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Monday, 26 November 2012
Page: 13180

Ms BIRD (CunninghamParliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (16:48): I rise to address some of the issues that have been raised. The contribution to the debate at the end diverged somewhat from the bill. I understand that the shadow Treasurer cannot help himself getting up and talking the economy down again when somebody praises the state of the economy, and I was happy for two minutes of the debate to be devoted to allowing the shadow Treasurer to do so.

I served with the member for Lyne on the education committee of this House, and I appreciate that he shares with me an understanding of and commitment to the capacity of education to transform not only individual lives but also the regions of this country and the opportunities to be found within them. Like me, the member for Lyne comes from a region where there is concern about youth unemployment, and he shares with me an understanding that the ability of young people to access higher education—TAFEs, VET and university—makes a significant difference in their lives. So I understand where the member for Lyne was coming from with his contribution.

However, I make the point to him that the student start-up scholarship which is being addressed in the amendments to this bill was introduced in April 2010 as a new payment. It was introduced for the very reasons that the member outlined—that is, to provide some upfront assistance with the costs of things such as textbooks and equipment, the money to pay for which at the start of the university year is a concern for students when they come out of the Christmas holidays and see the list and how much everything is going to cost.

Mr Hockey: I thought they had a computer for that.

Ms BIRD: Indeed the member is quite right: there is a range of costs associated with starting university life.

Mr Hockey: Why are they buying books instead of a computer?

Ms BIRD: If the member wants to ask me why they are buying books instead of computers, I suggest that he discuss with universities their reading lists. I do not set them; I just know what the reality is for uni students. The member, as his children get older, will come to know only too well that the costs at the beginning of the university year are not small.

As I said, the start-up scholarships were a new initiative in 2010. They are an important support to students. I cannot agree with the underlying assessment by the member for Lyne that the decision to put a freeze on the scholarships until January 2017 is pulling away support. The government has a record of providing new placement opportunities, of massively increasing student places in universities and vocational education and training and of providing significant additional financial support to assist students—so many of whom are now eligible for youth allowance and Austudy. The government has a really good track record in the area of education, and it is not unreasonable to freeze the scholarships until January 2017. While I appreciate the intention of the member for Lyne's contribution, I argue that the freezing of the scholarship is, rather than an impost on students, the continuation of a support payment that did not even exist before April 2010. The government will continue to provide important support to students in meeting their costs of living.

Question agreed to.