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Tuesday, 20 September 1994
Page: 1000

Senator GIBSON (4.54 p.m.) —The major amendments proposed by the Student Assistance (Budget Matters) Amendment Bill will allow Abstudy and Austudy recipients who receive a benefit during 1995 or a later year to repay the whole or any part of that benefit at any time during the year. In addition, it will make the Austudy-Abstudy loan supplement available to those students from 1995 who do not qualify for the Austudy-Abstudy benefits because of the spouse income test, provided the spouses income is less than the prescribed amount.

  The Students Assistance Act 1973, which is the principal act, provides for the payment of benefits under the Austudy and Abstudy schemes and the provision of loan supplements for tertiary students. These are subject to income and assets tests. The Austudy scheme provides living allowances to students undertaking full-time secondary and tertiary education. The Abstudy scheme aims to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in secondary and tertiary education.

  The loan supplement was introduced on 1 January 1993 and is open to students who qualify for benefits under the Austudy or Abstudy schemes or who would so qualify on a parental income test. Eligible tertiary students can obtain an interest free loan from a participating financial institution to increase the level of assistance beyond that provided under the Austudy or Abstudy schemes. Supplement loans are paid to students in fortnightly instalments.

  One of the points that needs to be recognised when debating student assistance matters is the great need in Australia for people living outside university cities and towns to access tertiary education. In the past, reports have been tabled in this parliament about the workings of Austudy and some of the difficulties faced by people in this regard. People still complain about the anomalies of the system, about the inequities and the lack of justice. This is particularly so in the case of people in rural and regional Australia.

  This government claims that it is advocating that Australia become the clever country, yet it has placed major financial hurdles in the way of students being able to access educational opportunities. When we look at this legislation and some of the hurdles, the question arises, `Who is really disadvantaged by this legislation?' It is those who are least able to afford to meet the enormous costs of sending students to upper secondary institutions, particularly tertiary institutions—in other words, the students and the parents of the students.

  Even the maximum entitlements under Austudy do not go far when paying for books and fees such as HECS. It is difficult enough for students and parents in urban areas. However, for students in rural areas the situation is even more critical. I believe that the government has been very tardy as it has not provided the same access to higher education for rural and regional young people that urban young people have available. The government owes it to all Australians, particularly to rural people who make up the backbone of this continent, to revise the whole Austudy scheme to make it equitable and just.

  The coalition believes that Austudy needs to be thoroughly reviewed to ensure that student financial assistance is available on an equitable basis for all. It also believes that the targeting of student financial assistance based on grants needs to be improved to ensure that grants are not made to those who are not in financial need and are made to those who are in financial need, in particular in the current times with the very severe drought in Australia. We in the coalition are very concerned about the effect of this drought on rural people. A lot of people are being hurt by this drought.

  Consequently, I give notice to the Senate that I intend to move an amendment at the committee stage which will allow the government, in exceptional circumstances, to remove the assets test—providing a declaration is made by the minister. We believe the amendment being circulated in my name is more appropriate than the one the Australian Democrats are intending to move, essentially because we believe it has a better chance of being more targeted than the amendment which they are proposing.