The Coalition needs to stop filibustering and allow the Senate to vote on the student services and amenities bill, says National Union of Students president Jesse Marshall.
The past Senate sitting period has been dominated by discussion of the bill, which Marshall said had been unnecessary and had missed the point of the bill itself.
“I think overall their discussions about the bill have been about someone’s idea of a return to compulsory student unionism, which this bill simply isn’t,” he said. “They are talking about money being compulsorily acquired from students by student organisations, which is not what this bill is.”
The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill would allow universities to charge students up to $250 a year for the provision of services such as counselling, health and legal support. It has the support of Universities Australia as well as the NUS.
“In the last sitting week almost every minute of government business was dedicated to discussing this bill,” Marshall added. “There was an extremely lengthy second reading debate and they have now got it bogged down in the committee stage.”
In the Senate on September 19, Senator Brett Mason, the shadow minister for universities and research had referred to the bill as the ‘Left’s cause célèbre for an ideological twilight’.
“They are hoping like hell to extract money from students for purposes the Left deems appropriate. The Coalition opposes this bill because we do not believe that students should be forced to pay for services that they would not or cannot use. It is that simple,” he said.
“It is not a complicated debate. Under this bill, every one of 1 million Australian students will be forced to pay $250 per year regardless of their ability to pay or their ability or willingness to use the services that their fees will be financing. This amounts to a $250 million new tax on those in our society who, in many cases, can least afford to pay for it. Students are already struggling under the tough economic conditions. This bill means $250 less for textbooks, study materials, transport and cost-of-living expenses or, at best, $250 more in HECS debts.”
Mason told Campus Review through a spokesman that the opposition was not filibustering but giving the issue proper consideration after a long period of delay. “One of the first bills introduced by the Gillard government after the last election was this bill to remove student choice and to get rid of VSU,” he said.
“Yet it’s taken them over a year to get around to scheduling it for debate in the Senate, so the delay is entirely due to that failure by Labor.”
Marshall said that the opposition’s tactics had been repetitive and not contributed anything new to the debate, however. “Their speakers continue to reiterate the same points, they’ve already had their say,” he said. “We think it’s time for there to be a vote on the bill.”
He said that while the NUS had some criticisms of the bill, they generally supported it.
“We would like to see more students having a say over how the money will be spent, and we’d like to see more of a guarantee that students will be involved, although we have secured some amendements,” he said. “The government has agreed to strengthen the requirements for student consultation but we still feel there could be more pressure on universities about how they consult.”
Not all students are in favour of the fee. Trisha Jha, 19, a full-time second-year student at Australian National University said that she was against the fee because it was unfair to make people pay for services they would not use.
“I don’t have a problem with [health and legal services] receiving funding from universities, the problem is that it is compulsory funding,” said Jha, who is a member of the student union and the ANU Liberal Club.
“I’m a full-time student, I utilise the services that the union provides, so I’m more than happy to pay union fees, but that’s not the case for everyone. I think there’s a lot to be said for a voluntary, insurance [style] policy – students could sign up for a lower fee and they could have access to specific services. It’s paid for but you’re not involving people who feel like they have no need for the service.”
But Marshall said the funding was essential for the provision of basic, essential services and called on the opposition to allow a vote to happen on the bill, which will be debated again in the next Senate sitting week starting October 11.