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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2037


Senator HANSON-YOUNG (10:39 AM) —I rise to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2]. This is the second time I have spoken on this bill. We discussed this issue at the end of last year and this Senate failed to pass that legislation at that time, leaving students in limbo over the summer period and into the first semester of this year. Students and their families, unsure of how they were to fund their way through university this year, have contacted me—just as they have with Senator Barnett; he alluded to his meetings—saying that they had to take out mortgages on their houses in order to set their kids up and get them to university because no-one knew what was happening. So while I am disappointed that we are having to rise again to speak to this issue, and we were not able to resolve it at the end of last year, I am of course thankful that we are speaking to it now and that we are able to move forward in some respects.

Of course, this is a compromise by all sides: it is a compromise by the government, it is definitely a compromise by the opposition and it is absolutely a compromise by the Greens. By no means is this package perfect—far, far from it. We now see some positive parts of the package being able to move through. We are going to get money into the hands of students through ensuring that those scholarships are rolled out; students who have had to move away from home are going to get the relocation scholarship. That is wonderful. And we have removed the retrospectivity aspect, which we are thankful for because that is bad policy. That is what I said last year: it is just bad policy to introduce something that has a retrospective aspect. These young people, taking advice that was given to them by government departments in their own schools, took a gap year in order to get the financial support to get them through university. So I am very thankful that we have been able to remove that, and hopefully there will now be some clarity for young people around the country to make the decisions they need. Hopefully this will be done before the HECS census date of 31 March. That is why we are on such a tight time frame here, because you have to be checked in and enrolled in all of your courses by the end of this month otherwise you miss out.

Yes, we are delivering some clarity here, but there is one big sticking point that we have not dealt with: those young people who have to move out of home in order to go to university and get an education—whether they are from a remote area, an outer regional area or an inner regional area or are even moving from one city to another to go to the university that they have been accepted into—should not be penalised, but under this compromise package they still are. While a deal has been made to retain some of the old workplace criteria for some students, it has not done it for all of them and those students it affects are still penalised because they are forced to delay their studies for up to two years. We are still saying to young people, ‘In order to get the financial support that you deserve, you have to prove yourself by deferring your studies.’ If they have to move out of home and they become independent in order to go to university, then they should be recognised as such and the government should be supporting them. We should not be penalising young people who work so hard through high school to get the grades to get into university and get accepted into their courses by then saying to them, ‘We don’t believe that you’re on your own; we don’t believe that we need to support you. You have to prove yourself a bit more. We’re not going to give you the support you deserve.’ Ultimately, this package still allows for that to happen. I think the Greens have been the first to try to get something through and get money into the hands of many more students so that we can get things moving. And while it is absolutely a compromise from all sides, we obviously have not been able to come up with a solution that helps everybody, and that is the next step.

Why is this a problem? It is a problem because the government wanted to introduce a major reform package without putting one extra dollar into it. What government in its right mind would announce a huge reform package in any other area than student income support without putting in the money to make that reform package work? We are in the midst of discussing the reform package for health. How will that reform package be carried out? It will be carried out through the sweetener of extra money because the government knows that there is no possible way that they can implement with any credibility a major reform package and not fund it. Yet when it comes to students, our youngest and brightest Australians, trying to get to university and get their education to become the leaders of tomorrow, the government says: ‘No, you can do it on your own. We’ll reform the sector for you, but we won’t give you any extra money to help you get there.’ That has been the big failure of this package from day one.

We have heard story after story over the last few months from prospective students and their families about how the inability of all sides in this place to come up with something we could agree on has left students and their families in limbo. I am thankful that today we are finally able to put forward something to move on, but the campaign of equality for student income support is definitely not over. Students right around the country need to make sure that their voices are heard on this right up to election day and beyond. Whoever is in government, be it the Labor Party or the coalition, need to be told loud and clear that students can no longer be expected to scrimp their way through in order to get a good quality education.

We need to invest in the education of our future leaders, and the best way of ensuring that students get a good quality education is to make sure that they are supported. Students pay more for their education today than they ever have, yet we are making it tougher for them to get the benefit of that. Even under this new reform package, where those students will get something, they are still going to have to work part-time jobs or even more than part-time jobs to get themselves through university because we have not seen an increase in the youth allowance rate.

Universities Australia, based on all their information—and they are the experts in this field—suggest that it costs students $670 a fortnight to fund their living and educational costs to get themselves through university, yet the government is scrimping by giving only some people $371, while the other young people entitled to youth allowance get less. We need to see a major injection into student income support, and with that we need to see reforms of rent assistance for young people. We need to see some proper focus on ensuring that students who are paying more than ever for their education are able to get the most benefit from that by being supported and not having to scrimp their way through just to cover costs.

Some of the stories that I have heard from students and their parents since May last year, when the government first announced this reform package, have been heartbreaking. I have heard about families of two or three in which the youngest child stops aspiring to get good year 12 results and says: ‘What is the use? I am not going to be able to go to university. Mum and dad simply cannot afford it. My older siblings are there, but I am not going to be able to get there.’ That is the type of pressure we are putting on young people—17-year-olds and 18-year-olds—through this package. I know that there are some good things in it, and that is why we have tried to get some of the money rolling out there, but the major issue of supporting those young people who are disadvantaged purely on the basis of the location of their family home is not being addressed in this package.

If you have to move out of home and become independent because you have to go to a university that is not down the road—whether you have to move from a city to another city, from a regional centre to another regional centre, from a regional centre to a metropolitan area or from a remote area to somewhere else—you should be entitled to the full independent rate of youth allowance. Why do we want to disadvantage those young people who have worked so hard to get into university only to make it harder for them based purely on where their families live? It simply does not make any sense.

Students here in Australia receive among the lowest rates of income support in the OECD. While the Greens support the passing of this bill and understand that it will improve the targeting of that income support, the fact is that we should be giving more support to all students. We need to see an injection into the income support bucket. The government cannot sit idly by and take credit for introducing a major reform package without funding it properly. That is how we got into this mess in the first place.

I have said numerous times already that this bill represents a total compromise from all sides, regardless of the spin. We will hear the opposition say that they ‘won all these things’, we will hear the government say ‘the opposition have folded’ and we will hear everyone say that they had their successes, but let us call it what it is: this is not a perfect package. It is an absolute compromise, and we still have a long, long way to go. We need to ensure that those young people who should be supported are entitled to that support. If the government want to fulfil their education revolution, they have to get some money out there and into the hands of students to get them through university. That is what has to happen. We should not be punishing young people because of their aspirations and we should not be making their position even more difficult because of their family circumstances.

The Greens will not be moving any amendments to this bill, despite how poor it is. A group of students are still being punished, and young people who need to access some of this money are still being forced to defer their studies. You should not have to defer your studies just to get the support you deserve. It is bad policy. We know the deferral rates. We know about the issues that arise when young people—particularly those from remote and outer regional areas, which are the areas that this compromise affects—defer their studies. We know that those young people are less likely to go to university once they defer. That is the core fact of the matter, and it is bad policy for this Senate to insist that that is a good thing. It is bad policy.

Having said that, the Greens will not be moving amendments in this debate because we know that it has taken quite some time to get to this point. While this package is not perfect, we need to get the money out there and into the hands of students. We need to move forward. But this is definitely not over. Young people around the country who have to move out of home in order to go to university should be supported in doing that. It should not be based on the fact that they happen to live in one area versus another area. They should not be forced to defer their studies. It is bad policy to say, ‘Yes, we want you to go to university, but you put that off for a little bit because it suits us.’ It is bad policy and it needs to be fixed.

Let’s get this legislation passed so that we can get things moving, but this needs to be on the election agenda of all parties. The thousands of young people and their families around the country who contacted all of us over the last nine months need to think very hard about the type of government they want and the types of people they want representing them in the Senate to ensure that this issue does not fall off the agenda. We should not be penalising young people for having aspirations to go to university, and under this package we are still doing that. It is not perfect; it is a total compromise. Do not buy the spin from either side that this is a win, because it is not a win; this is a compromise. It is not perfect. Let’s get it through; let’s get the money out there. The fight is not over.