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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 8151


Mrs HULL (1:07 PM) —I rise today to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 because I want to raise the issue of this policy being at odds with the rest of the minister’s policy. I will go, first of all, to the minister’s second reading speech, wherein she explained that the bill was to amend the act to:

… provide for an increase in funding to address Australia’s historically poor record in increasing participation by low SES students.

The minister went on in her speech to say:

This goal will be directly supported by the injection of additional funding for universities to support the low SES participation targets.

She talked about the barriers to increased higher education participation by students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and she talked about ‘helping teachers raise the aspirations of their students’. She said:

Programs might include scholarships, mentoring of teachers and students, curriculum and teaching support or hands-on activities run by university staff in schools.

She talked about students from disadvantaged backgrounds and how they could perhaps benefit from the changes made within this bill.

Next I would like to go on to talk about and to reiterate some of the concerns and issues that have been raised with my office as a result of the minister’s changes to the Youth Allowance criteria. Basically, we are told that, on the one hand, what this bill is doing is trying to support those low SES people to be able to get to an education institution—to be able to get to university, so to speak. But then, on the other hand, the legislation that the minister has introduced with the changes to Youth Allowance precludes exactly those people from getting a university education. I am just going to take the time to read onto the Hansard for the minister just a small snippet of the many hundreds and hundreds of complaints that have come into my office on this particular issue of Youth Allowance. As I said in relation to this bill, the desire is to get those from low SES areas into university education.

I have a letter here, addressed to me, which says:

I have like many others in my year have decided to go into the workforce for the year to earn $18 000 so we will have financial support from the government.

However, by the government changing the terms of gaining youth allowance it forced those in rural communities who do not have easy access to public transport, or university to stay in work force for an extra 12 months. This increased burden has a negative impact on rural students wanting to persevere with university, as motivation decreases it becomes easier to stay in the work force then to go into a different environment and seek a further education.

…            …            …

I am disappointed and frustrated because the Labour government is supposed to support the working class in gaining the same level of access to education and health as the business class. However this will not be apparent if the legislation for a change in the youth allowance is passed.

I am not going to put any names to these letters but they certainly are available for tabling at any stage. The next letter I will refer to it talks about the issue of the Youth Allowance changes in the 2009-10 federal budget. It says:

I completed my Higher School Certificate in 2008—

And that was at a particular college in Wagga Wagga—

My hard work and consistent effort throughout the year paid off and I was able to attain entry to Monash University in Melbourne where I plan on studying … .

The letter continues, saying that the course chosen is rarely offered to rural students and so the author:

 … decided I would take a gap year and earn $19,532 to receive youth allowance during my course. I was well on my way to earning this amount, when it was announced on May 14th 2009 that this would no longer be available, and instead I would have to work thirty hours a week for eighteen months. This decision is so ridiculously unfair, that I am going to give the federal government the benefit of the doubt for not carefully thinking through the consequences this would have on current gap year students. Not only do I feel as though I’ve wasted a year that could have been spent studying towards my degree, I am unsure how I will be able to afford to live in Melbourne and therefore am reassessing my options.

The author then speaks about the offer of relocation scholarships. She says:

I am aware that the proposed changes included ‘relocation scholarships’, however, to be eligible I need to first qualify for youth allowance which is now increasingly difficult. The same worries apply to many of my peers from school. Out of the top ten UAI earning students, six of us decided to take a gap year to help pay for our university degrees such as law, international relations, medicine, journalism and Asian studies. However, if these proposed eligibility changes are passed, we may be forced to take a second gap year. This will be highly problematic as very few institutions will allow students to defer for more than twelve months, and thus our offers will lapse.

The letter goes on, and it is very articulate, basically indicating that the government is saying one thing and doing another as in many of the cases that I am pointing out here as relevant to this particular bill. This letter goes on to talk about the effect that this bill will have on rural students. It says:

The effect that this change will have on rural students will be radical, as the expense of university and living away from home will deter many students from earning a degree. For example, the shortage of doctors in rural areas is often reported; however, this will only decrease if these changes are passed through senate. Very few families would be able to pay for their child through seven years of medicine without government support …

The next letter that I would like to quote from says:

My primary concern is for those students who completed their HSC in 2008, and on the basis of the rules existing at that time made the decision to defer their university position and seek full time work in order to earn the money required to satisfy the independent youth allowance requirement.

Where does this decision leave these young people now? It is a travesty that the government has made the decision to leave these young people adrift…. they must now decide whether they should shelve their university plans (unfortunately a likelihood for many—particularly those in rural areas where it will be particularly difficult to qualify now), or delay their transition to university for a further 12 months—an eternity for young people who had the promise of university in 2010 within their grasp. The thoughtfully considered hopes, dreams, and aspirations of our future leaders should not be ‘toyed with’ at whim, and I am absolutely disgusted at the lack of sensitivity of the government to this group of young people.

This letter also relates to the government on the one hand saying that they are going to enable low-SES students to gain access to university and then, on the other hand, absolutely precluding them. This letter goes on to say:

This is even more important for country youth who often do not get the option in many cases to live at home while they study…. which adds hugely to the financial load of post school study for the family. This is just another example of lack of empathy, and more simply understanding of the functioning of rural communities. To give you an idea of accommodation costs—the costs of accommodation per annum at ANU is now around $13000—a cost in many cases not incurred by city dwellers who have a choice of university, each of which may be accessible by public transport and within reasonable distance from their homes. I predict even further decreases in young rural people articulating to university as a result of this…. and that would also tell you that the skill base of rural communities will be further undermined.

The next point that was put into one of these selected snippets that I have just hurriedly grabbed is from a parent who talks about her son:

He is also doing voluntary work and has taken up lessons to learn French at night in preparation for his uni course in International Studies/Law. He has taken a gap year in good faith that the Youth Allowance will be available to him, providing that he kept his end of the bargain (ie earned money). He also opted to forgo uni this year as my husband lost his job in February and we still need to meet our financial commitments. Stretching to accommodating a uni student was just going to be beyond our means … (We are already supporting our daughter—

who is at university.

I believe that our son has been honourable and mature in his decision. We are very worried that he may have to postpone uni even longer. Can you please reassure us that—

your—

response will be to oppose the proposed changes to the Youth Allowance.

It seems to me that rural students are once again disadvantaged. Our son cannot do his course at—

the local university—

as it is not offered, so he must go to a metropolitan university. He will not have the option of continuing to live at home as students in Sydney—

and other metropolitan cities—

may have. He, or we, have no choice but to foot the bill for his accommodation … At this stage we are aware that this may be around $15,000 for each year of the course.

He is a clever young man, who was school captain … he has a social conscience. He has a potentially bright future as a high earner and a contributor to the community. It just seems unfair that for him the rules change halfway through the game.

That is another instance of a person referring to the fact that the government, in the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009, has said that it wants to give access to university to low-SES students but is precluding access.

This is a letter from a property out in a very small town located quite a distance away from anywhere. It talks about the closest town having ‘a pub and a one-teacher primary school’. Education choices are very limited. Basically, it says:

Since leaving school—

our child—

has driven a tractor for the wheat harvest, worked on a building site and was a Lab technician for the wine vintage. All of these jobs were seasonal and two involved living away from home.

This is a young lady who did this work, mind you—working on the harvest, driving a tractor and working on a building site, so keen was she to get to university. The parent talks about the employment prospects for her in the local area being absolutely zero, and this parent is absolutely right. The letter goes on to say that she is now down at the Central Coast living with family friends trying to find work, but that is very difficult. They go on:

Should the changes to Youth Allowance be implemented it will be almost impossible for rural students to find a full time job for 30 hours a week for an average of 18 months out of two years. Potential students will have to defer studies … and leave home. At present Universities only allow students to defer for one year so students will have to work full time, live away from home and try to study as well.

The next letter asks:

How do you study at university, relocate to the cities AND work a 30 hour week? How is it going to effect our children and their future and the future of rural Australia? Many prospective university students have taken responsible action in gaining employment, waiting 12 months before starting university (known as a gap year) and saving as much as they can to help with the costs of university.

The next one talks about a girl who works part time waitressing. She uses youth allowance to pay the monthly rent. She has had to change accommodation three times due to increasing rent charges. She could never have lived and studied in Melbourne without the help of youth allowance, but now the next child in the family is in this most dire predicament. The parents say:

Families from regional areas have so many disadvantages against them, when their children need to study away from the area. The cost of rent, travel and food is extensive and we all depend very much on the Centrelink Youth Allowance. We have a son and daughter still in high school and both wish to further their study after Year 12.

To think that children will “fall into” a full time job of approximately 30hrs per week, after leaving school is just fanciful. Especially in this economic climate, with more work opportunities disappearing each day.

It just goes on and on. I could continue to talk about these issues, but what disturbs me greatly is that these are smart people—intellectually brilliant, in many cases. They are able to eke out a living off the land, and probably not one of us here in this House could do that. They are by no means low-value people. But rural people are being treated as low-value people, because every time the minister stands at the dispatch box and tells us that the changes to the youth allowance are good for us, she is treating every one of these people—around 33,000 of them, in fact—like they are idiots. They know what these changes mean. They are not misunderstanding them. They are not idiots; they can read; they know; they are very intelligent people. They know that the changes are catastrophic for them. So every time the minister says that these concerns are all in our minds, that they are all froth and bubble, and that what these people are constantly writing to us about is just a furphy, she is literally abusing the real integrity of these people. They do know what the changes mean. They are not stupid. For the minister to continually say, ‘You don’t understand,’ is belittling and demoralising to each and every person who lives in rural Australia and who knows that these changes are going to impact on them badly. They know how much these changes are in contrast to what the minister says in her second reading speech that she is trying to achieve.

When you look at the second reading speech, you think, ‘How could the same minister pull out this speech at the dispatch box and then pull out another speech to do literally exactly the opposite, and that is: preclude those from rural areas—which are the low SES areas—from gaining an education. It is not right. It is not justice. It is not fair. We will be opposing the changes. We will try to take away the retrospectivity, because that in itself is just so unfair. I am hopeful that, when we get into government next time, we will change that 30-hour week. I did so much work to try to exclude any work test for those kids who are studying high workload degrees such as medicine, dentistry, vet science and others, so that they would not have to compromise their study in order to go out and be a lifeguard or this or that to try to meet the test—and put off or defer their degrees in medicine, dentistry, allied health and other areas where there are desperate shortages in rural and regional areas.

This must be changed, and the opposition are determined to change this. The Nationals are absolutely determined that this cannot succeed, because you cannot discriminate against rural students and families like this. It is unjust and simply an inequity for those Australians who live in these low SES areas.