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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12013

Mr RIPOLL (Oxley) (13:10): I am more than pleased to speak on this very important bill, the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. This is a good reform that is timely and something that this Labor government is very proud of. The bill amends the Social Security Act 1991 to implement policy announcements by the government on 14 September this year following consideration of the recommendations of the Review of Student Income Support Reforms. These amendments remove the distinctions between inner regional and other regional and remote students for independent youth allowance, as well as providing additional support for students from regional Australia who need to relocate to study. It is not just about getting the reforms right in terms of who gets what money and where. It is also an additional support—an increase in funding, recognising that it is not just about who gets it but also that they actually need more funding.

Labor has a very long and proud tradition of supporting not only students but also the education system. You can see this whether you look back in history at the Whitlam years and the great legacy in higher education that has been left from that era, or at today, from Building the Education Revolution building new classrooms and new schools and adding school halls, to the national curriculum, to reforming school funding, which is in desperate need of change, and to the increasing of the funding that is available to not only schools but also teachers and the education system as a whole.

This bill has three key principle measures. The first measure changes the criteria under which youth allowance recipients from inner regional Australia are considered to be independent. The rate of youth allowance for independent recipients is not subject to a test for parental income, family means or family assets. The arrangements for independence through the part-time and earnings workforce participation criteria available to young people for outer regional, remote and very remote Australia will also be extended to young people from inner regional Australia. This is about extending the reach and it is about increasing that extension as well. No person who is currently independent because of the existing workforce participation criteria will be affected by this change. In addition, transitional or retrospective arrangements will be in place for young people who left secondary school in 2009-10, so they will not be left out either.

The second, very important, measure is about the adjustment of the amount of the relocation scholarship to provide additional assistance in the second and third years to eligible higher education students from regional and remote areas who are required to live away from home to study. This is in recognition of the multiple barriers and high costs faced by this group. We all recognise that in this place, and you would not have to travel too far to any electorate in this country to find people who are directly impacted by this. I know that Madam Deputy Speaker Livermore would have people in her electorate that are directly affected, as are people in the western corridor of Brisbane and Ipswich. This is for a whole range of reasons in students trying to access higher education facilities, whether they are in Brisbane or whether they have to travel further to gain that higher education. We know that the associated costs are high and that everyone ought to have good access. That is what the bill does and what this government has recognised. It has made the required changes and increased the amount of funding that is available.

This amendment resets relocation scholarship values from next year, 2012. For eligible students from regional areas, the 2012 values will be $4,000 in the first year of living away, $2,000 in each of the second and third years and then $1,000 in any subsequent years of study. For eligible students from major cities, the 2012 values will be $4,000 in the first year and $1,000 in subsequent years of study. From 2013, indexation will apply annually as per the current arrangements. There is no change to the eligibility criteria for the relocation scholarship either. I note that the 2011 values for the relocation scholarship were $4,124 in the first year and $1,031 in subsequent years for eligible students. The third important measure also changes the amount of the Student Start-Up Scholarships for eligible students. This amendment resets that start-up scholarship value in 2012 to $1,025 per half-year payment. This amount will be indexed each year from 2013 as well, and there is no change to eligibility criteria for Student Start-Up Scholarships. So it is an easy process and a good transition, not only an increase but a resetting of the capacity for people to apply as well.

The bill brings forward by 18 months the cessation of the Rural Tertiary Hardship Fund, which provides a one-off payment of $3,000 under the grants based scheme in the first year that a higher education student from a regional or remote area is required to live away from home. The $20 million Rural Tertiary Hardship Fund will cease from 2012, and the savings from that fund will form part of the offsets for the package of reforms that we are introducing today. This is an important change and does rebalance the funding and mechanism of funding for students who are in need of government assistance. The result of our changes is that 5½ thousand inner regional students will be able either to access independent youth allowance payments or to receive a higher rate of payment.

From 1 January 2012, to be eligible for independent youth allowance under the workforce participation criteria regional students will need to satisfy one of the following three elements. The will have to be either working full time for an average of at least 30 hours a week for at least 18 months in a two-year period or working part time for at least 15 hours a week for two years since leaving school. Provided that they need to relocate to study and their combined parental income is less than $150,000 a year, that will apply. The third element is about earning, where in an 18-month period since leaving school an amount is earned equivalent to 75 per cent of the maximum rate of pay under the appropriate national training wage award rate or the varied rate as it applies. Again, this is as long as combined parental income is less than $150,000 per annum.

Under the current scheme, inner regional students can only qualify under the first of these three elements to be eligible for independent youth allowance. Labor's changes mean that students from inner regional areas will have additional avenues to demonstrate independence and, therefore, qualify for the independent youth allowance. It expands the options available to inner regional students to access youth allowance. The maximum rate of independent youth allowance is $388.70 a fortnight for an 18 year old away from home with no children. To further support regional students who have to move away from home to study, the government is also increasing the value of relocation scholarships for eligible students from regional areas. Labor's changes mean that 15,300 regional students will receive higher relocation scholarship amounts each year. From 1 January next year eligible regional students will receive scholarships of $4,000 for the first year, $2,000 for each of the second and third years and $1,000 for the subsequent years. Over a three-year degree the relocation scholarship will increase from the current total of $6,186 to $8,000 from January next year. It is a good increase, a good transitional mechanism and more money for students in their pockets. We have decided to make it easier for regional students to access independent youth allowance, and the new rules will come into effect 1 January 2012. We are proud that more students will be able to receive that support and we are proud of the way we are being able to deliver it as well.

Under this review and the review of student reforms, in March 2010 last year the government introduced reforms to student income support following an agreement between the government and the coalition. Under the current legislation a review of the student income package was to be commenced in June of next year, but in February of this year the government brought forward the review by 12 months with a commitment to eliminating regional eligibility distinctions for youth allowance, effective 1 January 2012. So we have brought that forward. We have made it happen quicker. We have accepted the need for it to take place. But, rather than wait and take it through to its full extent, we brought it forward by a significant amount of time, and that was the right thing to do. The review reported back to government on 8 July this year and considered the impact on student income support arrangements that were implemented under the package on equity grounds, with a particular focus on the impact on rural and regional students and their capacity to access higher education. So the changes have been made. They are good changes. It means that there is more support, there are more eligible students and there is more money available.

This year the total support for youth allowance for higher education will exceed $1.25 billion—an increase of more than 50 per cent on the $800 million outlay in the last year of the former coalition government. I think it is a little bit disingenuous when coalition members come in here and talk about all the severe cuts and all the people in their electorates who miss out when, in reality, we have more than doubled the amount of funding that is available and now have actually increased the number of people who are eligible to receive that funding. We are proud that more students than ever before are going to go to university as a result of these very good changes. What this means for a range of students in this area is that they get new access. It is a recognition by government of that need and that we live in a changing world where we need to recognise that family circumstances are not the same in all parts of the country; that access to higher education is difficult for certain students depending on where they live and that family arrangements are not always equal; and, therefore, that it was not just a recognition of having an increased number of students who could access it but also an increased amount of funding to recognise cost-of-living pressures. So we are very proud that more students are receiving that funding and will now be able to attend university.

We have gone further than this package. This is just one measure. There have been a lot of other things this government has done, and I am particularly proud of the increased funding and recognition of regional universities themselves and their capacity to deliver higher education for students right across the country. There was an enormous demand and need for a very long time to recognise the good work that regional universities do. For me, in the western corridor, in Brisbane and Ipswich, the University of Southern Queensland is one of those great universities that is delivering new, innovative courses and whose student numbers have been increasing at a growing rate. In fact, not only have they fulfilled all of the requirements under their charter, constructed a building and filled it with students, but within a short few years they have had to fund and are in the process of building another large complex to house the growing number of students that require their services.

These are the sorts of outcomes you get when you have a government that recognises the importance of higher education right across the board. It recognises the number of students who should gain access and are eligible, and it also recognises the amount of funding that goes to each of those students. It also recognises the amount of funding that goes to regional universities themselves. There is no point just talking about how much the students get if they do not have a university to go to in the first place. What this government has made is a holistic package. It is a package for students and a package for universities as well.

It is easy when you are in opposition to talk about funding everything, but you have to be able to fund it from somewhere. This new $265 million support package will cost extra money and will be fully funded by this government. New expenditure will be offset from within the program through a range of things. We will be winding up the Rural Tertiary Hardship Fund and putting that money into better areas to make sure that more students have access to higher education. We will be deferring the measure to increase youth allowance eligibility from masters by coursework students from 1 January next year to 1 January 2014. We will also be reducing the reallocation scholarships for non-regional students to $4,000 per year from 1 January next year. In all it is a good set of measures and a good package with increased funding when you look at it right across the board.

As I said earlier, there is the great tradition, the great history and the great legacy that Labor governments have left for many years in higher education. Now it is right across the whole education spectrum, whether it is something like a new school hall, computers in schools, new science labs or new classrooms. This Labor government has been dealing with the tough issues of a national curriculum through equalising, across the country, the standard of education so that any child can have an equal beginning and, we all hope, will have an equal opportunity after 12 years in the education system.

Regardless of whether they are from rural or regional Queensland, regional Victoria, rural New South Wales, the West, or wherever a student in this country has an opportunity to grow through the education system, then they should have that opportunity fully realised because we all understand the value of education. As many people have said in the past, 'Education is a passport'. It is a passport to prosperity; it is a passport from wherever you are to wherever you want to be and whomever you want to be. That is what Labor has always not only believed in but supported through funding, through action, through real money and through real programs that make real differences to students. Whether they are city students, country students, regional students, remote students, students in rich electorates or students in poor electorates, it has always been a matter to recognise the impact that we, the government, can have by providing a rich educational environment. No country in the world is better positioned to deliver it than Australia and no government is better positioned to deliver it. (Time expired)