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Thursday, 14 March 2002
Page: 1423

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (11:14 AM) —Congratulations, Deputy Speaker Scott, on your elevation to the deputy speakership. I found the preceding speech very interesting. I remind the parliamentary secretary of Tasmania's great involvement in the Antarctic, something of which I am sure she is well aware. I welcome in the parliament her news about the air link, which sounds to have terrific potential for the future, but I agree with her that we have to be very careful how we manage that tourism potential. One thing I might not have mentioned to her before, just for the record, is that we share Shakespeare's birthday. That is not far off—and we will both be turning 30!

Dr Stone —Absolutely!

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —Absolutely. In terms of appropriations, I would like to continue a theme that I have spoken of in this parliament since I have been here and fortunate enough to be re-elected by the good people of Braddon. It is related to higher education, its financial pressures and the lack of support for families and students who are taking on continuing education and further education. Again, I would like to highlight some areas that I believe are very relevant, not only to my electorate but to average Aussie families throughout Australia, in particular to those that are doing it pretty tough.

I mentioned the other day that there was an interesting survey from Newspoll late last year of 1,200 adults—grandfathers, grandmothers and parents of young people. Eighty-four per cent said they looked forward to and encouraged their children to go on and further their education, be it at university, TAFE or wherever else that education would take them. But only 34 per cent of them had any sense of reality of what that cost would be. That is a fairly disturbing statistic. There is no doubt that most people tend to concentrate their costs on their children's primary and secondary education, but unfortunately the days of going through higher education free of charge or with little financial impost are well and truly over.

There needs to be—and I have mentioned it before—greater public awareness education of what the costs will be. The reality is, and most people would be shocked by these figures, that the cost of doing a university degree can range between $18,000 and $21,000 a year. That is a fair old whack in anybody's language, but if you are not prepared for it then it makes the situation very difficult. It is very important to note that the Commonwealth does support families and students through the Youth Allowance and Austudy, some accommodation allowance and even some isolated students allowances. But when you look at the actual income threshold involved in terms of means testing you would have to say, in relative terms and real terms, that it is very low. So it excludes many families who I believe are on the margin in terms of the income threshold and that makes it very difficult for them.

Looking at some of those costs—and it is important that they are on the record—the Australian Scholarship Group did an investigation of 30 institutions and they looked at costs of book buying and living costs. The full minimal cost they estimated of a three-year arts degree at university was $55,000. Okay, it is an investment by families and students and the community. For instance, the cost of doing a degree in medicine over six years would be $130,000. That is a lot of money to pay. The HECS liability, for instance, could be about $3,598. It can be deferred, but it is still a debt. It can be something like $6,000 to $10,000 for accommodation costs—and I will return to that in a moment—$700 for books, $470 for other course-related charges, $3,250 for food—I do not think I could get half-way through a year on that but that is the estimate—$1,340 for clothes, entertainment $1,430 and something like $870 for personal items, taking it to a total of about $18,000, a considerable cost. These costs are substantial and make it a question of survival for many students in higher education for both them and their families. Remember, these are essentials, not luxuries.

The costs are substantial and rising, and the ability to meet these financial imposts is lessening by degrees. There is more and more reliance by students on parental support, Commonwealth benefits, particularly Youth Allowance and Austudy, and on part-time and casual work, both for part-time and full-time students. That factor is one of the most significant changes, certainly in the last 15 to 20 years: full-time students are taking on part-time work and many students who are studying part time have to take on part-time work—and, in some instances, full-time work. That affects the time taken to get their degree. It affects their ability to study, the efficiency and effectiveness of their study and, ultimately and unfortunately for some, it determines whether they finish those studies at all.

Concomitant with part-time and full-time work—and I will return to that matter in a moment—is, unfortunately, an increase in debt. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee's major survey of Australian undergraduate university student finances for 2000 found that, in 2000, 10.7 per cent of undergraduate students obtained a loan in order to continue their studies, and that the average amount borrowed was nearly $4,000. It might not seem like a lot of money to people who receive fairly hefty incomes, but when you are on the margin or you do not have enough, it is very difficult. I can imagine the pressure both on parents and on those supporting students, who will do everything they can to support the student. Needless to say, there is also a reciprocal pressure on the student to work hard whilst they are doing their courses. For some, the pressure is so great that they would not put their families through that financial cost. It makes it more and more difficult and it certainly does have negative consequences.

The survey also pointed out that a significant number of students who would prefer to study full time, finances permitting, were from low socioeconomic family backgrounds; had applied for, but been refused, government income support; were either financially independent or financially dependent on relatively low income earners; had taken out a loan to continue study; had a deficit budget; and had not paid course fees up-front. So they are literally living in need and in debt. Thus a substantial demand for full-time study cannot be met because students simply cannot afford to study full time.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee's survey of Australian undergraduate student finances for 2000, under the heading `Work and Study' in their executive summary, came up with some information relating to students working part time and full time which is very interesting to take on board. The proportion of full-time students who are in paid employment during semester has increased in the last two decades. In 1984, about five in 10 undergraduates were employed during the semester. In 2000, more than seven in every 10 students were employed during the semester. And that is not just to get beer money; that is to get living money, survival money, in order to continue their courses.

Not only are more students in paid employment during the semester; those who are employed are working longer hours. In 1984, full-time undergraduate university students worked an average of five hours every week during semester. By 2000, full-time students worked an average of 14.4 hours a week, or about two days every week, and nearly three times the hours worked by students in 1984. I repeat: 14.4 hours per week during semester. The increase in paid work takes its toll on studies, according to the report. Nearly one in every 10 students, or about 33,900, who are employed frequently miss classes because of that work. Nearly two in every 10 students, or 70,600 students Australia wide, in paid employment say that the work adversely affects their study a great deal.

So we have increasing financial imposts on students and their families. We have more and more students who must work, who take part-time or full-time work. The hours involved in that work are increasing dramatically. It is affecting their studies and we know from surveys that students and their families are increasingly more in debt. That must affect participation rates. Where I come from, in the Mersey-Lyall region, which is basically the north-west and west coast of Tasmania, including King Island, unfortunately the participation rates, particularly for tertiary education, are amongst the lowest in Australia—historically so. So the issues I have raised here are exacerbated in my own electorate. It is not just the higher education participation rate that is relatively lower; our retention rates from year 12 into further education are also significantly lower state wide and, unfortunately, nationally. So that is an issue that we have to work at very strongly. I hope this government will be working nationally on these issues as well. In the last federal election, our policy of education priority zones was designed specifically to try and tackle some of these issues.

One of the things I find interesting about the lower participation rates, particularly in rural and regional areas, is that it is not only those on low incomes and those people who are below the threshold to receive youth allowance, Austudy and other allowances who are finding it very difficult. There is an added difficulty—I have raised this before and I will raise it again—and that is for the people and families that are near that low income threshold but receive no benefits at all. I refer to the discriminatory practice in Australia against students in rural and regional areas, who have to move away from where they live and to travel to continue their education. Families who are above that low income threshold receive no support at all. It is our estimate that something like $10,000 per annum is the geographic differential that occurs because of this discriminatory approach in education—the difference between supporting and not supporting families.

I would like to take the last remaining moments of my speech to share with this chamber and to put on the public record the difficulties that some of these families experience. Remember: students have to move away to continue their education. It is not a choice; it is a fact. It would cost them an extra $10,000 a year on top of any other charges or imposts faced by most students living in urban areas or in regional university towns. It is that $10,000 difference that I want to talk about and how it unfairly affects many of these families.

I would like to quote from a letter sent to me by Mr Robert Bourke from Penguin in my electorate.

Dear Sid

I would like to this opportunity to express to you my concerns in relation to the problems associated with the need for students, who reside on the North West Coast of Tasmania, who wish to further their education and are required to attend the University of Tasmania in Hobart.

It could equally have been Launceston.

My daughter currently finds herself in a position where she will be required to move to Hobart in order to undertake studies for a Pharmacy degree. There will be quite a number of other students who will find themselves in the same situation and I am anxious to highlight to you the financial impact this move will have on our family. This is not a case of “crying poverty” but one where I believe that because we choose to live where we do and that in order for our daughter to pursue her chosen career, she has to relocate and in her case it is to Hobart. The costs associated with this move has necessitated my wife reentering the workforce after nearly 20 years of being a “stay at home mother” in order for us to find the finance required to cover all expenses.

Remember: they receive no financial support at all. There is no taxation rebate or concession for this differential when their child has to move away from home. It continues:

The need for my wife to reenter the workforce for the sole purpose of funding our daughter's further education is evidence that there should be some consideration given to families who are being disadvantaged by living outside Hobart—

in this case—

If our family chose to live in Hobart it would not require my wife to work and the overall costs associated with our daughter attending University would be no more than what we have been paying for the past 10 years as we opted to send our daughter to a private school.

I wish to list the following major items of expenditure that we have or will be required to fund:

· Attendance at Unistart Program—1 week in Hobart—Travel—Accommodation—$600

· Accommodation—Jane Franklin College—$9,000.00

· HECS Fees—$3,600.00

· Purchase of items to fit-out accommodation—$400

Our daughter has also been employed on a part-time basis whilst living at home and therefore has been able to fund her own personal living and social expenses but it will be an unknown factor as to her ability to find suitable part-time work in Hobart that will be conducive to her studies. If this does eventuate then we will also be required to fund her personal living expenses.

In addition to the above there will be costs associated with our daughter either traveling home or us visiting Hobart where we will have costs associated with travel, accommodation and living expenses. As you can see from the above, people like us who live on the North West Coast are at a distinct disadvantage to those who live in Hobart or Launceston. Added to this is the fact that Government support is “means tested” and those of us who are deemed “ineligible” are being forced to somehow find the additional finance to fund their child's further education. In our case it has meant that my wife has had to find employment, something that we have great difficulty with, given the high rate of unemployment and the fact that she has most probably taken a job that one of our young unemployed could have had.

I raise that letter from Mr Robert Bourke as an example to illustrate the situation where you have, all things being equal, people who will not receive any financial support for their son or daughter going to university or further education. The fact is that these students have to leave the region. It is not an option; they have to leave. The estimate is—and Mr Bourke has pointed some of the costs out—that there would be a $10,000 differential if they lived in Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Sydney or wherever else a university centre is.

Why is that we cannot support those people in that differential? I am asking members to consider that need, because it is a need based on equity. I am asking members in this House and in my own party—and I hope other members opposite will be asking in their own parties—what type of support we could give to overcome that differential, even in a taxation sense. It may mean that you have to show your proof of university entrance and also accommodation receipts to claim some form of tax benefit. It may not be the whole amount—I appreciate that—but it would be something to help those people overcome that differential. I believe that differential is inequitable and unfair. These people are not asking for anything different from anyone else who may live in an urban centre or in a regional university centre. They are asking that they get some support to overcome that differential based on geography. (Time expired)