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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 646

Dr STONE (3:33 PM) —In continuation, I want to make it very clear that this government has no other option, if it really does believe in the rights of rural students to tertiary education, but to move urgently to reinstate the criteria that the coalition had for all rural students in relation to independent youth allowance and then to move as swiftly as possible to introduce a comprehensive new way for rural students to be able to equitably access tertiary education. The problem is that the boundaries or zones that this government now uses to discriminate between inner and outer regional students were not designed to have anything to do with how close a tertiary education institution is to a population or the socioeconomic status of families in those zones. In fact, they were introduced for medical doctor retention purposes. It was either laziness or stupidity that saw them simply adopted to separate out the haves and the have-nots in terms of potential access to tertiary education.

It would not be so bad if the government at least understood and helped the rural universities now in country areas. But they have not built at all on the coalition legacy of trying to make sure that there are some tertiary education offerings beyond the tram tracks of metropolitan Australia. So there is no option for country students. In a place like Shepparton, which has a La Trobe University campus, there is only a very limited offering of university courses. It is no good if you want to do medicine, law or engineering. There are only business courses and some arts courses available. So I have to repeat: this government has neglected and callously disregarded rural students on so many fronts. It has not built up tertiary education offerings in regional Australia. It has introduced this nonsense approach to divide those who can still, under the old coalition criteria, apply for a one-year gap year and only 15 hours of work a week to become independent youth allowance recipients. It has left people in so-called inner regional Australia—and that includes people in towns like Shepparton and up to Deniliquin—with a two-year gap period that universities very rarely acknowledge as acceptable, and it leaves them in despair. In fact, in my electorate of Murray, there was an enormous drop in those even applying for tertiary entrance this year; and that is a tragedy. Students did not even aspire anymore to trying to gain a university qualification, even though their merit was as great as it ever had been, and even though, in ignoring the merit of country students, it is a direct violation of their human rights. I repeat: this is a travesty of justice for country students. The solution is in the hands of this government and it can be delivered today.

We do not have any alternatives, and for this Prime Minister—the architect of the problems we have on our hands today—to encourage her Attorney-General to say this is all about a constitutional problem and we should not even debate the bill: how cynical and callous can you get. I can imagine would-be tertiary students in my electorate listening to that and again despairing about the two-speed economy and the two-speed access to things like future tertiary education that is being encouraged by this government. I certainly will not be supporting either the amendment that has been moved or the proposition that we completely walk away from the needs of country students today. I urge this government to look at the rights of country students and to act with some humanity and sense of equity and fair play.