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Tuesday, 18 August 2009
Page: 8242

Mr HAASE (7:34 PM) —The Higher Education Support Amendment (2009 Budget Measures) Bill 2009 is the perfect opportunity for me to contribute to this debate, not so much to be critical of the proposition that the Minister for Education has put forward in response to the Bradley review but more to point out that, regardless of how good or how bad the education system at a tertiary level is in Australia, it simply fails all of the prospective tertiary students who live in the more remote areas of Australia. Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, I am sure you will share most of my views. It is not a case of how good or how bad the education system is at a tertiary level; it is whether you can afford to access it.

Many will say, and rightly so, that the HECS system, which gives students access to higher education, has served Australian students well—and I accept that. But, if you cannot afford to eat or shelter yourself whilst you attend tertiary education, it matters not whether somebody is going to pay the fees and it matters not whether the finer points of tertiary education are addressed by new regulations, budget measures or a well-meaning minister. I do not for a moment accept that this minister has set out to dud rural students. But her lack of understanding, her lack of experience and her general lack of acknowledgement of rural Australia result in her ignorance about the plight of tertiary students whose place of residence is naturally more than 50 kilometres from such an institution. I say 50 kilometres because, if you cannot travel to and from that tertiary institution reasonably within a day, you do not have the same opportunities that are there for people whose parents are residential, within 50 kilometres of a university.

Most of these institutions, be they classic or modern, are associated with our capital cities. If you are fortunate enough to be the child of a metropolitan-dwelling family and you have done well in secondary education and qualify to attend a tertiary institution, you will have all of the necessities to serve you well in that tertiary education. You will generally have Mum and Dad at home, living at an address where you can get pretty much free board and lodging. You might get to borrow the family car from time to time. You will have your friends—the support group that is your peers and has been around you for a number of years in your education—attending those tertiary institutions with you. You will not necessarily have to work through your tertiary education, because of the financial benefits of living at home, being familiar with the city and its surroundings, catching public transport—doing all those things that city kids do. If you want to be supported by the government, not only will you have your HECS fees paid upfront but you will also—if your parents are below, it would seem in this new proposition, $44,000—get the full youth allowance. The full youth allowance, at nearly $400 per fortnight, will serve you very well to live at home and attend university.

However, if you are a country kid and you live 50 kilometres or more from a university—and how about 2,000 kilometres from a university—and during your secondary studies you have perhaps been supported by the federal government to the tune of more than $6,000 per year as assistance for isolated children, when you have done well with that federal government assistance and got the TEE marks necessary to attend a city institution and continue with your education, you are on your own. If you live in the bush and your parents are earning an income, it stands to reason that they are not going to be earning less than $44,000 as a household income, and therefore you are not going to qualify in full for the youth allowance.

Much less than that fortnightly youth allowance is not going to serve you very well living alone in a capital city. So what you do presently is manipulate your lifestyle to qualify whilst attending tertiary institutions by having the independent youth allowance. That is fine. Under the old rules you took a gap year; you went away, found work and earned about $19,000, and that would qualify you to go to the big smoke, attend university and get the princely sum of $375 a fortnight—or something like it. It was enough to take the pressure of having to support your accommodation, your transportation, your clothes and your books—all of the things that you would get almost as a matter of course living at home in the city—off your parents. You are presently confronted with taking a gap year and leaving your support peer group behind. I should say ‘being left behind’, because they have attended university immediately from secondary school. You spend 12 or 18 months working and you earn the money. You then attend university and you find yourself a year behind your peer group. You find yourself struggling. That is not the perfect way to a degree through university.

We have this independent youth allowance that is not designed for that purpose. It is designed for people who are independently living—people who are older, people who may have partners or may have partners working. The independent youth allowance is not designed as a plum for country students to fight for by taking a gap year to artificially put themselves into a situation where they can be termed ‘living independently’. I add at this juncture that, if you live in the city, take a gap year and qualify for the independent youth allowance, you can still go home and live with Mum and Dad on the crest of the wave, borrow the family car, be amongst your mates and get the independent living allowance. If the minister wanted to solve the problem of rorting that she and the Bradley review talk about, why did she not simply put in the regulations that if you are receiving the independent youth allowance you may not live at home in the parental abode? Simple. Instead of that, she has thrown the baby out lock, stock and barrel—if I can mix my metaphors!

We currently have a situation of gross imbalance. Depending on where you live, you may get good support whilst you attend a tertiary institution, with very little necessary outside support; or, if you live in the bush, you have to fight tooth and nail or have extremely wealthy parents who can afford about $20,000 in the first year and at least $10,000 thereafter to support you. Most people who live in the city think that anyone who lives in the bush is a squillionaire. That is the impression I get. So they all believe that it would therefore be irregular for those people to get youth allowance, because that is means tested. They also believe that the independent youth allowance is inappropriate. We have now made that almost impossible to get, because you have to take almost two years off. So what is left? What is the minister saying to the current group of students who have taken 12 months off to work—effectively 18 months off to start in the first semester? They have done their damnedest to earn enough money to qualify for this artificial status of independent youth allowance. Now, having done so or having the intent of completing that acquisition of funds by first semester next year, they are being told: ‘Too bad; you no longer qualify, because—guess what—having started the game and having been influenced by principals of high schools and advice from Centrelink, we have changed the rules, and the arrangements you put in place no longer apply. So either make arrangements for another 12 months gap or have your parents cough up to support you in the city whilst you attend a tertiary institution.’

I would point out that what we have as a foundation for country students attending tertiary institutions today does not serve the purpose. It has been considered for many years now that rural students who were more than 50 kilometres away from an appropriate educational institution received in excess of $6,000 a year from the Assistance for Isolated Children scheme. Having qualified, they now get dumped. Why isn’t a minister who talks about the education revolution—quite frankly, my rural parents believe it is the education dissolution—endeavouring to develop a program that will give some equity between children of city based parents and children of country based parents? Why is it that those in the bush have to fight tooth and nail to get a tertiary education, given that we say so much in this place about the lack of professional services in rural Australia?

Why wouldn’t a minister with so much foresight, as she insists on telling us, understand that one of the first solutions to getting professionals into rural Australia would be to allow rural Australians to be educated to a professional level and to then go back and serve their communities? It seems to me a perfectly logical conclusion. But we see nothing of it. We see instead a draconian impact on the lives of those students where this mean-spirited minister says: ‘Even though you have abided by the rules, and you intend to qualify under those rules for independent youth allowance, from January next year you will not qualify. You are out in the cold.’

Mr Deputy Speaker, you may believe that this is simply my point of view, but I have received a great deal of correspondence on this matter. It will not surprise you, if you listened to the presentation of petitions in the House today, you would have heard an announcement of hundreds and hundreds of petitions all pertaining to youth allowance and access to tertiary institutions. One letter that is worth quoting from comes from constituents of mine in Karratha, Western Australia. It says in part:

My oldest daughter is in her first year at Curtin University studying speech pathology and has recently completed and passed her first semester exams. My daughter’s intention is to complete her degree and return to Karratha with her qualifications and live and work in the town she calls home. My younger daughter is currently in year 12 and is on track for a university placing next year. She hopes to move into the science field of some sort, specifically in the animal sciences. She, too, plans to return to Karratha, when she has completed her studies, to live and work. As children growing up in a rural area, they are well aware of the shortages in service that country people experience every day. They have developed a sense of loyalty to the town they live in and would love to return something back to that community. As such, their wish is to return to the town with qualifications that will assist the community, and obviously give them a comfortable lifestyle that will allow them to live in an incredibly expensive town such as Karratha.

Unfortunately, the cost of keeping our children in school—and now, university—has reached a point where my wife and I are struggling beyond our financial means. Our older daughter, along with a large study load, has worked to support herself to the best of her ability. She will meet the current requirements to qualify for the independent youth allowance, which will obviously reduce our financial burden if it were to remain in its present form. The changes to the current structure will prevent her from qualifying for the allowance as she will not have been working for a full 18 months before the end of 2009. Along with punishing us, it also decreases the time available for our daughter to study as she is required to work longer hours in order to keep herself.

The stopping of this allowance for my older daughter, and subsequently my other children as they commence their tertiary studies, will make living in the country financially unsustainable for my wife and I. Without the support of this allowance we will be required to move to Perth and I will be forced to work away from the family home, possibly as a fly-in, fly-out worker in the north-west in order to provide for my family. By moving to Perth, our children will be able to live in the family home and therefore reduce the burden of supporting them in other accommodation and all the expenses that come with young adults living away from their parents. With their parents and siblings in Perth, it is very unlikely that our children will return to the country. Once again, the rural community will suffer through the further erosion by government of opportunities to bring professional services to the country.

In case the minister does not believe that that is a reasonable testimonial, let me quote from the Victorian Parliament’s education and training committee—I might add chaired by Labor member Geoff Howard, and with the effect of a Labor majority. It investigated the issue of rural disadvantage in relation to the government’s youth allowance measures. That committee’s report was supported unanimously by its participants. On this issue it commented:

The committee believes that the removal of the main workforce participation route will have a disastrous effect on the young people in rural and regional areas.

That is a group of the same colour, if you like, that understands that rural kids are disadvantaged when it comes to accessing tertiary education.

This debate about the quality of tertiary education and the bells and whistles that may be attached or may be removed or whatever is of little consequence if students cannot access that tertiary education. What we need, as I have said before, is a fund that will support tertiary students, similar to the currently available assistance for isolated children, that each year will give a student living further than 50 kilometres from a tertiary institution assistance to provide themselves with food and shelter—food and shelter that would be automatically available if that student were the child of a city based family.

I do not know why we have survived so many years as a parliamentary institution without recognising this difference. It has always been the case. Since HECS was introduced, we have had this maintained disadvantage, this inequity, this uneven playing field where country students have to fight tooth and nail to get themselves up to the same level as city based students. The minister has made much of the new access to an accommodation scholarship of $4,000 in the first year and $1,000 thereafter. Consider a three-year university degree. That gives you $1,750 a year to feed and shelter yourself, as a variation from a city based student. What is truly laughable—or it would be if it were not so serious—is that this minister seriously believes that that is levelling the playing field, that by giving somebody $1,750 a year they will now be able to go to the big smoke, find a bed and feed themselves for the year. If you put that to a person who is living in the city, they would say, ‘No way, Jose; it cannot be done.’ (Time expired)