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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 1733

Senator POWELL —I draw the attention of the Minister for Education to a recent study of the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research which has estimated a significant overall rise in poverty in Australia between 1981-82 and 1985-86 from 11.5 per cent to 12.4 per cent of all income units. Given that unemployment benefits are set at a level below the poverty line and given the Minister's statement in answer to my question earlier this week that student allowances are being brought into line with equivalent unemployment benefits by a phase-in arrangement not to finish until 1989, I ask the Minister whether she believes that this constitutes `maintenance of adequate levels of student financial support' as recommended by the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission in its review of efficiency and effectiveness in higher education?

Senator RYAN —Certainly student allowances are higher now than they have ever been and certainly they are available to more students than ever before. The highest number of students ever will benefit from student allowances this year. It is also the case that next year the education allowance paid to 16 and 17-year-olds who qualify will be the equivalent of the unemployment benefit, which is the first time that such parity has been achieved. Whatever improvements Senator Powell would like to see in the level of student allowances, she must surely admit that this Government has made considerable improvements in these allowances during our four years in office. There have been continual increases and improvements in eligibility arrangements.

She must also agree that the group of students who have most benefited from our improvements in student allowances are the poorest students-that is the 16 and 17-year-olds who qualify for Austudy while completing their school education or doing a technical and further education course. When we came to office the level of benefit available to those students was about $19. It is now $45 for some students and $40 for others. Thus, there has been a more than 100 per cent increase in those allowances which, because of the means test, go to children of pensioners, beneficiaries and, in many cases, very low income earners. Not only has there been an improvement and expansion of student allowance schemes under the Hawke Government, but there has also been a targeting of the rate of improvement to the neediest students, particularly to those 16 and 17-year-olds who might otherwise have dropped out of the school system and, in many cases, become beneficiaries of unemployment benefit. I stress that even though a 16 or 17-year-old in receipt of Austudy this year is getting less by way of income support than he or she would get on the dole, he or she is getting immeasurably more in terms of future benefit and employment options by staying in the school system.

Senator Powell quoted from one report on the Australian economy, but every report that one sees on the economy, whether it comes from our own institutes of labour market studies, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or the Economist's recent analysis, advocates improvements in educational standards for the Australian work force. Those improvements cannot take place unless students complete their secondary education. The fact that we have been able, via a system of greatly improved student allowances and other programs, such as the participation and equity program, to work with State governments and the major non-government systems to improve the school retention rate from below 36 per cent when we first came to office to what will be more than 50 per cent nationally this year, with much higher rates being achieved in some States, is adequate demonstration that we understand very well the link between improved education and the elimination of poverty. It also shows that we understand very well the responsibilities on government to assist young people to undertake their education, and that our strategies in these respects have been working.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I remind the Senate that we have had only 11 questions today when we should have had about 16 or 17. I ask honourable senators asking questions and those answering them to take note of that fact.