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Tuesday, 4 December 2018
Page: 12500

Ms O'TOOLE (Herbert) (19:25): I want to make it very clear that I am incredibly tentative about supporting these bills, the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and the Higher Education Support Amendment (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018. The changes in these bills would introduce small charges for higher education providers, including universities, to access the HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP schemes. These bills also would introduce a small application fee for higher education providers when they are applying for FEE-HELP status. I am hesitant about this for two reasons: the fact that universities might try to pass this fee on to students—and students simply cannot afford this additional cost—and the massive cuts that Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the LNP government are also making to universities. I will deal with each concern in turn, and in addressing these concerns I firstly want to acknowledge and thank my Labor colleagues for referring the bills to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for an inquiry—for a thorough review regarding these concerns.

I do not want to see the charges in these bills flow back to students through higher fees or higher charges for services. Australian students currently pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD for a university education, and we have already witnessed the LNP trying to increase student fees. First the LNP tried to introduce $100,000 university degrees, at the same time that they were cutting penalty rates to those students who relied on that money to live. Students have been under constant attack by this LNP government. Those opposite clearly don't have a good history of looking after university students' bests interests, so why would these bills be any different? The inequality and disparity for regional students is already incredibly high. Regional students face major challenges studying in higher education. Whilst over the past five years overall numbers have increased, regional student numbers have remained under-represented in Australian universities.

Why is it so tough for regional students? The main obstacles and how we can tackle these issues are the questions we should be asking ourselves. The No. 1 issue for students is the cost of living. All students struggle to meet the full-time demands of university, the part-time demands of work and the costs to just be able to live, pay the rent, buy food and pay electricity and mobile phone bills—all items that these days a full-time worker can barely afford. As a guide to what these living costs are: the Australian government requires international students to demonstrate funds of $18,600 per year to meet the cost of living. For Australian students at the age of 18 who live away from home, the full rate of youth allowance paid is around $426 per fortnight, which equals $11,000 per year. This amount begins to taper when annual parental income exceeds around $51,000. There hasn't been an increase in Newstart in real terms for 24 years. The single rate of Newstart is $278 per week, and we know that essentials such as rent and food could cost approximately $433. Clearly there is a significant gap between what is considered a minimum cost of living for international students and the full-time rate of student income support. For regional students who are transitioning to residential colleges or the rental accommodation market, living on $11,000 is a serious challenge. This income figure is well below the poverty line. Cost of living is crippling students, and it is clearly disproportionately affecting regional students.

Then there is the startling statistic that one in seven university students regularly goes without food and other necessities because they cannot afford them. The latest national financial survey of Australian university students has found this statistic to be true. This rises to one in four First Nations students and almost one in five students from the poorest quarter of Australian households, including those who are also shouldering the costs of raising children. The Universities Australia—

Debate interrupted.