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Monday, 26 October 2009
Page: 10931

Mrs MOYLAN (7:17 PM) —I congratulate the member for McMillan for an excellent speech on a subject that is indeed dear to the hearts of those who represent rural and regional constituencies. As a former regional student, I am very grateful to have the opportunity to talk on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 and to do so on behalf of the many students within the rural and regional parts of the electorate of Pearce who will be quite disastrously impacted by the proposed changes to the Youth Allowance system contained in this bill. As the member for McMillan has just outlined, there are many commendable aspects to this legislation and I think its intent was genuine. The bill’s supporters throw around words like equity and fairness, which make it seem hard to argue against, but for students in rural and remote areas the legislation would have to come into question. They would argue that people using terms such as equity and fairness would see their aspirations end at the farm gate.

I do not think that any of us doubt that we should be ensuring that legislation in this place is fair and equitable and that the integrity of these kinds of measures is not compromised by people using taxpayers’ money unfairly or unnecessarily. While I am not against improvements to the Youth Allowance scheme, and indeed I welcome those improvements, I do so only to the extent that they do not crush the aspirations of thousands of young rural Australians hoping to attend university. In the second reading speech, the Minister for Education said:

Higher education is central to achieving this government’s vision of a stronger and fairer nation.

Perhaps the minister’s vision for Australia simply fails to recognise that there is an Australia outside the metropolitan areas. It is an Australia that is desperately seeking skilled professionals and an Australia where young people are most in need of encouragement to attend higher education.

I suppose I feel strongly about this bill because as a young student in a country town, Narrogin, I did not have the opportunity to go to university, despite desperately wanting to do so. It was not until I was a mature person that I actually had that opportunity. I cannot begin to tell you how enormously grateful I was to have that opportunity. I feel very strongly about this. I think everyone should have the opportunity to educate themselves to the very best of their ability and to maximise their opportunities and talents. I think that as a country we should be doing everything to support that ambition. As I said, I grew up in rural Australia, in the country town of Narrogin, which is south-east of Perth. It was not an option for me, and indeed many of my classmates, to attend university in the city. The financial costs associated with moving to Perth and living independently were insurmountable. Since then, improvements have been made to the accessibility of university, but I fear—and I think that fear is shared by many rural students, their parents and their grandparents—that the changes proposed in this legislation will take away that option of higher education once again.

It was not so many years ago that a number of people in the electorate of Pearce who were concerned about the low participation rates of students conducted a survey within the Avon region. There were some people from Muresk Agricultural College involved in that survey. What that survey demonstrated was a low participation rate of rural students in higher education, whether it be university or TAFE. To that effect, I noticed that the minister said in her second reading speech:

Participation of regional students at university fell to 18.08 per cent by 2007 against a percentage of the population of 25.4 per cent, the remote participation rate fell to 1.12 per cent against a percentage of the population of 2.5 per cent and low-SES participation languished at around 15 per cent against a percentage of the population of 25 per cent.

The reforms outlined in this bill will help to arrest these trends by increasing access to, and better targeting, income support for students who need it the most, through a fairer and more equitable allocation of existing resources.

I see this as curious logic. I do not think that it is going to achieve its intended aim—that is, increase the participation rate. I think the good measures incorporated in this bill—the increase in the availability and value of scholarships—are great, but I think we are still going to cut out a vast number of students who would wish to go on to higher education and who will be denied that opportunity. So I am not quite sure about what I see as the skewed logic of that statement. Those figures showing the dropping participation rates of rural and remote students were brought home to me during that community survey that took place a few years ago and concerned many of us representing various constituencies at that time.

The first and most critical change proposed in this legislation is to amend the criteria by which students are considered independent for the purposes of eligibility for youth allowance. This legislation will bring down the age of independence from 25 to 22. This will increase the number of students who are automatically considered independent. At the same time, the existing workforce participation criteria have been significantly altered, which will effectively make a great many students, especially from regional Australia, ineligible for the payments. It is a kind of smoke and mirrors or pea and thimble trick, where you give on one side and then you take away on the other.

Previously a student who had earned $19,532 in 18 months after leaving high school could qualify for youth allowance as an independent. Alternatively, they could work 15 hours a week for 2 years or 30 hours a week for 18 months within 2 years of leaving school. At least this provided a great deal of flexibility for students, many of whom elected to take a gap year so that they could get some assistance while they undertook full-time study. As a consequence of this legislation, only the latter option—that is, that students must undertake full-time work for 18 months within 2 years of finishing school—will be available. This change came about because there was evidence that students from high-income families were claiming youth allowance after taking a gap year to earn enough to qualify. The idea is that by taking away from these ‘rich students’ we can give more to the ‘poor students’. On paper this is a noble aim, but when the government tries its hand at the Robin Hood act it always seems as though middle Australia are the ones who are inadvertently the worst affected. We only need to look at the ludicrously emotive discourse behind the so-called fairer private health insurance package of legislation to see this effect in action. In this case it is the rural and regional students and all those students who have no choice but to leave their family home to attend university that are the real losers.

For a great many rural students, taking a gap year to earn the required amount was their only way of qualifying for youth allowance and they have relied on the payments to meet the costs associated with relocating closer to their university. The Victorian parliament’s Labor dominated review into these measures concluded that ‘the removal of the main workforce participation route will have a disastrous effect on young people in rural and regional areas,’ and unanimously denounced them. We cannot forget that, when a student must relocate to the city to go to university, they face an enormous financial burden that other students simply do not. One only needs to read the submissions made by numerous rural students and parents to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs inquiry into this bill to get an impression of the immense stress that these costs cause. These measures affect rural students more so than others because in small regional towns there are limited job opportunities for unskilled workers fresh out of high school to work for 30 hours of work per week. Many rural students have traditionally relied on seasonal work to meet the eligibility requirements.

The government may defend all of this by claiming that their scholarship and relocation grants are of assistance, but this misses the point. It demonstrates the inability of the government to listen to and engage with rural and regional Australia. The problem is not with the payments that students get once they qualify for youth allowance, although no doubt the increases in this area will most certainly be welcomed by those who are eligible. The problem is that the new eligibility requirements adversely affect a whole group of students who need and deserve assistance, so they not only miss out on the allowance but also miss out on all the additional payments too.

It would clearly be unreasonable for the government to expect students to work 30 hours a week while they are undertaking full-time university study. So they must think that it is fully reasonable that students take off two years from university so that they can meet the requirement. Are they not aware that many universities and courses do not allow students to defer for two years? In some instances they will be forced to apply as mature age students because their school marks will no longer be relevant. Are they not aware that far fewer students actually take up their places at university after taking two years off instead of a single gap year? Perhaps if they took the time to listen to rural Australia they would know that jobs are not easy to come by, especially for young, unskilled workers, and that most rely on seasonal work, which rarely offers 30 hours per week and never offers 18 months worth of employment.

The government has also tried to justify these measures, by claiming that many more students will not need to prove their independence because they have raised the parental income test. These students will automatically be classed as a dependent and will be eligible for youth allowance in this way. This measure will be welcomed by those who it will benefit, but once again it is the rural students who will not be assisted.

Rural students often will not qualify because the value of the family farm or rural small business is above the threshold test for assets. What the government fails to recognise is that even where a farming family owns a property worth more than $2.286 million, which is the current cut-off, they may not have made a profit for a number of years and may indeed be cash poor. This is particularly so in areas that have undergone sustained years of drought. These properties are not readily saleable, and regional Australians with large assets may still be under enormous financial pressures. The Isolated Children’s Parents Association noted in their submission to the Senate inquiry:

A large proportion of our isolated students who come from families with little income but large asset bases will not be eligible to receive Youth Allowance or associated benefits.

So we have a situation where thousands of students, for years to come, will simply miss out on the opportunity to pursue higher education.

The Minister for Education has said that this legislation will ‘open the doors of higher education to a new generation of Australians’. But at the same time it will close the doors for rural students and it will, in the long run, close the doors of regional hospitals, law firms and other much-needed services, because it is the rural students that are more likely to take their professions back to the country. Rural and regional students who miss out on youth allowance as a direct result of these changes should still receive support to assist them in attending university. A scholarship program dedicated to these students would ensure that the doors do not close on their future.

As I said, I personally know what it feels like to be a rural student whose university aspirations are shattered or not fulfilled because of the insurmountable financial challenges associated with relocation. But I can only imagine what the parents of current regional high school students must feel when they have to tell their children that they simply cannot afford to send them to university. It is a national shame that such legislation is before us today—legislation that will force rural students into dilemmas that belong to decades past.

I would like to again quote the Federal Council of the Isolated Children’s Parents Association of Australia, from the submission they made to the Senate inquiry. They made the point:

Access and affordability to education from early childhood to tertiary education is of paramount importance to rural and remote families. There are approximately 3,500 ICPA members who reside in rural and remote Australia. These members are reporting, with increasing desperation, the difficulty they are having accessing and affording appropriate secondary and tertiary education, for their children. … Students wishing to access an appropriate education frequently must relocate from their homes and their families in order to access most education institutions. This involves substantial upfront costs which are often out of the reach of students and their families. In many cases students choose not to participate and hence do not reach their full educational potential.

Their submission also said:

Students will become less inclined to pursue higher education if they are forced to work full time first and remain away from the study environment for two years. Studies have shown that on completion of their university studies, rural and remote students are more likely to return to their communities or another rural community to seek employment than non-rural students. Rural and remote students who choose to study at TAFE or commence an apprenticeship are faced with similar challenges in accessing financial assistance for relocation and eligibility for Youth Allowance. Rural and remote students need to be encouraged to pursue post secondary education and receive financial assistance to access study options.

I listened in part to the speech by the member for Grey in this place just a short while ago and I think he made the point that it is not easy for families to make the decision to send their young people away. Emotionally it is a hard decision. That can be greatly exacerbated by the immense financial pressures in order for parents to give to their young people the opportunities that many in city areas take so much for granted. So there is a cost for families, and it is not just financial; it is an emotional cost. It is that difficulty of sending your young people away and having that fracturing of the family as well. I do not think that should be overlooked.

Offering more assistance to more students does not come without a cost. Students should not be forced to work to meet unrealistic criteria just so that they have access to youth allowance payments. We in this place need to be doing all that we can to encourage young people to pursue higher education—not creating barriers to that education and to those aspirations, not killing off that enthusiasm. I think it is great tragedy. I do not think that we pay enough attention to the issues that impact on our young people, and I am pleased to be participating at the moment in some committee work that is looking at some of the issues that impact on young people.

I am afraid that this legislation has the potential to have quite a devastating impact on people living in rural and regional Australia. I hope that the government will look very carefully at the evidence that was given to the Senate inquiry, listen to the very real concerns being expressed throughout the community, particularly by rural and regional communities, and better target this legislation to ensure the desired equity and make sure that young people do have every opportunity to pursue their aspirations to higher education.