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Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Page: 1582

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (17:04): I join Senator Nash in expressing my concern at the very late response by the government to the inquiry chaired by Senator Nash. Let me give you these statistics by way of evidence. It is a comparison between the dates of 1984 and 2007 regarding people from rural communities and people in the wider community with tertiary qualifications. In 1984, four per cent of people in the rural communities of Australia had a tertiary qualification, whereas 2½ times that figure, 10 per cent, in the wider community had such a qualification. By 2007, the number of people in the wider community having a tertiary qualification had gone up from 10 per cent to 25 per cent. Those in rural communities having tertiary qualifications went from a lamentable four per cent to an even more lamentable seven per cent—equal to the lowest in the OECD, and this is supposed to be the smart country. If one were to actually examine those 2007 figures out to 2012, one would only see a further widening of that gap. This is what the inquiry went to, and we see a gross deficiency in the government's response.

In the last three weeks I have had the opportunity, with my colleague Senator Colbeck, to talk to rural communities about education and agricultural education in Tasmania. In Victoria, two weeks ago, I had that same opportunity with representatives of Marcus Oldham College, and last week throughout rural Western Australia I addressed the same questions in the wheatbelt areas. We have a lamentable and pathetic circumstance that must be handled, must be addressed and surely must be bipartisan. We cannot leave rural communities in the sad demise they are in at the moment.

Senator Nash spoke about independence from parents. How is it that an 18-year-old can vote and can be called up to participate in military service, and yet an 18-, 19-, 20- or 21-year-old somehow or other is beholden to their parents' income when it comes to addressing the question of independent youth allowance?

I will not go back over the words that Senator Nash used except to reflect on the three criteria, the first of which is working full-time for 30 hours a week for 18 months. Where are the full-time jobs in rural Australia, working 30 hours a week over 18 months—not seasonally adjusted, but 30 hours every week? They do not exist, Madam Acting Deputy President Fisher, a fact you know well yourself from your experience in the Dales. In fact, it was in Brookton that we started our visits last week.

The second alternative is part-time work for greater than 15 hours a week for two years after leaving school. We all know about the wastage that occurs when, instead of going on to higher study, a student takes a gap year and particularly a second gap year. They might go on to tertiary study if they have one gap year but it is very, very unlikely if they have two gap years. And who are those who are represented most highly in the group who do not go on to tertiary study after a two-year gap? You guessed it; they are from rural communities. The third group comprise those who might have total savings of greater than 75 per cent of the necessary $21,000 over 18 months.

The question I ask, of course, is: why, at all, are they beholden to their parents' combined incomes? As Senator Nash said, a policeman and a teacher in a country town may well accumulate $150,000 of annual salary—they may work overtime, get some form of penalties or some form of zone allowance in the magical, mystical $150,000—but you would have an argument on your hands if you were to say that such people were wealthy enough to send children away from home. The criterion must be: does that person have to leave their home to access higher education? The answer is yes.

Only last week did I have many people in the rural communities—towns you would know well: Brookton, Kondinin, Hyden—asking me: 'What is the solution to this dilemma? We have to get our children away for higher education, and we have to get them away for upper secondary education but we cannot afford it; it's $40-odd thousand, at least, after tax per student.' This is not for the top boarding schools in the cities, as you would know, Madam Acting Deputy President, but that is the least cost. In many instances, the farmer's wife shifts to the city so that she can be with the children in the city, and that is breaking up the family because we know that, on the weekend, the children also remain in the city. Where does the farmer end up? One farmer said to me, 'Unfortunately, Senator Back, all too often where the farmer ends up is on the end of a rope in his shearing shed.' That was said to me last Tuesday in your old home town of Brookton, Madam Acting Deputy President.

So we have the circumstance, unfortunately, in this country of a wide disparity now between the educational aspirations of those in the cities and those in the country. Those of us who have watched this process for many, many years know that, if a family remains in the country, the educational outcome for their students in years 11 and 12 going into higher education are much lower. We know that. They are much lower than they would be if the family were able to make the decision to move to the city. Of course, we now see that farming families cannot do this. In so many rural communities now, professionals such as doctors, dentists and others—and, in my own case, my wife and I—make the decision very early to be in a city somewhere by the time their oldest child goes to secondary school. Right across each of the states that I have been in that is the case. It is not just an educational issue; it is an issue right across society, because when that doctor or that dentist leaves that community, as we all know, a valuable person is lost, a valuable family is lost to that community.

These are issues that are not being addressed, yet we see the questions raised. Recommendations were made in this report for external students to try to make their circumstances easier. They did not receive an adequate response from the government. What we now have are compulsory student union fees payable also by external students who can never, ever access the services for which they are subsidising their city cousins and those who are in city based institutions.

We had a circumstance in Queensland—Senator Nash may remember it—in which one of the university vice-chancellors said to us that he was aware of cases where those leaving school at the end of year 12 were saying to the principal: 'Don't tell my parents that I am bright enough or that I have qualified to go to a city university to study, because I don't want to put that pressure on my parents and on my siblings.' This is a wealthy country. What a lamentable circumstance in which a year-12 student says to the school principal, 'I don't want my parents knowing that I am capable of going on to higher studies.' Very often these people from a regional area, a rural area, even a remote area, are the people who come back and provide professional services upon graduation. These are particularly important issues and should not have been the subject of so much delay.

Time does not permit me to go further into the whole question of agricultural and agribusiness education. As you know, that is the subject of a Senate inquiry at this moment, and it is creating an enormous amount of interest. I am delighted that Senator Gallacher is here in the chamber and has participated in the first hearing—and, hopefully, will participate in other hearings. But, again, all it is pointing to is the absolute demise of tertiary institutions. I was at Marcus Oldham College in Geelong the other day, now the only private sector college that is still operating in the same way as it did it in the 1980s. Look at those that have closed: Hawkesbury could not have first-year students this year; Muresk in Western Australia is closed; and Gatton and Roseworthy are largely now veterinary schools with some agricultural education. We are graduating fewer than 700 graduates in agricultural science for an annual demand of at least 3,500. This is not the way that Australia is going to achieve what it needs to achieve to provide food and fibre for the region into the future. These are critically important issues and they are far more deserving of rigour, study and examination than this response has indicated.

Question agreed to.