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Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Page: 75


Mr CHESTER (7:15 PM) —I rise to speak in relation to theHigher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. In doing so, I indicate that the opposition will be supporting the legislation although with some reservations in relation to the issue associated with the abolishment of Commonwealth scholarships and the fact that legislation to replace those scholarships is not before House at this stage.

I must express my disappointment that we are not also debating that proposed legislation dealing with the eligibility criteria for the youth allowance that was announced in the budget, given the great deal of community debate and uncertainty that the minister has created in the lives of young Australians over the past four or five months, particularly those young Australians from rural and regional areas who are currently in their gap year. They were faced with this announcement in May and now face three months without any indication of the final shape of the government’s legislation in that regard.

I note that this legislation actually abolishes the Commonwealth Education Costs Scholarships and the Commonwealth Accommodation Scholarships with the replacement programs announced in the budget. The coalition does support, however, moving towards a more deregulated higher education sector with more flexibility for institutions and more responsiveness to student demand. It is by no means any suggestion that we have a perfect system now or that we would with the changes proposed, but we are working towards areas of improvement.

There has been a lot of rhetoric about improving access to higher education for regional students, but the action taken so far over the past 22 months does not recognise the enormous cost and the enormous economic barriers to participation for students from rural and regional communities. Last month the parliament of Victoria’s Education and Training Committee released its final report into geographical differences in the rate in which Victorian students participate in higher education. I give great credit to the Nationals member for Eastern Victoria, Peter Hall, who was a driving force behind the establishment of this inquiry in Victoria. Peter has had a long and very distinguished parliamentary career of more than 20 years and has a particular interest in regional education and tertiary education, given his background as a teacher firstly in the Latrobe Valley but also throughout regional Victoria.

Having said that, this was not a partisan report that was prepared by the Victorian parliament. It was a report of an all-party committee headed by Labor MP for the Ballarat East region, Mr Geoff Howard. It is relevant to the bill before the House today because it closely considers the issues associated with higher education support as we move forward. The bill before the House is the legislative instrument that delivers most of the measures included in the government’s response to the Bradley review. The state government inquiry highlights the problems we are facing in regional communities, particularly Victoria in this case. In his foreword, Mr Howard indicated that the inquiry attracted unprecedented interest from communities in every corner of the state. He also went on to point out that higher education was regarded as a significant issue in every community that the inquiry visited. I would just like to quote from the forword to help set the tone.

Time and again, the Committee heard about the difficulties faced by young school leavers in rural and regional areas who are contemplating leaving home to study. This exciting time in young people’s lives inevitably brings a multitude of challenges, as they farewell family and friends and branch out into new environments. However, an even greater concern for many of these young people and their families is the high cost of university study, particularly the cost of living away from home. The Committee heard that these concerns are responsible for a disproportionately high university deferment rate among rural and regional students, many of whom may never go on to pursue their studies.

Student income support is therefore a major contributing factor in university participation. While the Committee welcomes recent national reforms to enable more students from low-income families to access Youth Allowance, it is concerned that the specific circumstances of rural and regional young people still have not been adequately addressed. Already, many such students defer their studies to meet eligibility criteria for income support and this route to financial independence is set to become even more difficult under the new system. In the Committee’s view, all young people who must relocate to undertake their studies should be eligible to receive student income support.

That the committee chair believes that ‘all young people who must relocate to undertake their studies should be eligible to receive student income support’ is of critical concern to me, obviously, as a member from a regional electorate.

The report goes on in great detail to highlight that the biggest hurdle to participation in higher education for a lot of young people from rural and regional communities is the cost barrier. It is in this area in particular that I remain concerned about and critical of the Rudd government’s approach so far in terms of overcoming these economic barriers for regional students. I stress that these are by no means my own comments with no support. Throughout the electorate of Gippsland, I have received in the vicinity of 60 letters from concerned parents, students and teachers who have written to me and I have forwarded those concerns directly to the minister to highlight, on behalf of my constituents, concerns that have been raised in relation to the government’s changes which were proposed after the May budget.

I have also tabled a petition with more than 5,000 signatures on the same topic and I understand there have been similar petitions circulated throughout regional Australia by other coalition members of parliament. The response has been staggering from people who are concerned about the changes and the impacts they will have on students who are right now in their gap year. It is a critical issue when we are considering a bill tonight in relation to the broader issues of higher education support in that the way we look after our regional students in the future is an area of immense debate in rural and regional communities.

As I said, I have tabled a petition with more than 5,000 signatures. I understand other petitions with even more signatures have been tabled in the parliament over the past six to eight weeks. The minister’s response at this stage, however, has been disappointing in that she has accused me and other members on this side of the House of scaremongering on this particular issue. As I said, students, principals and Local Learning and Employment Network representatives have raised their concerns, and I have brought them to the minister’s attention. I must stress that these are people who are not party political in any sense at all; they are just concerned about this particular issue, and there is no sense at all that they are scaremongering.

Now it appears that the concerns are coming from the minister’s own side of politics—if not in this place then certainly in the Victorian state parliament. As I said, the chairman of the Victorian parliamentary committee that was commissioned to report on geographical differences is a Labor member of parliament. It is an all-party committee which is dominated by the Labor party, and some regional Labor MPs at that. In the report, this is what the inquiry found—and I quote particularly from the executive summary in relation to the issue of the workforce criteria, which has caused great concern for students who are keen to be able to access higher education support in the future:

Throughout the inquiry, the Committee heard that for many rural and regional students, access to higher education is dependent on their ability to access the Youth Allowance through existing workforce participation criteria for independence. Although there are currently three workforce participation routes to independence, the Australian Government has announced that it is tightening the criteria. From 2010 only those young people who have worked for a minimum of 30 hours per week for 18 months will be eligible for Youth Allowance under the criteria for independence.

This is the critical point:

The Committee believes that this change will have a disastrous effect on young people in rural and regional areas. The Committee firmly believes that all young people who are required to relocate to undertake university studies should be eligible to receive government income support, and has recommended that the Victorian Government advocate for this change to eligibility criteria for Youth Allowance.

I say it is a critical point because it is fairly strong language from an all-party committee to be saying that a proposed change by the federal government in relation to the independent criteria for youth allowance would have a disastrous effect—not a mild effect, a modest effect or some impact. The committee has found it will have a disastrous effect on young people in rural and regional areas. I wonder if the minister still thinks that it is scaremongering to be raising these concerns given the direction that the Rudd government has taken in relation to the youth allowance issue.

The legislation which is before the House this evening abolishes the Commonwealth Education Costs Scholarships and the Commonwealth Accommodation Scholarships, and replacement programs have been announced, as I understand, by the minister. It is, as I said earlier, regrettable that these programs are not ready to be put before the House today, because I think it goes to the heart of the concerns that are held by the students, the parents and the teachers throughout our nation.

To be fair to the minister, I think that the minister has been well intentioned in her efforts to crack down on anyone who has perhaps used the previous arrangements to their own benefit. Although the minister has stopped short of saying that they have been rorting the previous system, I think it is fair to say that there has been some illegitimate use and pushing of the envelope, if you like, in relation to the previous system. In my office I have received anecdotes of students who have been living at home—in metropolitan areas in particular—who have been able to achieve independent status under the previous model. I do not think anyone objects to a tightening up of those requirements—I do not think that should be of any concern—but I do not think that excuses the position we have got ourselves into now, where we are actually throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I think we have got ourselves into a position where we are going to discriminate further against regional students—and, I stress again, particularly those students who are right now in the middle of their gap year. These are the students who took the advice of their school principals, sometimes of Centrelink offices and certainly of teachers and parents, who told them that, if they took a gap year and earned the $19,500, they would then be eligible to apply for the independent rate of youth allowance. My great concern is the issue of natural justice to these students who have been caught out by these changes. They have had no time to adjust to it, and we have now left them in a situation of great uncertainty. Three months have passed since the budget was announced. We have legislation before the House tonight which does not specifically counter that particular issue but goes towards the broader concept of higher education support. I do not think the minister has really appreciated the great depth of angst this is causing in regional communities. As I said earlier, I have been overwhelmed by the response in my office alone, with people signing a petition and writing to me directly. These students are at their wits’ end in trying to know what hope they will have to go on to achieve their university dreams if the one criterion available to them, the independent rate of youth allowance, is taken away and they are forced to work 30 hours per week for up to two years to achieve the higher criterion which has been set under the proposed changes.

There are a range of measures in the bill before the House which are positive in the sense that they are designed to improve access to higher education. There is the removal of the government-imposed cap on the number of students in courses offered by universities, which is expected to lead to an extra 50,000 students undertaking undergraduate study over the four years. There are also funding provisions and more generous indexation measures on basic funding to universities, at a cost of $577 million over the four years. But I hasten to add again that these measures are worthless to many regional Australians if they cannot afford to access university campuses in the first place.

Again, I refer to the proposed changes to the youth allowance eligibility criteria. As I mentioned, the minister’s state colleagues have acknowledged that the proposed changes will have a disastrous effect on young people in rural and regional areas, and I believe it is important to explain why. I am not convinced that the minister has fully appreciated the anger that is brewing within regional Australia in particular in relation to these proposed changes. As I said, the state government Education and Training Committee’s final report, Inquiry into geographical differences in the rate in which Victorian students participate in higher education, was quite scathing of the proposed changes. What it demonstrates to us is that the government has not fully understood the economic challenges faced by rural and regional students. These are students who, by the nature of their location, have to move away from home to pursue their university dreams. Their parents are faced with costs in the vicinity of $15,000 or $20,000 per year in addition to what a metropolitan student may face in attending a university campus around the corner or somewhere with easy access to public transport.

So I highlight those concerns and hope the minister will take it at face value that the changes that are proposed to the independent youth allowance criteria simply are not going to meet the needs of regional students going forward and, in fact, will embed the discrimination. What is actually required in rural and regional areas is fair and equitable access to university education, and I plead with the minister to start listening to the concerns of the people on whose behalf I have written to her and also to the people who have signed petitions in support of the opposition’s campaign to provide better access for rural and regional students attending university.

Debate interrupted.