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Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Page: 1580

Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (16:54): I seek leave to take note of the response regarding the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee report Rural and regional access to secondary and tertiary education opportunities.

Leave granted.

Senator NASH: I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

We received today from the government their response to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee inquiry into rural and regional access to secondary and tertiary education opportunities. This inquiry was held in 2009. The rural and regional committee reported in December 2009. I chaired that inquiry. It is interesting to note that it has taken the government over two years to provide the Senate with a response of fewer than 12 pages. The response is hardly timely, and I suggest that indicates the lack of understanding that the government has of this issue.

The government indicate in their response:

The Australian Government believes that every student should have access to a world-class education no matter where they live.

I would suggest to the government that perhaps they would like to put their money where their mouth is and ensure that that actually happens, because the response they have given to the committee report in no way does that. The response shows yet again that the government has a complete lack of understanding when it comes to the needs of regional students and the very real issue of inequity.

Recommendation 1 of the committee report is that there be 'an investigation into the barriers to rural and regional secondary educational opportunities' thatexist for regional students. What is extraordinary is that in the response the governmentsay they have been proactive in doing this and yet almost the entire response to recommendation 1—that we look at the barriers for regional students—relates to the changes that the governmentmade to the independentyouth allowance. Madam Acting Deputy President Fisher, you and others wouldknow thatthose were the unfair changes that the governmentput in place in 2010 thatmeant that students in inner regional areas did not have the same criteria applied to them for accessing independentyouth allowance as other regional students did—simply unfair. In the response, the governmentare claiming the reversal of thatunfair changeat the end of last year—that they themselves put in place in 2010—as a win and as somehow addressing the barriers thatexist for regional students. How stupid is that?

This government should never have made those changes to independent youth allowance in the first place. They should never have treated regional students differently simply because of where they lived according to lines on a map. And yet here we have the government in response to the committee report recommendations claiming that the change back to treating all regional students fairly is some wonderful win for the government, that they have made this great change and that that somehow indicates the government are looking to remove the barriers for rural and regional students to educational opportunities. It is simply extraordinary that the government would do that—that they would try to claim that as a win. The changes should never have been made in the first place.

That is virtually the entire response to that particular recommendation. It just goes to show that this government simply does not understand the issue of the inequity for regional students when it comes to their opportunities to educational access compared to those of city students and students in metropolitan areas. The problem is very simple. Regional students so often have no choice but to relocate to attend university or further tertiary education, and that comes at a cost of around $20,000 a year. That is a cost that city students who have the opportunity to live at home, as they very often do, do not have to bear. That is the inequity that this government simply cannot get its head around. It is through no fault of the regional students that they have to relocate.

The government say that they have addressed some of these issues through some of the changes to the independent youth allowance. I have to admit, as I have before, that the changes to the threshold were a good thing. But that does not address the issue for regional students who fall outside of the criteria for assistance through independent youth allowance. We are talking about those with middle-income parents. What this government have done is apply a $150,000 parental income test cap to independent youth allowance. That means that those students whose parents' income combined comes to $150,000 are not eligible for independent youth allowance. How illogical and, again, how stupid is that? These students are proving themselves to be independent of their parents. To then put a parental income test in place is treating this as a welfare measure, and independent youth allowance is not that.

Indeed, it has become quite obvious over time that the government put the cap in place only to free up funding for other areas, which means that regional students are bearing the cost. Let's just look at that for a moment. That $150,000 is combined income before tax. We are not talking about wealthy people. We are talking about, quite possibly, a police officer or a schoolteacher out in a regional area who is going to receive absolutely no assistance from the government for their students to travel away and attend university. It is an absolute mockery when the government say that they believe every student should have access to a world-class education, no matter where they live, when the policies that they have put in place directly contradict that statement. The government say that one of the recommendations was to put in place a tertiary access allowance, which would provide funding for students to assist them with relocation when they have no choice but to relocate to attend tertiary education. The government indicated in their response that that is not supported. Again, this just indicates that the government are not listening to the thousands of regional families who are telling them that the current policies do not work. Indeed, the government put in place enormous barriers for those students to go on to tertiary education, and that is simply not fair.

The ICPA have been pushing for a tertiary access allowance for many years, as have I. This is the way for regional students to be able to have some equity when it comes to accessing education, when we compare them to city students who do not have to bear that financial burden. The government in their response talk about the relocation scholarships that were introduced, saying that is providing funding. Relocation scholarships do not even apply to students on independent youth allowance. They talk about the fact that the government eliminated the regional eligibility distinctions for youth allowance from 1 January 2012. The government brought those changes in in the first place. They should never, ever have been put in place, and now we see the government again crying that this is some great win for regional students. They disenfranchised an entire two-year cohort of year 12 students who fell into the gap before the government fixed their absolutely appalling mistake, and that is simply not on.

The inequity that exists for those regional students will not be addressed until the government recognises that this is not a means-testing welfare issue. This is about the comparison between the regional student who has to bear the cost of that $20,000 a year when they have no choice but to relocate to attend university and the city student who does not bear that cost. It does not matter if the parents are earning $10,000, $50,000, $100,000 or $150,000—that is not the point. The point is the inequity for the regional students because the families have to bear the costs that other students do not. Until the government pulls its head out of the sand and recognises this as an issue, those students are still going to face those barriers. Those students are still going to face those enormous financial difficulties that are preventing so many of our students from going on to tertiary education. Only 33 per cent of regional students go on to tertiary education compared to 55 per cent of students in the cities. The evidence clearly shows that it is because of the financial burden. The government simply has to admit that its measures have not addressed those barriers. It must clearly start to recognise that there is a huge inequity for regional students and that it has to be addressed.