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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2226


Mr RAMSEY (GreyGovernment Whip) (11:29): I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (14-month Regional Independence Criteria) Bill 2018. I thank the member for Jagajaga for those comments. The first half of her speech I thought was pretty to the point and on the money. The second half, I must say, I thought was a heap of political claptrap with very little truth in it. It has been a long haul addressing the injustices that rural, regional and remote students face in accessing tertiary education. Today we take another small step, but we still have a long way to go. Regional students make up just 18.8 per cent of entry-level university students, despite regional people comprising more than 25 per cent of the population. That's something we need to fix. This parliament dealt with the issue of the implications of the 18-month period a student must face before they could access independent youth allowance last year. It was an overhang and an overreach from the first Rudd government. A group of us have been fighting ever since to undo some of the reforms that the Rudd government brought in under Julia Gillard as the education minister at the time. There were some good things in it, but there were others that greatly disadvantaged regional students, and it's been a long battle putting some of those measures back in place and trying to fix up some other injustices that sit within the system.

The system does not sufficiently recognise the cost of getting students from regional areas to university. The current estimate is around about $25,000 extra per year that country students face to access university, which city students, who can live with their families, do not face. For country students, living away from home is not an option; it's a necessity. There is the cost of emotional separation, the cost of accommodation, catering for oneself as opposed to being catered for by the family—I mean in the sense of food—and for most, the need to have a car of reasonable quality capable of the journey home, to go and visit family and recharge the batteries, if you like.

The education cost itself is not such an issue. The majority of tertiary education funding for students in Australia is met by the taxpayer with the contribution of the fully subsidised HECS-HELP loans. That side of the equation can be managed by the families. For some students, though, just knowing that parents don't have the ability to finance their tertiary education is enough to steer them away. They don't necessarily tell their parents. They don't want to put extra pressure on their family. They don't want their parents to be in a position of denying them access to tertiary education. So they say: 'Well, actually I don't really want to go to university. I would be happy doing A, B, and C.' They leave school and go off and get a job instead.

For many, youth allowance is the only way that they can get to university. It's a big help, but it still leaves a significant gap. However, once parental income reaches $57,000 a year or thereabouts, the rate of youth allowance begins to decline, until it disappears completely at around $108,000 with one child away from home. Remember, though, that these are before-tax earnings and not what parents have available as disposable income. However, regional students have been able to access independent youth allowance by showing they have been supporting themselves for a certain period of time.

There's been a major area of contest since the first Rudd government changed the arrangements for access to independent youth allowance, when fair, reasonable access was made that much more difficult. And, since that time, I and a number of my like-minded colleagues—one has just joined me to my left, the member for Forrest—have worked together as a group. I call us the rural education rump. We have worked very hard to try and undo some of the damage, and we've had some success. In some areas we have done even better than the pre-existing situation. For instance, we've managed to negotiate different treatment for regional students for the assessment of the independent youth allowance, being for outer regional, remote and very remote students, recognising at least that there is some difference and extra challenges that these students face. We've also had the parental assets test removed, relying instead quite rightly on a parental means test, which has addressed the great problem of asset-rich and income-poor businesses, particularly, but not only, in the farming industry.

The member for Jagajaga said independent youth allowance is not affected by parental income. Well, of course it's not—until you reach the point where the combined parental income is $150,000. It raises a very interesting question: what has the parents' income got to do with a student's independence? The student is either self-sufficient or not. I find that an anomaly in the system. I understand why it's there—because the $150,000 lines up with a whole lot of other cut-off areas in government assistance—but it's worth reflecting on that figure. Let's take, for example, a couple who might be a teacher and a council worker or a teacher and a policeman. With that $150,000, which is pre-tax, when you add another $25,000 per student that you are trying to get into tertiary education, it is quite a gap.

So we've also had an issue with the length of time a student is subject to justifying the independence criteria, which was 18 months. Last year we made that change. If they completed year 12 in November of the school year, the student would take a gap year to accumulate the required amount of minimum income, which at this stage is 75 per cent of the training wage level A, which is currently almost $25,000. This is a reasonable challenge but it is certainly not insurmountable. For instance, an income of $15 an hour from a retail outlet, for 35 hours a week, will accumulate that amount in 12 months. But the problem was that, even though the student might accumulate that target amount of earnings in 12 or 14 months, they couldn't qualify until the 18 months expired—about May in the second year after the student left school—pushing some to a two-year gap.

Most would concur that that was far less than ideal and students needed to be very motivated to actually get through a two-year gap without being distracted and going off and finding another job and actually finding they are making progress there and perhaps never returning to their first true love or the thing that they really wanted to do. I certainly appreciated the opposition's support when that legislation went through this House last year and brought that qualification period back to 14 months. But today's legislation addresses that one-year group who were caught up in the change of the legislation and had already started on the qualification path when the goalposts changed. This fairly simple legislation today deals with this issue in a timely manner so, hopefully, those eligible students can begin to collect their support before university resumes in March—I think it is tomorrow. So we need to get onto this to get it through not only this chamber but the other place as well.

But it's not the end. We have achieved so much, but there is still some distance to go. I spoke about the council and the retail worker and how their combined pay might be over $150,000 but it's still an enormous challenge. They can also be devilled by distance. Some of the people who earn money like this live in places like Roxby Downs or Karratha, where the cost of living can be substantially higher than in the city. I don't think we are fully recognising those extra challenges. The coalition education rump, might I say, has kept up its job. And the government has commissioned a report from Emeritus Professor John Halsey, from Flinders University, into rural, regional and remote education. Professor Halsey has a long background in rural education. His career includes significant stints as a country teacher and a principal. He is eminently qualified, with his later positions covering senior departmental and political appointments including executive officer of Rural Education Forum Australia and, most recently, Sidney Myer Chair of Rural Education and Communities at Flinders University.

Professor Halsey will not only look at the subject of this legislation—namely, youth allowance and the funding of rural students to get into tertiary institutions in the city—but also look at a whole raft of other issues facing students from the country. In particular, I know he has a long interest in teacher and principal quality. There's also leadership. Leadership is so important in regional facilities, and I expect his report to have a significant input on this issue.

Only last week the Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, was in my electorate, and we visited John Pirie Secondary School in Port Pirie. The principal there—I will name him, because it's all good—is Roger Nottage. He's been there six years. I've been a visitor to John Pirie Secondary School over that period and before, and, without any reflection on those who preceded Roger Nottage, the school is a completely different place to where it was five or six years ago. As the minister and I walked around the grounds with Roger Nottage, he knew every student; he knew every teacher. He was having a personal conversation as he moved around the ground. As someone from The Castle might have said: it's the vibe of the place. It's the vibe of the place, and it has completely changed. I would have thought, when I was walking around, that I was at a top-quality private school in the city. Kids were in uniform, and they were really applying themselves to their tasks.

This illustrates the very important point of what leadership can do. I have seen the opposite in schools in my electorate where we've had really good standards and a new leader has come in who didn't know much about leadership. They were unskilled, and the school has gone into a spiral of decline. I'm expecting Professor Halsey's report to focus on leadership and teacher quality because he has a long history of advocating in these areas. I would be very surprised if they were not in the report.

I think—because he has flagged this issue when I and others have spoken to him—he will also look at the expectation that some schools have of students and of how they are considered a failure if they don't access university education. This is something that we need to face up to. As Australia is expanding into a services based economy, we are going to need workers with services based skills, whether they be in nursing and aged care or manufacturing and engineering. Tertiary or university education is not for every student, and many will find their way in the world in the very highly respected trades, which I think increasingly will be well rewarded.

I'm looking forward to the Halsey report, I'm looking forward to reading it carefully, and I'm looking forward to working with my rural rump, if you like, to make sure that we, on this side of the parliament, keep pushing for a better deal for rural students. We have a little way to go. We've come a long way, but we are going to keep at it.