UNIVERSITIES LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2016

I rise on behalf of the Greens to express our support for the Universities Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 before us. I have listened intently to the previous speakers and I think they have raised many of the issues relevant to this legislation. However, I want to begin on a different tack by talking a bit about the principles involved here and about university legislation more generally. I am supportive of the bill, but I have concerns with it, and I welcome the amendments on the notice paper to address some of those concerns. It is really important for us to recognise that this legislation was introduced early last year, or rather we first learnt there was legislation on the agenda early last year; there were reports in the media. It has been very concerning for me. I have met with constituents on several occasions since that time to try to get a bit more detail about what was planned and how it was going to be implemented. I even asked some questions during question time to try to get a bit more detail about it, and one of the concerns we need to acknowledge at this point is about consultation on the new legislation. I commend the National Tertiary Education Union for its consistent advocacy for students during this reform time. Part of that has involved, from time to time, an occasional protest. I met those students when speaking on the steps of Parliament House and I have attended protests at the universities. All of us have received correspondence from Edith Cowan University; the University of Western Australia; I do not have it in my file, but I am sure my officers have also spoken to representatives from Curtin University; and, of course, the Murdoch University Guild. Each of those institutions has expressed concern about the Universities Legislation Amendment Bill 2016. It is not surprising to understand why, because education plays a foundational role in society. Public education has been on the agenda at both state and federal elections because there is concern about the balance between public and private funding and whether our educational institutions will maintain the degree of excellence that they have achieved so far in this time of belt-tightening. Our concern is how this legislation will affect the foundational role of education in society, in Extract from Hansard [particular on this principal perspective that the Greens have committed to, which is that we support legislation that delivers free, high-quality and well-funded lifelong public education and training that is accessible to all. We have continuously put that view in every debate that we have engaged in, whether it is to do with TAFEs, universities or public schools. We believe that universities are places of learning and research where the needs of the whole community, values of service to the public, scholarships, and academic freedom should take priority over sectional and commercial interests. This bill touches on that. It is very important for us to recognise that and not to stray too far from our fundamental commitment to ensure that people have access to good-quality education in the tertiary field. We have sought to support measures that advance this philosophical position. We have advocated for legislation for elected staff and student representatives on university governing bodies and to increase democratic participation by academics, staff, students and community representatives in the decision-making processes within universities. The student services and amenities fee that we are talking about today, or any similar levy on students, should be collected and spent by democratically elected, student-controlled organisations in order to ensure the best and fairest provision of student services on university campuses. I commend the government for amending this bill in the lower house. As briefings have evolved over time, the bill has improved quite a bit. The only remaining concerns that we need to raise are the lack of consultation and the reduction in the number of academic and student positions on governing councils. The bill amends the acts of the four public universities to provide a common scheme for raising money, which will remove unnecessary administrative complexities. It also explicitly sets out the options available to universities when raising capital and provides that a university need only approach the Minister for Education and the Treasurer if it intends to seek a guarantee on borrowings. The bill also amends the required number of members and the composition of the university’s governing councils. In the other place we saw some improvements to the bill by the amendments that were passed and, as I noted, we are supportive of them. Hon Peter Collier: I am delighted to be of assistance.

Hon LYNN MacLAREN: No worries. The Minister for Education should be acknowledged for that. I arrive at a very late stage of the whole process, but the improvements are good; I do not mean to be disparaging.

Hon Peter Collier: When I respond, I will tell you how I got to that point.

Hon LYNN MacLAREN: Okay. Hon Peter Collier: The intent was never, ever to remove money from the guild. The intent was to provide flexibility. I will explain that in my reply.

Hon LYNN MacLAREN: That is important. At one stage it was suggested that this legislation could go to a committee and that we would get that kind of detail about intent and hear what people feared would be the result. This has proven to be successful in the past. Had the legislation gone offline and been examined from different perspectives and had the different stakeholders been brought in, we could have addressed the concerns, particularly from the University of Western Australia, which was arguing to be dealt with separately from this legislation. That would have assisted us in understanding both the government’s intent and also the impact on universities and student guilds. It would have been good to do that. It was not possible at the end, but I would have benefited from that and it would have been good for all of us, for those universities and particularly for the guilds, to feel more involved in this process. We are now at the point at which the bill proposes to reduce the number of members on the governing councils and senates of the four universities from between 19 and 22 to 17. The reduction is applied disproportionately to the number of elected academic staff members, because there are three members on the University of Western Australia’s and Murdoch University’s senate, and Edith Cowan University and Curtin University have two. Furthermore, the bill changes how the academic representation is selected, from being elected to being appointed by the board chair or the President of the Academic Council. This remains a concern to us and is a diversion from the principles of open and transparent participation on these governing bodies. The government argued that it is still possible to have more than one academic appointed, but sometimes it is important to be explicit about these things; I think that is the intent of the amendments before us. Then there is the student services and amenities fee. The tabled bill originally sought to remove the provision that a minimum of 15 per cent of staff funding be passed onto the guilds, instead providing that the governing body make a statute to prescribe how much of the fee is paid to the student guild. The National Tertiary Education Union recommended that the bill be amended to protect the minimum 50 per cent of the SSAF funding collected from students and paid to student guilds and I note that the bill was amended to achieve this. I commend the NTEU for its successful advocacy and also the members of the opposition and government in the other place who successfully achieved that. However, it is our view that the legislation was developed and introduced without proper consultation with the stakeholders. Representative bodies of students and staff were not given an opportunity to provide any meaningful input into the legislation. I have just reviewed the briefing papers that I received over the months and information has been changed and updated according to what could be gleaned over time from various meetings that were eventually granted. I would appreciate the minister addressing that in his second reading reply. I am sure the minister would be aware of the correspondence from the UWA and Murdoch University guilds that have outlined their concerns, including the lack of consultation, the reduction of student numbers on governing councils from three to two and the removal of the 50 per cent minimum amount of the SSAF fee being paid to the guild. These issues have been canvassed already by speakers, and it is good that the minister has indicated he will address them in his second reading reply. I can see the minister is shaking his head about that.

Hon Peter Collier: What you actually said is incorrect, but I will address that in my response.

Hon LYNN MacLAREN: That would be good. The minister could address specifically the correspondence that we received from the guild at Murdoch University, which the minister would know is in my electorate, as is Curtin University and the University of Notre Dame Australia. It is an issue that is a direct concern to those students who are in my electorate. The Murdoch University Guild of Students has written to me, and I will briefly put this on the record so the minister can address these matters. The summary states — We have conferred with the Presidents of UWA, ECU and Curtin in this matter and so give the following proposal in response to this bill: 1. We request that the SSAF aspects of the Bill be split—where the Commercial Aspects are passed, and the Governance and SSAF aspects are considered in Committee. 2. In solidarity, we support UWA’s request — The guild refers to the Labor Party’s amendment — that the Labor Party split the UWA bill from the Universities Legislation Amendment Act 2016 (WA) in its entirety, or that the changes to the make-up of its Senate be removed. We understand that UWA has a distinct, active and engaged alumni culture that adds to the governance of the University. Members will remember this is the Murdoch University Guild of Students that has written to me. The letter continues — 3. Should it not be possible to split the bill, we would request that the Greens support a revisit to this legislation and a repeal of the problematic sections as soon as practicable. We must stress that our preference would be to not lose the provisions that are currently protecting our guarantee of stable and consistent funding. Rationale • The SSAF is a student fee levied to pay for important student support services and initiatives that add to the student experience and allow students to graduate as well-rounded individuals. • The requirement to receive 50% is important to Student Guilds and students, and we are confident that the current act’s perceived conflict with federal SSAF legislation is unlikely to trigger controversy in the short term and that any actual conflict can be ironed out with a proper and consultative review. • The current proposed removal was suggested without any University consultation with students and Student Guilds about the real impacts it will have. • Guarantees from Universities that funding levels will be maintained go against any claim that these particular changes are needed by the universities. However, the University guarantees are less reliable than legislation, undermining our ability to plan ahead financially. There are further concerns around transparency and cost-shifting that require some unpackingA survey of non-WA Universities by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that over 40% of Universities do not publically report basic facts about total annual SSAF revenue collected and basic facts about how the SSAF revenue was spent. Subject to annual elections and scrutiny by students, the WA Guilds are usually more transparent regarding SSAF expenditure than their respective universities. There is a risk that students and the public at large could end up knowing less about how SSAF is used.  Issues around transparency make it difficult to interrogate concerns about how SSAF is being spent. The NUS warns us that ‘There is an emerging trend that some universities are looking to cost shift services that have been funded from other sources into the pool of SSAF funded services. As the SSAF is capped this can only occur by displacing the services that have been traditionally funded by SSAF.’ Examples of this cost shifting are the use of SSAF for academic library funding and also equity programs that face HEPPP funding cuts, or expenditure on capital works that should be funded from tuition fees and government grants rather than a fee for the provision of non-academic services. I believe that was the point being made by honourable members who spoke before me. The letter continues — These kinds of cuts will affect all students, particularly rural and regional students who relocate to university without the support networks of family and friends present. That point has been made very well. These are concerns that we would benefit from the minister addressing in his reply to the second reading debate. However, as I said, the Greens will support the swift passage of this legislation through this place. I understand that many of the concerns have been dealt with in the other place and we hope to deal with the remaining concerns in the amendments on the supplementary notice paper.