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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 8160

Mr SECKER (1:46 PM) —I have been listening to the debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 quite carefully and it certainly seems that those on the other side, quite properly, are interested in low-SES students and Indigenous students, but—funnily enough—there has been hardly a mention of rural people, of country students. That does not seem to be an issue for those on the other side.

This debate over the deregulation of the higher education sector, whilst meritorious in part, has recently become utterly meaningless for about 30,000 young Australians in rural areas. This is an estimate of the number of young Australians who have achieved outstanding year 12 results and who have just had their aspirations for university wiped out by the changes in the dependent youth allowance eligibility criteria announced by the Rudd government in the May budget. Most of these are rural and regional Australians. Many come from my electorate. They are high-achieving rural and regional students whose parents earn more than $40,000 but not enough to find the $15,000 to $20,000 per year that it costs to send a young person to university in the city hundreds of kilometres away.

Previously, students could receive the independent youth allowance if they had worked at least 15 hours a week for 18 months after leaving school or had earned $19,532 in an 18-month period. Many young people in my electorate are currently on their gap year, which they undertook in the expectation of working hard to reach the $19,532 level. The current criteria for youth allowance eligibility are critical and absolutely essential to many students in my electorate being able to access further education. The Rudd Labor government, in a clear slap in the face to rural students, has decided that from January next year young people will have to have worked 30 hours a week for 18 months in a two-year period to qualify for independent youth allowance so that they may undertake further education.

We cannot turn back the clock. That is an impossibility. It is unachievable; it is an impassable imposition on rural and remote Australians. Young people in rural and remote areas in my electorate will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to find 30 hours of work a week for at least 18 months in the midst of the economic downturn. Indeed, at any time that is more difficult in rural areas than it is in the city. Many young people in my electorate live in small communities with very few employment opportunities, particularly in low-skilled jobs. Some larger towns have a number of jobs available but young people do not have the skills to get them because they are fresh out of school. Young people have to compete for a small number of low-skilled jobs against many other job seekers with greater skills and experience. Rural and regional young people may be forced to stay at home to reduce the costs for their families. This could limit their study opportunities. The debate today about flexibility for institutions and responsiveness to student demand will fall on deaf ears with regard to those students, who will now be denied a university education because their only avenue to achieving essential income support has been taken away. It has been taken away by a bill which has not been introduced in the parliament. Further, their Commonwealth scholarships are being taken away. I am very concerned that the Commonwealth scholarships are being abolished when the bill introducing the replacements is yet to be introduced into the parliament.

Parts of my electorate are 450 kilometres away from the nearest university in Adelaide or Melbourne. This does not mean that rural and regional students do not aspire to university. Notwithstanding the tyranny of distance, unreliable broadband and fewer resources, rural and regional students achieve high TER rankings. In a very competitive environment they secure hard-to-get places in courses only available in the city. They and their families then face the significant costs of relocation to the city and ongoing accommodation and transport costs in order to take up these places.

The Commonwealth Learning Scholarships Program was introduced by the Howard government in 2004 and later renamed the Commonwealth Scholarships Program. That program, which is about to be withdrawn by this bill, incorporated the Commonwealth accommodation scholarships and the Commonwealth education costs scholarships; facilitated choice in higher education; and increased higher education participation by students from—amongst others—regional and remote areas.

The Howard government recognised that the cost of accommodation was a significant burden for students from regional and remote areas who needed to move away from home to commence higher education. Commonwealth accommodation scholarships provided students from low socioeconomic backgrounds from regional and remote areas with $4,324 per year, indexed annually, for up to four years to assist them with accommodation costs when they moved to undertake higher education.

This bill abolishes these Commonwealth scholarships which have helped tens of thousands of students realise their university dreams. While there are measures in the budget to replace the scholarships, they are contained in a bill that has not even been introduced yet and they are contingent on qualification for youth allowance, which just got harder to achieve for thousands of young Australians. It would have made more sense to consider the two bills together. Perhaps the government are still reeling from the amount of opposition coming from rural and remote Australia to their changes to youth allowance eligibility. I sincerely hope that, before the bill is presented, they will remove the offending changes, which unfairly target rural and regional students, or at least make exception for those who have to travel long distances.

As a representative of a large rural electorate where parents are faced with huge costs to fund their children’s university studies hundreds of kilometres away, I remain extremely concerned by the government’s arrogant dismissal of the very sincere problems that will be created by the changes to the support arrangements for rural and regional students. As I have said many times in this place, rural students do not have the option of catching an 80c bus to university and back. They do not have the option of staying at home and eating meals with their parents, because they have to move away from home. I have always believed that, if we are going to have equity for rural university students, we should at least look at the extra costs they have over and above what city students have. The fact is that we already have a very low participation rate of 17 per cent for rural students, which is much lower than the rate for city students. That is not because they are dumber; it is because of the extra costs which families cannot afford. And now they have had the independent youth allowance taken away from them halfway through their gap year—but you cannot turn back the clock.

I put on record my very grave reservations about abolishing scholarships without first putting in place their replacement. The government will have the opportunity to correct that before this bill goes to the Senate. I certainly encourage them to do so. These amendments go some way towards delivering on the recommendations of the Bradley review, although many of the Bradley recommendations have been ignored. This amounts to a minor deregulation of the tertiary sector—a Clayton’s deregulation.

The coalition supports these changes, minor though they are. But we are very concerned that the Commonwealth scholarships are being abolished when the bill introducing the replacements is yet to be introduced into parliament. The Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 is the legislative instrument that delivers most of the measures included in the government’s response to the Bradley review. This bill does not include most of the changes to eligibility for youth allowance and, as I said earlier, that will remove eligibility from more than 30,000 students, mostly from rural areas.

The Bradley review contained 42 recommendations covering a wide range of issues, including funding arrangements, allocation of places, quality frameworks, student support mechanisms, support for increased participation from disadvantaged and low-SES groups, increased encouragement of philanthropy, extension of certain forms of government support to private institutions and other matters. The Bradley review also set a target for increased participation in the higher education sector: 40 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-olds to hold a qualification of at least the bachelor level by 2020. The problem is that the participation rate for rural and regional students is only 17 per cent, and the changes will certainly make it worse. Targets were also set for participation amongst low-SES Australians and other disadvantaged groups.

The Bradley review did not recommend a reduction in participation in the higher education sector by rural and regional students, yet this is what the Rudd Labor government is doing. Imbalances in higher education participation remain a problem in Australia. The participation rate for rural and regional students is already less than half that of metropolitan students. As I said, that is not because they are dumber; it is because it is harder for them to attend university because of the distance and the extra accommodation costs. Abolishing Commonwealth scholarships, as this bill does, does nothing to redress that imbalance, nor does linking the scholarships to eligibility for youth allowance—a double-edged sword for rural and regional students.

The cost of sending a student to Adelaide or Melbourne, with accommodation or residential college and fees and transport, is in the vicinity of $12,000 to $15,000 a year, which is a considerable financial burden on many families. By comparison, a metropolitan student can live at home free and use public transport. The Rudd government’s changes to youth allowance, together with the added burden of poor public transport, high fuel costs and reduced family income due to drought, will mean fewer students from regional and rural Australia will attend university. There will be a flow-on effect in professional occupations in rural and regional Australia. The number of rural health workers, rural teachers and other professionals will be significantly diminished because rural students are being denied tertiary education. The disadvantage will be compounded as fewer role models will be around to inspire students.

In ordinary circumstances potential university students and their families might have taken notice of this bill. In my electorate they no longer have the desire to do so. It is a moot point for rural and regional students, given that their ability to attend university has been taken away. I do not oppose this bill but I put the government on notice that they will have a major fight on their hands when it comes to implementing their proposed changes to income support to students.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.