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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 425

Senator BACK (10:35 AM) —Really, there are four people most competent to speak on this issue and they are Senator Nash, Senator Xenophon, Senator Marshall and I. We sat through the hearings and heard the personal stories of those who will be affected in the event that Senator Nash’s bill is not passed. I want to make this a personal contribution matter and I want to point to the severe discrimination that would occur if we do not address this anomaly. There should be only one criterion that determines whether students should get this support under youth allowance and that is, having regard to means-testing and other activities, do they have to relocate from their home to the place of higher education? If the answer is yes, then we must support this bill. If the answer is no, then we have the capacity to not do so. In fact, this has been endorsed by none other than Senator Evans himself because, during the course of our hearing on 17 December last year in this place, he introduced the Rural Hardship Grants Scheme for rural students attending university, and its first and major criterion simply was: does the student have to relocate? I applaud him for that, and I implore him to carry that through into this bill.

The Australian standard geographic classification upon which these decisions have been taken, delineating metropolitan, inner and outer regional, remote and very remote areas are totally irrelevant to this discussion. They were developed to decide whether rural doctors should or should not receive some financial support in agreeing to reside in inner, outer regional or remote areas. They should not apply them as they have done. There is no logical application to it; it is ridiculous. During the hearing of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee I simply asked myself this: if a student wanted to travel from Hobart or Darwin to study veterinary science—as was the case in my own profession—they would have to travel to a city campus and, in fact, they would be denied this youth allowance, as indeed would I have been in the 1960s.

But let us have a look at the impact on the students themselves. During the hearing we heard cases presented to us of older siblings who would qualify for the one gap year but whose younger siblings would not. We heard of one lass from Port Macquarie, now in her third year, and of her sister going through a gap year, approved for an agricultural commerce course, not knowing whether in fact she was able to go on. Her younger sister had just been accepted, I think, into medicine and would possibly not be able to undertake that course, and her younger brother would probably go down that same path. We heard of the same thing occurring in Mount Gambier. Under the one gap year, a lass had peeled potatoes for 12 months and her sister was facing the prospect of peeling potatoes for two years before being eligible for youth allowance. What has happened to this country, when its best and brightest have to peel potatoes for a period—in this case, for two years—before they can go to university? I ask the question: why is it that we in this country are expending so much money, and rightly so, to keep students through until the end of their secondary schooling and then turning around, throwing them out and rejecting them for the opportunity of tertiary study?

I applaud any government that wants to ensure that people from lower socioeconomic areas have the opportunity to go on to higher study. Thus has it always been and thus should it always be. But the reality, as was put to me by the then chairman of the Group of Eight universities, is that, over time, history has shown that it is not only students from the low socioeconomic areas who have been denied opportunities at university but students from rural and regional areas of Australia. They are the ones who in fact have been the most disadvantaged and this legislation, unless it is changed, will simply perpetuate that situation.

Let us have a look for a moment at the wastage of students. We already know that there is a loss of students after their tertiary entrance in year 12—those who do a gap year—and there is a loss of those who do not then go on to tertiary studies. I think, from memory, it is about eight to 10 per cent. But that figure jumps to a third. For those who have a two-year gap period, it jumps to about 33 per cent wastage of those students who then do not go on to higher studies. We in this country cannot afford that. Why invest so heavily in youngsters, through to the end of year 12, and then allow a 33 per cent wastage of students through them not going on to higher studies and universities? There is no logic to that situation.

We are talking about the inner regional areas currently being denied about 5,000 students. I am not sure of the number who actually attend university or higher education for the first time each year. It is probably about 200,000. So we are looking at about 5,000 students potentially being impacted. As a person coming from rural and regional Australia, the concern I have is the impact on rural communities. We know that it is far more likely that a student from a rural or regional area, having obtained a university degree or higher qualification, will come back and stay in rural and regional Australia. I asked the young lady from Port Macquarie that question: ‘Would you, your sisters and your brother, upon graduation, stay in Sydney?’ She said, ‘No way, Senator. We would go back to the bush.’ Those are the very people whom we need.

We in this country are right down at the bottom of the OECD graph of those participating in agriculture and agribusiness who have any degree of qualification or higher education. That is unacceptable when we look at the challenge confronting this country and our region in terms of food security, supplying food, fibre and water for this sector of the world into the future. We have an unfilled demand of about 50,000 people in the agricultural and agribusiness sectors at a graduate degree level and this legislation will simply perpetuate and exacerbate that situation.

From a purely economic point of view, it has been put to the committee that a graduate earns, over their lifetime, in excess of $1 million more than a sibling, or other, who has not obtained a higher university qualification. If you take that $1 million and apply taxation to it over time, there on its own is the economic validation for getting our students into higher education, getting them qualified and getting them out there earning as graduates. It pays for itself over time. Far from discouraging students, we should be encouraging them even more.

How can we be the clever country when in fact, as I mentioned earlier, we demand that a young person peels potatoes for a—heaven forbid!—two-year period before they go on to university? Over the Christmas period I tried to explain this to a colleague from Singapore, and he simply looked at me as if I were mad. He said, ‘No, you are too intelligent a people; you are too smart a country to allow anyone to waste that time.’ I said, ‘No, that’s actually what students have to do under these circumstances.’

Be under no illusions: it is not 18 months. We all know that in most courses you cannot start in the second semester, so it is effectively a two-year period. This has to be addressed; it is unacceptable. I will not spend the time, because others have, on the question of the average of 30 hours that a student must work in a rural community. Finding work for 30 hours a week—in fact, at one stage it was a minimum of 30 hours, and I do take some credit for being able to point that out in the past; it has now moved from a minimum to an average—in many rural communities is not possible. It is of course obvious that this 18-month period, this 30-hours-a-week requirement, is not directed at school-leaving students at all; it is directed at those coming out of the workforce. For those coming out of the workforce it is a laudable idea, but it is nevertheless not appropriate for school leavers.

I conclude with the reference I made earlier to the words of the minister, Minister Evans, when on the day of the hearing he announced that the rural hardship grant scheme’s criterion was the need to relocate. The need to relocate is the overwhelming and only criterion that should determine eligibility. (Time expired)