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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12050


Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (15:39): In joining the debate on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011 I commend the member for Parkes for his contribution and support his comments that this is a hollow victory in many ways. It is a hollow victory because over the past three years we have put regional students, their families, their teachers, their careers counsellors, their parents and even their grandparents through enormous heartache as they have struggled to understand exactly what this government has been trying to achieve in its reform of student income support.

I have been one of those who has advocated since I got in this place three years ago for the need to provide a fair and equitable system for student income support for regional students. I have argued that case very strongly on the basis that, if we are not going to provide universities in every regional town—which we all acknowledge would be impossible—then we are going to need to provide some assistance for those students to achieve their full potential.

In 2009, the current Prime Minister, who was then the education minister, announced significant changes to student income support, creating an enormous amount of uncertainty and stress throughout regional communities, for very little gain. From day one, members on this side of the House pointed out the problems with the changes being put forward by the minister, and we were ridiculed. We were ridiculed in this place and we were ridiculed publicly. We were accused of being political opportunists and we were accused of being negative, when in fact we were raising legitimate concerns on behalf of regional families.

Surely anyone with half an ounce of common sense, when they receive petitions signed by thousands of people and are inundated by emails from students, teachers and parents raising concerns about the reforms to student income support, would think: 'Maybe we've got a problem here. Maybe I should start listening to members from regional communities who are raising concerns on behalf of their constituents.' Instead, we were badgered and pilloried in this place and described as people who did not care about the education of our students.

I rejected all of those assertions at that time, and today, as I said, is bit of a hollow victory, because finally the government has recognised that it made a mistake. Finally the government has admitted that, in particular with references to the workforce participation criteria for independent youth allowance as applying to students in the so-called inner regional and outer regional boundaries, it made a mistake. This legislation aims to amend that mistake. My concern is, once again, that the changes being put forward in this bill not only are long overdue, after causing enormous angst over the years, but simply do not go far enough in addressing the fundamental concerns of equity in regional communities. This is a massive backflip by the government, but the problem has not gone away. One of the biggest issues facing regional families is the issue of supporting students when they are forced to move away from home to attend university. Members on this side have fought for a better deal for regional students over many years and on many occasions in this place.

I want to thank the many people who have supported this fight to get a better deal for regional students. In the other place, Senator Fiona Nash was at the forefront of the fight on behalf of the coalition. In this place, the member for Sturt, the member for Forrest, all of my National Party colleagues and all the Liberal regional MPs have spoken out, and I understand that many Labor regional MPs have also spoken out in their caucus, to try and make it clear to those opposite in positions of power that the changes that were made were detrimental in many aspects.

I am also one of those members who at the very outset pointed out that some of the changes that the former education minister was making in terms of the income thresholds for the dependent youth allowance were very good changes. So I do not think anyone was out there continually attacking the government in that regard. We came to this discussion in good faith and tried to make the case to the then education minister, the current Prime Minister, that, whilst some of the changes were going to benefit regional communities, those relating particularly to the independent youth allowance had been mishandled. It has taken until now, three years later, after all those years of uncertainty and confusion in regional communities, for us to get some long overdue changes.

I also want to put on the record my public thanks to the many thousands of people in the electorate of Gippsland who rallied to this cause and assisted me in my efforts to bring it to the attention of the government. Again, it was the students themselves, the teachers and careers counsellors, and, as I said before, the parents and grandparents who were concerned about the future of their young people.

I also want to thank people who made submissions to Professor Kwong Lee Dow's review of student income support reforms. I would like to thank the professor for the work he did in helping to compile this report. I had the opportunity to have a chat with the professor when he was in Traralgon, and highlighted the particular concerns we had at that stage about the boundary classifications in regional areas. I have had the chance to read the report and I think there are some good messages in there for both government members and members on this side of the House. I will briefly quote from the section called Notes from the Chair. Professor Kwong Lee Dow said:

An underlying tension has persisted throughout the consultations and the submissions to this review. Simply put, it is how to reconcile the competing needs of those on low incomes and those from rural, regional and remote communities.

Some argue that the most fundamental issue is to adequately provide for students from low-income families. They are the ones in greatest need, and whom the Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review) and the Australian Government seek to help through the student income support reforms. The top priority is to build the numbers and the proportion of these students within the Australian higher education student mix.

Professor Kwong Lee Dow goes on to say:

Others point to this review being established primarily to consider the needs of rural and regional students. They remind us that rural students are handicapped, relative to their metropolitan counterparts, by more limited schooling opportunities, smaller cohorts of peers with whom to collaborate and to compete and less specialist teaching in the critical final years of secondary education.

He went on to say:

They remind us as well that, for regional and rural communities to survive and thrive, more professionally educated people will be called for, and it is disproportionately from young people returning back to those communities with which they identify and feel affection that the future of regional Australia can best be assured.

I commend Professor Kwong Lee Dow on this report and recommend it to other regional MPs with an interest in this issue. He makes the point that while there are budget limitations that have restricted him in his work, he has highlighted the key point of equity for rural and regional students.

While I have acknowledged there are some positives to come out of the reforms before the House this afternoon, I still feel that we are tinkering around the edges of the student income support issue. I believe there needs to be a complete overhaul of the system. I take up the comments from the member for Parkes. He said in this place, that we can do better than this, that we can genuinely work together in a bipartisan way for all those members who are interested in this issue of regional education opportunity for young people right throughout Australia. He said, 'I believe we can do better in this place in the future and provide more support for young people who are forced to move away from home to achieve university dreams.'

It is well understood that young people in regional communities face additional barriers compared to those in metropolitan areas. Some of those barriers are aspirational, I acknowledge that, but there are also economic barriers which have been referred to many times during contributions to this debate. When I visit schools in my electorate, I talk to many students about this issue of aspiration and about the need for young people in Gippsland to aim high to achieve their absolute best. It is up to all of us in this place, as leaders in our communities, to help overcome that aspirational barrier, to keep reminding young people in our community that they should never sell themselves short, that they have the opportunity in this great nation to achieve great things.

We also have to deal with that fundamental economic barrier. That is a key issue for so many of our young people in regional areas. It is young people from regional areas forced to move away—sometimes eight and 10 hours away from their family home—who have these additional costs of accommodation, and transport when travelling back and forth to home when the opportunity presents itself, and the additional stress of being away from their support network. We need to do whatever we can to give those young people a greater opportunity to succeed once they make that big decision to move away from the family home and pursue their university dreams.

This is an issue of equity. It is a point that Professor Kwong Lee Dow canvasses in his report. I quote again, this time from the executive summary on page 11. He says:

Many young people from regional and remote Australia have no choice but to relocate away from the family home if they are to access educational opportunities (generally, higher education) comparable to those available to students in metropolitan areas. Relocation poses a significant additional financial impost on families. This underpins concerns about the changes to the arrangements for accessing full assistance as an independent person. For this reason, many have argued in the consultation and submission process that just as different arrangements are in place to support students from low-income families in comparison with those from higher income families, so there should be a similar acknowledgment of the circumstances of regional students in comparison with metropolitan students. This is a major issue, perhaps the most important issue, for this review.

I stress that point. In the executive summary, Professor Kwong Lee Dow says, 'This is a major issue, perhaps the most important issue for this review.' He goes on to say:

… these factors support the argument on equity grounds that different support arrangements for regional young people and metropolitan young people might reasonably be made available.

I am trying to make the point that there is much more work to be done in this place on student income support.

While today we are talking about legislation, which I believe will at least provide some clarity to those ridiculous arrangements we had—with inner regional and outer regional—for the purpose of qualifying for independent youth allowance, we still have a long way to go to achieve a fair and equitable system.

In my own electorate of Gippsland there are people who live on average two to six hours away from Melbourne, so it is difficult for those people to attend university if they have to go to a suburban campus. I recently undertook a survey in my electorate to try to gauge how big an issue this is, along with a range of other issues. It alarmed me that only 22 per cent of Gippsland families said they could afford to send their child to university. That survey also found that 85 per cent of families in my electorate who responded to this survey wanted the federal government to provide additional funding to regional students, in particular, to cover the cost of relocating to study at university.

At a recent Nationals federal council meeting, here in Canberra, a motion was passed that supported the introduction of a tertiary access allowance which would support all regional students. This would replace the confusing mess we have now where students have to qualify under increasingly complex criteria, which has been the subject of much debate in this place on many occasions. The overwhelming majority of people living in my community of Gippsland do not believe they will be able to support their young people when the time comes, if they qualify to go to university. They do not believe they will be able to support them economically. I believe there is an expectation that we can do more as members of this place to support students in pursuing their tertiary studies.

When this debate began three years ago there were those opposite who accused members on this side of being opportunistic, of playing political games and of not representing the views of regional communities. The overwhelming number of people who signed petitions would surely be an indicator that they were off track on that. I have a whole host of people who have written to me on this issue to raise their concerns. I give them the opportunity to put in their own words what they think about the current system. In the Latrobe Valley Express on 12 September this year, Zara Dyke said:

I just think the whole eligibility criterion needs to be completely overhauled and changed.

The former school council chairman of the Yarram Secondary College told last year's award ceremony:

Rural communities need to continue to get a message to all levels of government that we are at a disadvantage in sending our year 12 onto tertiary study and that if more rural people are going to be able to study at tertiary level, we need better living-away-from-home allowances and financial support for our students.

I urge those opposite to understand that this legislation we have before us today is not going to solve all the problems. I do acknowledge that it will help, but it does not solve the problems of equity and fairness which I have talked about for regional students and it does not resolve another key issue relating to the eligibility criteria. It relates to students fulfilling the expectation of the government's regulations on achieving independence, where they go off and do the required amount of work only to be told by Centrelink that they still do not qualify for independent youth allowance because their parents' incomes exceed the threshold.

There is a real contradiction here. We are telling young people that if they go out and earn the amount of money required—I think it is about $19½ thousand over an 18-month period—we will say they are independent but that when it comes to assessing their eligibility for independent youth allowance we are going to refer back to their parents' income. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot be saying to these students that they are independent—they have achieved $19½ thousand—but then tell them that their parents' income threshold will also be included. I have another email here which refers specifically to this and the confusion it is creating in the community from a young lady named Megan in Paynesville:

Currently I've spoken to three Centrelink personnel and have been told three different stories. I've been told that if I earn the required amount in my gap year then I will receive the independent allowance, where another person has told me that, despite my income, it will be means-tested against my parents' income. I am very confused at the moment. I will meet all the criteria for the youth allowance/gap year allowance.

She goes on to say that she would be helped greatly if we could get a clear answer on this issue.

There are many sticking points still with the system of student income support and I have just highlighted a couple of them. Students right now are trying to make decisions about whether they will go to university next year or whether they will take a gap year, and they are very confused about the advice they are getting from Centrelink. We have such a long way to go and I believe that it is up to this place to commit itself to working harder to introduce a tertiary access allowance to remove the existing confusion and to make sure that regional students who are currently vastly underrepresented at our universities are given the opportunity to achieve their full potential. (Time expired)