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Wednesday, 21 September 2011
Page: 10941


Mr GARRETT (Kingsford SmithMinister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) (09:02): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011 will provide additional assistance for young people from regional Australia who need to leave home to study after secondary school.

The Australian government is committed to reforming higher education and, in particular, increasing students’ access to university.

Higher education is central to achieving the government’s vision of a stronger, fairer and more productive nation.

Following last year’s reforms to student income support, many more young people, particularly those from families with low income, are accessing youth allowance while they study at university.

The amendments included in this bill follow consideration of the recommendations of the independent Review of Student Income Support Reforms conducted by Professor Kwong Lee Dow AM.

Professor Lee Dow brought to the review his considerable experience in higher education, his expertise in regional education issues and sensitivity to the challenges faced by regional students and their families in accessing further study.

On behalf of the government I would like to thank Professor Lee Dow for his report, which presents a balanced consideration of the needs of young people from low socioeconomic families and those whose distance from major cities limits their range of opportunities for a university education.

The report of the Review of Student Income Support Reforms recognises that the policy settings put in place by this government in 2010 following the Bradley review into Australian higher education have been working.

The impact of the reforms has been measurable with more students qualifying for assistance, especially young people from low- to middle-income families.

The reforms have also had a positive impact on families from regional and remote areas of Australia with more young people who need to live away from home being able to access student income support.

Mr McCormack: So why did you change the rules in the first place?

The SPEAKER: I would suggest to the member for Riverina that he keeps his powder dry for later in this debate. I really think that it is just a waste of time to interject on the minister's second reading speech. The minister has the call.

Mr GARRETT: As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted, in fact, figures recently released by the government show that since March 2010 the number of students from low- and middle-income backgrounds has increased by some 21,000.

Also, since March 2010, the number of independent youth allowance recipients has increased by 29,000 due to the lowering of the age of independence from 25 to 23.

Overall, under the government’s reforms, 160,000 students are accessing youth allowance—up from 135,000—representing an 18 per cent increase in just over a year.

The report also notes that regional participation rates still lag behind those of metropolitan higher education students.

The strongest theme in submissions and consultations during the review was the additional cost incurred by students in relocating for study.

With course availability at local institutions often limited or lack of readily accessible institutions, many rural and regional students need to move away from home to study their chosen course and, therefore, require extra assistance, often beyond the first year.

While the government has made—and continues to make—significant investment to develop regional universities and broaden the educational options of regional students, more could be done to help young people from regional and remote Australia to take up the same options for university study as students from the major cities.

However, any assistance for regional students must also retain a focus on the needs of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Following consideration of the report of the Review of Student Income Support Reforms, the government announced a package of additional measures which will increase access to, and better target, income support for students who need it most, through a fairer and more equitable allocation of resources. This package constitutes the government’s response to the review.

The government has chosen not to adopt all of the recommendations from the report. The proposed self-supporting criterion for independence for young people could be viewed as narrowing workforce independence rules for students and further delaying their entry to tertiary education.

Instead, the government will provide improved access to higher education for regional students through changes to the independence criteria for young people from inner regional Australia seeking access to youth allowance, while continuing to provide support for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. From 1 January 2012, students from inner regional areas will have access to the more generous part-time and earnings workforce participation for independent youth allowance, currently available to outer regional, remote and very remote students who need to live away from home to study after completing secondary school, and whose parents earn less than $150,000 per annum.

With this amendment, approximately 5,500 additional young people will be able to access independent rates of youth allowance payments.

This delivers on the government’s commitment to remove distinctions between students from inner regional and outer regional areas, and recognises the additional barriers and costs faced by young people from all areas of regional Australia in accessing education.

The government’s 2010 reforms acknowledged and sought to address the financial hardships faced by students required to move away from home to study at university with the provision of relocation scholarships for eligible dependent students and small numbers of independent students disadvantaged by their personal circumstances.

The government is resetting the value of relocation scholarships to provide extra support for eligible students from regional areas. In any year, there will be around 15,000 students who are benefitting from this change over the period of their degree.

The bill amends relocation scholarships in 2012 for eligible regional students who are required to live away from home to study to $4,000 in the first year, $2,000 in each of the second and third years and $1,000 in subsequent years of study.

For eligible students from major cities, the 2012 values will be $4,000 in the first year they are required to live away from home to study and $1,000 in subsequent years of study.

These amounts will be indexed from 2013 and there are no changes to eligibility criteria.

The government’s response to the Lee Dow review also includes several measures which do not require legislation.

There will be a feasibility and merit study of an income-contingent loan scheme to assist students required to live away from home to undertake formal clinical placements, or other formal practicum periods as part of their course; triennial reviews of student income support to assess the overall effectiveness of the schemes in reducing financial barriers to participation of students in need; and an ongoing education strategy to ensure young people and their families are aware of their options for financial assistance as they prepare to enter tertiary education.

This is a fiscally responsible package. The cost of these measures will be met within existing funds, and represent no additional cost to the Australian government and taxpayers.

As well as resetting the value of relocation scholarships, there is a small reduction in the value of student start-up scholarships from 1 January 2012.

The value of the start-up scholarship from 1 January 2012 will be $2,050 for all eligible students, and this amount will continue to be indexed annually thereafter.

As recommended by the review, the bill also provides for the cessation of the Rural Tertiary Hardship Fund given the additional financial support being in the package for rural and regional students.

The government is also deferring to 1 January 2014 the extension of income support to cover all master's by coursework degrees.

Existing arrangements for approval for student income support of individual master's by coursework degrees which are professionally oriented will continue.

The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations has already invited universities to submit additional courses for approval for 2012.

The bill amends the social security law to facilitate these measures and make several technical amendments.

These measures are part of the government’s commitment to open doors to higher education for young Australians, drawing on the Bradley and Lee Dow reviews.

The government is maintaining its emphasis on support for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds while also seeking to provide greater assistance to young people from regional areas where participation rates—though improved—remain significantly below metropolitan areas.

This package also meets the government’s commitment to remove regional eligibility distinctions for youth allowance from 2012.

The government’s changes to student income support will ensure that assistance continues to be directed at the students who need it most.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.