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Thursday, 12 December 1996
Page: 7271

Senator STOTT DESPOJA(9.55 a.m.) —The Australian Democrats will be supporting the disallowance motions put forward by the opposition today. On many occasions we have expressed our concerns and our opposition to the increase in the independent rate age—that is, from 22 years to 25 years. Senator Bolkus is quite right—the matter of the age at which students are eligible for the Austudy independent rate has been one of the top priorities for student organisations for many years. Indeed, I remember lobbying Senator Bolkus on this very issue quite a few years ago as a student. The ALP certainly took its time to reduce the age of eligibility. It had actually reached a point where it was 22 years. We supported that, although we continue to have concerns about the lack of parity between the Austudy benefits level and that of unemployment benefits.

The Democrats also oppose what Senator Bolkus has described as a mean-spirited measure, but certainly one that we consider quite callous—that is, the proposal by this government to remove the schooling incidentals allowance. It was only introduced this year, providing $300 to secondary school students receiving the homeless independent rate of Austudy. Senator Bolkus pointed out that this was a measure designed to assist students in that category, with the purchase of books and equipment.

We find the removal of such money particularly repugnant in light of recent findings and the report School students at risk—one that people in this place may be aware of—that was released this week. This report challenges the common perception that homeless youth are somehow all street kids, saying that homeless school students often move between various forms of temporary accommodation. This report called on schools and governments to become more caring institutions. Certainly that caring element is not reflected in the measures before us proposed by this government. The report also found that up to 14 per cent of high school students are at risk in this nation and the greatest proportion of those students who were at risk were in years 10 to 12.

The removal of a one-off grant—$300—for books, paper and all the other requirements that a student needs at the beginning of the school year, we consider quite miserly and mean-spirited. It is certainly not the act of a caring institution. In light of the radical and unfair changes to the higher education sector—the changes that passed this place within the past week—we must remember that student financial assistance, be it in the form of Austudy, Abstudy or TEAS, its predecessor, has proven that it has been shown to be a key factor in ensuring that traditionally disadvantaged groups, particularly young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, have had a shot at education, at a TAFE level, at secondary school and at a tertiary level.

What we are talking about here is something quite fundamental to ensuring a degree of access and equity in our higher education and secondary school systems. We are talking about removing one of the very props that assist those students to enter education at a number of levels. We consider the removal of the schooling incidentals allowance, combined with the increase in the independent rate age, to be two promises not only that the coalition has broken but ones that will have a devastating impact on current students as well as aspiring students. It is worth remembering that the coalition government went to the last election promising that they would maintain Austudy. They certainly made a lot of promises in the education sector, which have since been broken. I plead with the government that this is one area in which you should certainly not be breaking those promises.

As Senator Bolkus outlined, the current age for the Austudy independent rate is 22. That in itself we consider an anomaly. We know that young adults pay the same kind of living expenses as other adults, whether they are 18 or 25. At 18, 21 or 25 you incur the same living costs as an adult. I think that that is perhaps a wider debate that we should have at some point in this chamber—at what age are young people classified as independent and adult in this community, because it is quite an anomaly that you have to be 25—

Senator Brown —Thirty-one in this place.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Or 31 in this place, as Senator Brown suggests. We are not talking about a luxurious benefit. We should never forget that Austudy—and I am sure the Minister for Social Security (Senator Newman) will remind us of this—was designed as an income supplement, but we have moved away from that even. Let us not forget that the majority of students who obtain Austudy are living on 38 per cent of the poverty line and the independent rate is around 68 per cent of the poverty line.

We know that when TEAS—the forerunner to Austudy—was introduced back in the 1970s it was at 117 per cent of unemployment benefits. These days even the maximum Austudy allowance at the independent rate is well below the single rate of unemployment benefit, and we do know that most students receive far less than this.

The millionaire Wright family was splashed across the headlines of papers many months ago. We have all debated long and hard the mythical Wright family and we threw in a couple of kids and a Range Rover. But that sinister example put to the estimates committee perpetuated some kind of stereotype that Austudy was both easy to access and plentiful in its benefit—neither is the case.

Research this week demonstrates this quite markedly. Academics from Monash University who are well known for their work on Austudy—and I refer to Ian Dobson and Bob Birrell—show us the impact of the proposed changes—that is, the increase in the age rate from 22 to 25. Dobson and Birrell in their document, People and place, Vol. 4, No. 1, page 81, show us that 60,000 current higher education students will be affected in some way by this change. This is a lot of young Australians. They will receive lower benefits or they will become ineligible for Austudy. The impact will worsen as the age of independence changes—it will become further entrenched.

Again I ask the minister—this is a question I have asked before and in estimate committee hearings—is it still the case that the eligibility for the independent rate will be assessed at the point of enrolment? That is, you could be 24 years and nine months old—that is, below the age of 25—enrolled in a course, do that course for two, three, four, five or even six years, and you could be a 30-year-old and still not be deemed eligible for the independent rate. I have had no satisfactory answer to that question. I again ask the minister to explain if it is the case that students' eligibility will no longer be assessed on their birth date, but at their point of enrolment.

In October 1996, 50,305 students were in the 22- to 24-year age group. While they have apparently been protected by the grandfathering of these changes to the age of independence, we can reasonably expect that a similar number of students will be dealt a harsh blow by the passage of these regulations in the near future. We can also assume that a substantial proportion of the 16,269 students over 25 years of age in 1996 and who started their course prior to turning 25 would be deemed still dependent on their parents' income under the proposed new rules.

Dobson and Birrell predict that 17 per cent of those currently in receipt of Austudy—nearly one-fifth—would become ineligible and over 50 per cent would have their benefits reduced. We are talking about thousands and thousands of young Australians, both students and aspiring students.

Already it is not easy to be eligible for the independent rate. To be eligible for the independent rate, one requirement is that you have to have worked 35 hours per week for three years out of the last four years. This discriminates against those who maintain their independence through part-time or casual work—something I would have thought this government would have promoted for young Australians; certainly, that is the impression I get from the Minister for Social Security.

So, as Senator Bolkus pointed out, with massive changes to the labour market and high levels of youth unemployment, it is crazy that we should be making these changes. These changes, coupled with those radical and regressive changes to the higher education system last week, will further put education at every level out of the hands of those disadvantaged in our community. It is now time to stop using young Australians as a means of plugging this government's black hole.

I urge the minister to respond to that question about eligibility being at the point of enrolment. I hope that other senators in this place will support the disallowance motion before us today and give those young Australians aspiring to be educated through our system some hope for the future.