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Tuesday, 16 November 2010
Page: 1362

Senator WORTLEY (5:24 PM) —In this matter of public importance debate the Australian government’s commitment to students in regional Australia is being questioned. The reality is that the Labor government have done more in just over three years for our tertiary students, put more in place for our tertiary students, including those in regional areas, than the coalition did in more than a decade. Not only have we done more but we are also addressing the damage that was left behind by the Howard government.

We know that education is of paramount importance. A strong and appropriately resourced education sector is vital to Australia’s future and one of the cornerstones of our future wellbeing as a nation. We know that, for our young people, education really is the window to the world. We know and understand that this is the reality. That is why in government we have made unprecedented commitments to education, specifically on the issue of the independent youth allowance.

The Bradley review of higher education found that participation in study at university by people from regional areas was falling and that the participation in study by people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds languished at 15 per cent, as against a population share of 25 per cent. That was when those opposite were in government. They were in government for a decade—

Senator Polley —Eleven and a half years.

Senator WORTLEY —More than a decade. Prior to the implementation of the legislation, the system was already broken. It was broken for both of these groups—those from regional areas and those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. One should look at who held the reins during the years leading up to this—and, yes, it was the coalition, who are sitting opposite. Let us be clear here. Under the coalition, the participation of rural, regional and socioeconomically disadvantaged students in higher education fell and it showed no signs of improving. Senator Joyce, you can sit there—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Wortley, would you please address your remarks through the chair.

Senator WORTLEY —There are some sitting opposite who have their heads down, looking slightly dismal. I can understand that because, if I had been part of a government that had left behind a higher education system like this, I would feel the same.

The Bradley review also found that youth allowance arrangements were poorly targeted, that assistance was not going to those students most in need. In March this year the government introduced comprehensive reforms to ensure that across Australia more university students had fairer access to student income support. The legislation giving effect to these reforms was supported by the opposition. The changes have benefited students who move away from home to study, particularly rural and regional students and those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. For many it has meant that they now have the opportunity to attend university. The reforms introduced by the government include lowering the age of independence, an increased threshold for the parental income test—

Senator Nash interjecting—

Senator WORTLEY —I will come back to that, Senator Nash—a tighter workforce participation test to target students genuinely in need of assistance and the creation of new scholarship payments. As a key outcome of these reforms the parental income test has become the main criterion for students to qualify for youth allowance. Under the changes, the parental income test threshold was increased from $33,300 to $44,165 and the 20 per cent family taper was introduced. So that threshold for the parental income test was increased and as a result over 100,000 students, including students from regional areas, will benefit because more students will be eligible for youth allowance as dependants.

So it is now the case that many students who previously had to prove independence will have automatic access to support. Already 25,000 additional students from low- and middle-income families have improved access to youth allowance. The proportion of students from regional, rural and remote areas receiving income support has increased. This is because of the changes to the parental income test. These are students who may well not have otherwise been able to undertake tertiary studies. The parental income test changes have removed an existing barrier for those students. In addition to these reforms, the workforce participation criterion was also tightened. The changes to the youth allowance eligibility criteria only comprise one element of the student income support reforms, the ones that those opposite voted on and supported.

Also introduced were the new student start-up scholarship and the relocation scholarship, which improves access and equity for rural and regional students who need to relocate to attend their place of study. To date nearly 180,000 higher education students who receive student income support have received at least one instalment of the new student start-up scholarship. In addition, since April this year nearly 23,000 students who have relocated from their home to a place closer to where they study have also received an additional relocation scholarship—23,000 students. And the government is also progressively lowering—through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I urge those on the opposite side to listen—the age of independence, with more than 2,600 students achieving independent status since April this year, when the age of independence was lowered from 25 to 24 years. This will be reduced to the age of 22 on 1 January 2012, further recognising the increasing self-sufficiency of young people.

In stark contrast, the needs of regional students were neglected by the Liberal-National coalition for more than a decade. I have said it. Interestingly, it was the coalition government in 1998—

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator WORTLEY —Senator Nash, you need to listen to this—that increased the age of independence from 22 to 25. They increased it. So the age of independence was increased by the coalition government from the age of 22, where it was, to the age of 25. This was in 1998 and it sat there. For the decade that those opposite were in government it sat at 25.

It has taken a Labor government to reduce it. The government’s $20 million Rural Tertiary Hardship Fund will operate from 1 January 2011 to 30 June 2013. This fund to assist rural and regional students under the age of 25 to undertake higher education studies is very welcome. So from the beginning of next year, young people from rural and regional areas who require financial help to take up an offer from a higher educational institution may be able to receive assistance through this fund. Those in need will have access to this fund. The government has also committed to the establishment of a rural and regional task force to consider and advise on eligibility criteria for assistance with the fund. The role of the task force will be to advise the government, and this is just one of the ways in which the government is helping more rural and regional students aged 25 and under to take on higher education.

The government reforms support the most disadvantaged students in regional areas. Disadvantaged students from remote, very remote and other regional areas are excluded from the changes to the workforce participation criteria provided they need to move away from home to study and their parents’ income is less than $150,000 per annum. This is a good move. The opposition agreed to this in March this year and now they are suggesting that these arrangements need to be extended. The opposition never negotiated to exclude inner regional students from the changes. (Time expired)