Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2010

19 September 2011

Before the dinner break I was talking about the ideological obsession of the opposition with regard to the VSU legislation. I supposed that those senators and members must have been on the wrong side of the debate in student organisations some decades ago, and so they had decided it was payback time in relation to their childish VSU agenda. That might seem to be harsh terminology to people, but the word childish is not a term that I have coined in relation to the opposition's VSU agenda; it is a term that has been used by Professor Richard Larkins. Professor Larkins is not a long-haired radical who haunts the imaginations of those opposite. He is not a postmodern theorist against whom John Howard loved to wage culture wars. No, he is none of those things. He is a scientist with a distinguished career in medicine and research, specialising in diabetes and endocrinology. Until his retirement, he was also the vice-chancellor of our nation's largest university and chair of Universities Australia.

Professor Larkins rightly pointed out, when the Howard government introduced VSU legislation, that the so-called reform was not about freedom of association or compulsory unionism. It was about whether universities were allowed to levy a modest fee on their students in order to fund essential services and amenities and enrich campus experiences for students. It was about whether the cost of such services and amenities was to be spread equitably across all students. It was about whether these services would be funded by user-pays charges, which would see some services priced out of the reach of many of those students in most need of assistance—that is something that I recall from my own experience. It was about whether universities would be forced to cut already overstretched teaching and research budgets in order to cross-subsidise services such as academic advocacy and extracurricular activities on campus. It was also about whether essential on-campus services such as child care and employment advice were simply even going to exist anymore. And it was about whether the quality of the student experience would be downgraded, as societies and activities that were once such an integral part of campus withered and died because of a lack of secure and sustainable funding resources.

Upon coming to government, this government instituted a review into the impact of VSU. That review demonstrated quite clearly that all of these adverse outcomes that had been speculated about did in fact eventuate. The review found that a growing number of campuses had no independent student representative organisation—that was certainly a problem in Western Australia. It found that the adequacy and autonomy of academic support and advocacy services was undermined on many campuses. It found that there had been a massive reduction in funding to the student services sector. It found that institutions and student organisations had been forced to offset cuts by doing things like closing or curtailing services, shedding jobs, increasing prices, instituting new user-pays charges and cross-subsidising services from other parts of their already tight budgets. The review found that there had been a direct negative impact on campus life and on the student experience, including on things like partici­pation in sporting activities. How typical of the former government's short-sighted and reactionary approach to public policy in this country that it implemented a policy that led to job losses in the university sector and reduced the capacity of universities to offer Australia's young people the opportunity to develop into academically successful, well rounded and healthy individuals. And how typical of it that it undermined our capacity to support employment in troubled economic times and to confront the challenges that Australia will face into the future.

Professor Larkins struggled to understand why VSU was such a totemic issue for those opposite. He said at the time:

What we are really talking about is micro-regulation and control by a government that purports to have small government and deregulation as its article of faith. Far from deregulation, we have it prescribing in minute detail what our universities should do in terms of industrial relations and forbidding them from charging a small fee for services that allow community-building on campus and a richer experience for all.

Professor Larkins suggested that, rather than focusing on ideological trivia, the Howard government might have liked to focus on why public expenditure per student had fallen 30 per cent since 1995, the biggest fall of any OECD country; on how it could have supported the $7 billion dollar export industry which universities have developed by providing quality education experiences to overseas students; or it might have liked to consider what could be done to encourage the development of innovative new indust­ries in high-technology manufacturing through investment in research and development. The Howard government, Larkins argued:

… should have a collective feeling of shame that its childish and ideological preoccupations should have made it oblivious of the real totemic issues.

Ideological trivia and childish preoccu­pations—not my words. Unlike the Howard government, this government is committed to addressing the real issues in higher education. Upon coming to power, Labor commissioned, received and publicly released the most comprehensive review of higher education in a decade—the Bradley review. We know that the then Deputy Prime Minister announced the government's response to the Bradley review into higher education: a whole new approach to higher education that she summed up as 'politicians out and students in'. In the words of the Australian newspaper, generally no champion of the Rudd government:

University vice-chancellors have given Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard a rousing and extended round of applause, relieved that the Government had finally given them a broad vision to work to.

Nearly two years on, our higher education revolution is on track. We have lifted publicly funded places by 7.5 per cent; we have increased Australian postgraduate awards; payments to universities for enrolling students from disadvantaged backgrounds have dramatically increased; we have had 100 Super Science Fellowships for young researchers, and 1,000 future fellowships for mid-career researchers have been created, half a billion dollars of extra funding over four years have been committed for the indirect costs of research; and a massive $2.9 billion investment has already been delivered for higher education infrastructure. In total, a massive injection of $5.7 over four years to higher education and innovation reform, which is helping achieve our target of increasing the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor qualifications to 40 per cent by 2025. We have a commitment to a revolution in higher education after many years of coalition neglect. This commitment is further evidenced by the fact that higher education spending will jump from 0.82 per cent of GDP in 2007-08 to 1.1 per cent of GDP in 2010-11. Here we are at that point in time today. This bill is part and parcel of that commitment.

The second reading speech of the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations said it would support universities and students to help undo the damage done by voluntary student unionism. But this bill does not compel students to join organisations against their will, and it will not allow student service and amenities fees to be used in support of political parties or to support candidates for public office. In other words, as we said at the time, 'politicians out'. But it will encourage students and universities to work together to ensure adequate academic support services, independent student representation and advocacy, an enriching campus experience, and welfare services that support those that most need assistance. In other words, 'students in'.

Now I want to focus specifically on the question of student representation. The bill we have before us will formally ensure that all of our publicly funded universities will provide students with opportunities for democratic representation and participation in the governance of our universities. That is through the new national student repre­sentation and advocacy protocols. This is a first for the history of higher education in this nation, and as a former student representative I welcome this initiative wholeheartedly. As Minister Ellis has rightly said, 'Students' views should be heard in the decision-making processes of our univer­sities as these decisions vitally affect their future—that is in line with the democratic values that underpin our nation.'

Student involvement in university governance has also played a vital role in ensuring the quality of university programs and support services, and the value of the broader student experience on campus. This is a fact that is widely recognised in the United Kingdom where publicly funded higher education institutions participate in what is a rigorous quality assurance regime administered by an independent quality assurance agency. A key role of the quality assurance agency in the UK is to establish objective and comparative benchmarks of quality and performance in the higher education sector. So it is terrific that Labor has secured the agreement of the states to establish an agency with similar responsibilities here in Australia. Since 2005, the quality assurance agency in the UK has been publishing outcomes and papers based on the audits it has undertaken. These papers reveal that a focus on quality has led universities to value effective representation as a critical tool for improving and evaluating academic programs and the wider student experience on campuses. We know that in the UK, as a consequence of these reforms, senior institutional managers are taking care when they are fostering close links with student representative bodies at their institutions. This is something that more care needs to be taken with here in Australia, and we need to mandate these standards across the nation.

Students are generally represented at the institutional level in Australia by student organisations and, at the operational level, by student representatives elected by department or by program of study. These arrangements, as in the UK, are also common with our own institutions in Australia. However, in the UK the desire to ensure that student representation is effective, and not merely a form, has led institutions to implement a range of initiatives to enhance student participation in decision making. These include appointing paid student liaison officers and representation coordinators. It includes things like developing guides to assist staff to make the most of student representatives. It is things like enshrining rights to representation in student charters. It is about using virtual learning environments to facilitate communication between student representatives and the student body. It is also about transferrable skills modules designed for student representatives that carry academic credit—all terrific things. There is much that our own higher education institutions can learn from these developments in the UK, and I would really look forward to seeing them underway here. However, it is not the job of government to dictate to our institutions exactly which steps they should take to ensure effective student representation. That is the job of those charged with the management of our universities, in partnership with students and their organisations. The most effective measures for enhancing student participation will vary across campuses, depending on the nature of the institutions concerned, the characteristics of their student organisations and the composition of their student body.

I am very confident that the Student Representation and Advocacy Protocols introduced by this bill will ensure that effective student representation is given the priority it deserves by our universities so that student representation can strengthen the quality of the academic programs provided by our universities and reinforce democratic traditions amongst Australian students. This evening, for this reason, as well as for the very significant beneficial effects this bill will have on student welfare and campus amenities more generally, I commend the bill to the Senate.