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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 11999

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (12:13): The Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011 proposes that from 1 January 2012 changes be made to the criteria under which youth allowance recipients from inner regional Australia are considered to be independent. It adjust the amount of the Relocation Scholarship to eligible higher education students from regional or remote areas who are required to live away from home to study and it reduces the amount of the Student Start-Up Scholarship to $2,050 for eligible students. This bill will also introduce a feasibility study into the merits of an income contingent loan scheme to help students who have to live away from home during clinical and practical placements. As well, it will establish triennial reviews of student income support reforms to gauge their effectiveness in reducing financial barriers to education for students in need and also provide an educational strategy to ensure students and their families are aware of the financial assistance available for tertiary education. As a member of parliament I am regularly confronted by constituents who are struggling and in need and are not aware that there are government schemes to assist them, so this awareness will be welcomed by many. Today we are debating proposed amendments to finally make independent youth allowance provisions fair for inner regional students. This comes after two years of lobbying by students, parents and education stakeholders—from all groups who are affected by this legislation. These stakeholders have been calling for a reversal of the changes that this Labor government made to the original legislation that made the system unfair to inner regional students by removing the 30-hour work week rule, and finally the government has realised the error it made in subjecting these students to this requirement in the first place.

This realisation is important, as by introducing the necessity for inner regional students to work 30 hours a week in order to be eligible for youth allowance, the government made the arrogant assumption that inner regional students have the same access to opportunities as students from metropolitan areas and that their costs of relocation for university study are somehow less than those of anyone else who has had to move. It was an unfair provision that the government introduced in the first place. The reversal of the government's extra provision, however, comes at a cost. It is yet another blow-out for taxpayers and there are flow-on effects for other students who are eligible for youth allowance.

The package that has been announced is costing $265 million. That is $265 million to make changes to a program that the government themselves changed in the first place—not a terribly flattering reflection on this government's economic management. Neither is it a particularly flattering reflection on this government's management of education, which so many members claim to hold close to their hearts. The coalition has tried to right this wrong many times before now, yet previous attempts have fallen upon deaf ears and have been blocked in debate by members of the Labor Party and, at times, by Independent members representing regional areas.

Last October—more than 12 months ago—the coalition introduced a notice of motion to the House of Representatives to make independent youth allowance fair for inner regional students by reinstating the same fair criteria that apply to other regional students. Whilst this was supported by Independent members, it was blocked by Labor members of parliament. In February this year, the coalition introduced a bill into the House of Representatives which sought to reinstate the same fair criteria to inner regional students as other regional students. Debate was disallowed by Labor members as well as the member for New England and the member for Lyne. It is curious that the same members are now supporting these legislative changes—now that they have been proposed by their side of the House.

The bill before us today brings fairness back to inner regional students. This is so important, as the Bradley report found that students from regional and remote areas are one of just three groups that are significantly underrepresented at university. Although 27.9 per cent of the population aged between 15 and 64 live in regional or remote areas, only 19 per cent of university students indicate that they are from these areas. Furthermore, the higher education participation rate of this group has deteriorated over the past five years. It is interesting that, despite this deterioration in participation rates, the government introduced further barriers to regional students through more restrictive criteria for youth allowance. The government cannot try to claim ignorance of what was going on. It ignored multiple attempts by the coalition to address the issue sooner. Additionally, the government announced their ambition that, by 2014, 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds will hold a bachelor's degree and, by 2020, 20 per cent of undergraduate higher education enrolments will be students from a remote or regional background. Again it is surprising that, considering these targets, the government added an extra barrier for regional students.

These statistics alone give weight to the importance of increasing participation rates of students from regional and remote backgrounds. Further to this, however, offer rates to those from regional and remote areas who apply to attend university are equal to or better than offers to students from metropolitan and urban areas. So the question is why participation rates are lower. It is commonly regarded that students from a regional or remote background face higher initial costs, as they often must move away from home to study. A report by the Department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations notes that access is closely linked to the costs of attending university, and the further a person lives away from the campus the more likely it is that there will be additional costs to study—such as transport expenses. Furthermore, it has been shown that regional and remote students have a perception that costs will be higher and therefore they are discouraged from the beginning.

With the University of Queensland located in my electorate of Ryan, I have seen evidence of this in St Lucia, Toowong, Taringa and surrounding suburbs. Students come to study at the University of Queensland from all over the state and, indeed, from around Australia. Every January, demand for rental housing by students—new and current—is overwhelming as students try to find somewhere to live during the semester. I know the stress that this causes students. Although the University of Queensland has 10 residential colleges, demand for these facilities is so high that literally hundreds of students miss out every year, but whether students utilise university or private accommodation, the cost to those who have to relocate to attend university is phenomenal. Students must find a way to fund these costs, with many working part-time to help with the burden. However, with the admirable target of 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds holding a bachelor's degree by 2014, and 20 per cent regional and remote student participation by 2020, measures must be taken to support students while they study.

Delivering higher education to a dispersed population such as ours in Australia is a difficult task. Research shows that those from regional and remote areas suffer from the tyranny of distance much more than their metropolitan counterparts, with a 10 per cent lower participation rate for the 19- to 21-year-old age group. Much of this barrier is due to cost, plain and simple. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations report estimated that the annual cost for regional students to study away from home is approximately $15,000 to $20,000 per year. The report states that, on top of this, many students cannot access youth allowance due to tight eligibility criteria. Keep in mind that this report was commissioned after the government's changes and, even amongst those who can access youth allowance, the amount provided was considered inadequate to cover the living, social and travel costs for young regional people. This finding does not bode well for those students whose scholarships will be cut due to the costs involved with the mismanagement of this program and its changes.

The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations report states that regional students are most worried about the cost of tertiary education. Sadly, but understandably, students are focused on the immediate costs they face, rather than on the lifelong benefits and increased earning capacity higher education can bring. The report says that many regional students recognised that university study would require significant financial resources and that this would often mean that students would be heavily reliant on their parents if they chose to study at university. Studies have found that students were reluctant to become overreliant on their parents, and so upfront cost considerations affected their decision to participate in higher education. Of course, there are many families in which a student's parents would willingly cover the costs involved with their children receiving a tertiary education but they simply cannot afford it.

I highlight these cost concerns as they are an obvious barrier to regional student participation in higher education and we have a duty to address the discrepancies between metropolitan and regional student participation rates. Youth allowance is one way we can support regional students to close this gap, and it must be utilised effectively to ensure that regional students have access to these funds fairly, regardless of whether they are from an inner regional or outer regional background. The relocation costs and costs of studying away from home are basically the same, regardless of whether you need to relocate 100 kilometres or 500 kilometres, and inner regional students should be subject to the same conditions as other regional students, not metropolitan students.

The legislation before us today shows that the government have finally sat up and listened to those who have been affected by their changes. It is a shame that their delayed response has come with a $265 million price tag and will be to the detriment of other students currently receiving youth allowance. It is also a shame that, despite evidence showing that regional students already have a lower participation rate in higher education, the government imposed this extra barrier in front of inner regional students in the first place.