not industrial unions; they are organisations that provide services and representation for a direct constituency. They do not work against or seek to undermine universities. Rather, they play a vital role in assisting universities to achieve their goal of providing a quality educational experience to all students. A far better analogy is likening student unions to local councils. Just as members of a local government area must pay fees for local services in the form of rates, members of a university community have a responsibility to pay for university services. While not every local resident may use the local library, child-care centre or park, it is compulsory that every resident pays, because unless that occurred the services simply would not exist. If given the choice, most residents of course would choose not to pay. However, the result would be no garbage collection, no child-care centre, no public library, no community functions, no swimming pools, no community programs and no support for residents, particularly the elderly. The same can be said of university campuses. Student unions can provide subsidised services. Unlike a private enterprise, the union’s aim is not to derive profit from provision. Similar to tax, services can be provided to students on a needs and costs price basis. As a member of a local community, we contribute rates. As a member of society, we pay taxes. As a member of a university community, students pay fees. The principles and outcomes are the same: a viable and fully-functioning community which looks after the interests of all.

Critics of student union services argue that students should have the option to pay for what they use and not pay for services that they do not. However, without universal membership students would not have the option of choosing different services because they simply would not be there. The government assumes that student services will be replaced. That simply would not be true for many campuses under VSU, particularly those in regional areas. Most students are only on campus approximately 30 weeks of the year. There is no rule against McDonald’s or some other institution or corporation setting up shop at the University of Sydney. They do not do it because it is not financially viable for them to do it—to have, for 20 weeks of the year, essentially no custom.

Things are much, much worse for Australia’s isolated campuses. Amber Jacobus, President of the University of Western Sydney Students Association, comments that vending machines would probably replace food outlets and says:

“Why would you come out to UWS, where there is no food on campus and no buses? That’s sort of degrading … we already suffer that stigma of coming from the west.”

VSU will further divide the have- and have-not campuses. While the sandstone and Group of Eight universities will be able to attract some private enterprise, campuses like UWS will suffer. The introduction of VSU will only further the education minister’s agenda of creating a two-tiered higher education system in this country. The minister is intent on driving a wedge between the rich city campuses and those struggling in isolated areas.

In rural and regional areas young people often have little access to cultural and social opportunities. Student organisations currently fill the gap. At Monash University’s Gippsland campus the student union contributes funds to run the local leisure centre. At the University of New England the students association is the sole administrator of the student employment database and works with the local community to find jobs for students. The UNE students union partly funded the town’s local cinema and runs a 24-hour radio station—one of the oldest regional community radio stations in Australia.

Across this country student organisations often provide the only forms of these types of services in these rural and regional communities. The Minister for Education, Science and Training continues to make the suggestion that student organisations are run by left-wing radical students who are misappropriating the funds of their peers. This is simply not true. Student organisations are democratic organisations. As with all democratic organisations, all members have a right to vote for their leaders and they have voted for leaders in the past, such as Joe Hockey, Peter Costello and Tony Abbott. If they do not like what their leaders say they can vote them out and run for the position themselves.

The democratic process occurs annually on university campuses across this country. Universal student union membership fees ensure that all students are represented and that they are provided with relevant campus services. Like them or hate them, student organisations have been at the forefront of vital campaigns for decades. Students have been trailblazers in successfully campaigning for real change on issues. The Vietnam War is a perfect example of this where students played a key role in facilitating action against that war. Students have also been at the forefront of the massive public movement against the war in Iraq.

More recently, students have campaigned against this government’s attacks on higher education that saw a 25 per cent increase in HECS and an increase in the number of domestic undergraduate full fee paying places to 35 per cent for government funded courses. Whether or not you agree with that, the point is that dissent is a vital part of our civil society. It is vital that students have a right to have an organisation which expresses their views. On a number of views, which everyone agrees with, such as the opposition to apartheid in South Africa, students played a critical role. No-one defends it now, but there was opposition from the current Prime Minister to sanctions opposing apartheid in South Africa. Thank goodness for the student movement.

The introduction of VSU would mean that there is no official body for students to participate in higher education policy. NUS continues to be the most effective representative lobby group for students and young people. The government has already got rid of the Australian Youth Policy Action Coalition and replaced it with the Prime Minister’s handpicked National Youth Roundtable. As time goes on we hear less and less from that. This government has also slashed funding for environment and heritage groups in my portfolio throughout Australia, threatening to also remove their tax deductible status if they make any political statements. This is a government obsessed with silencing activity by community organisations.

Student organisations are not replaceable. Just on the border of my electorate sits the University of Sydney. There are many student organisations within Sydney University, the SRC of which I was a member, the union, Sydney Uni Sport and the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association. All of these organisations contribute to a vibrant and robust campus culture. These organisations provide opportunities for students to get involved in activities outside of the classroom whether that is sport, clubs and societies, or student politics. Through involvement in these extracurricular activities, students make friends, have relationships and develop themselves as human beings as well as having fun from time to time on the sports field. They develop skills such as preparing a budget for the film society, running a membership drive for the Christian club or arguing with the worlds brightest students through being involved in a global intervarsity debating tournament. These are skills in running and promoting organisations, in motivating people and in solving problems. These are skills demanded by Australian employers. They are skills which provide social capital and a benefit to the Australian community as a whole.

It has been said that to develop these skills and retain a vibrant campus culture only sport and social societies need be retained on campuses. However the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney has acknowledged the importance of a full range of activities. Professor Gavin Brown has said:

“I seriously believe that experience in student politics or in the SRC … is enormously valuable both to the individuals who participate in it and ultimately to the country … you should provide students with the opportunity to be engaged in serious political involvement while they are students, because that is ultimately to the net benefit of society.”

The University of Sydney’s SRC has many advocate services such as help with Youth Allowance and Centrelink, legal matters, tax advice, harassment issue, academic issues, problems with university administration and tenancy advice. No other body within the university could provide these services to people, many of whom come from a disadvantaged background. How can a student be represented by simply an advocate whose employment is dependent upon the institution to which they are appealing? It is important that these organisations exist.

In summary, voluntary student unionism will mean the death of student organisations. It will not increase choice. It will take choice away. Students will be denied the choice to purchase subsidised food for their lunch. They will be denied the choice to put their child in child care whilst they attend class. They will be denied the choice to develop the essential skills that employers demand. They will be denied the choice to stand up and collectively oppose attacks on their own education and attacks on the education of their children. That is what this debate is about. When prominent individuals like John Coates and Kevin Gosper of the AOC, like Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush, like David Clarke, the Executive Chairman of Macquarie Bank and David Gallop of the NRL argued the case for student organisations, the minister would not listen. Now we have members of the coalition arguing the case. What the minister should do is stand with the community at large, say no to VSU and withdraw this legislation.