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Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Page: 17999

Senator NETTLE (10:05 AM) —The Family and Community Services (Closure of Student Financial Supplement Scheme) Bill 2003 and the Student Assistance Amendment Bill 2003 offer us a limited opportunity to debate the crucial issue of student income support. It is an issue that is close to the heart of thousands of students who are currently studying, of many more who are contemplating university study and of their families who are eager to know how much their children's education is going to cost them. It would be wrong for us to dismiss this debate as being of interest only to those players who are most directly affected. This is the mistake that the government has made—a mistake for which we will all pay in the long term. We will pay as students must continually decide whether to prioritise their time earning income or ensuring that they can study and get a quality education outcome. This is a trade-off that students must face every day when they have to decide whether to take that extra casual shift in their job or to go to the library to spend time working on a essay to get it in on time. This white-anting of quality Australian graduates leaves us all socially, culturally and economically sold short and it must end.

The debate about student income support is fundamental to the debate about a higher education system in this country, but the government has failed to recognise something that the sector has been shouting from the rooftops. Student income support is a topic conspicuously absent from the government's higher education legislation. In fact, the proposals coming from this government in relation to student welfare are regressive. We are seeing increasing Centrelink monitoring of student income support measures and the matter we are dealing with today, the abolition of the Student Financial Supplement Scheme. And there was that scandalous proposal to get rid of the pensioner education supplement, which the government had to back down on when their backbenchers recognised the enormous hardship that such a move would cost their constituents.

This is not the context in which the Australian Greens would like to be dealing with this policy issue. The Greens believe we should be having a debate about how much and in what way the provision of student support needs to be increased and improved. This is where the debate is at in the community, it is where the debate is at in the sector and it is where the debate should be at in the parliament. But this is not the focus of the government's overhaul of the higher education system. That kind of focus on the support students need would not be at home in this government's vision for an ultimately elitist form of higher education system. I do not mean elitist in the sense of academic merit; I mean elitist in the financial sense, which sees your bank balance and your credit rating being more important than your academic achievements for your capacity to get into an Australian university.

At the same time, the government is proposing to cut the student support measures that do exist. The government is proposing to allow HECS fees to rise by 30 per cent to increase the burden on students to pay for the cost of education and to lighten the cost of higher education for the government. They are increasing measures that introduce queue-jumping provisions for cashed up domestic applicants, and then they are putting no new money into ensuring that poorer students can afford to spend enough time studying if they have jumped those financial hurdles of getting into an Australian university. The higher education legislation that this government is proposing will force students and their families to put in approximately $500 million extra in fees and charges. Australian students already pay the second highest university fees in the world. At the same time as the government is saying, `Let's make decisions pay more,' they are giving just $118 million in scholarships for students.

The government is proposing to force the students and their families to pay more for higher education rather than having the government cover this cost. At the same time, the government's own department of education is reporting that the latest fee increases brought in by this government have forced onto students fee increases that have resulted in a reduced demand for higher education amongst school leaver applicants by around 9,000 students per year, a lower demand for higher education amongst mature age applicants by around 17,000 per year and a reduction in the already quite small share of men from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who are able to access the most expensive university courses. We have seen a 38 per cent drop in the number of people from these low-income backgrounds who are able to access these expensive courses at universities.

This is the government's own department saying this to it. The evidence is there that the government's continuing privatisation of higher education is returning us to an elitist system, but the evidence is falling on deaf ears. Why should this be? Could it be that the vision this government offers for higher education is not about accessibility? Could it be that it is more about wanting to make universities cheaper for the public purse? I think the evidence speaks for itself. In the government's attempts to achieve these mean cost savings, deeper costs are incurred. The government continues to make its ridiculous claim that university students pay only 25 per cent of the cost of their education. The actual contribution, as has been said many times in here, is much closer to being over 40 per cent of the cost of education.

At the same time as the government is committing some money to students' education, the government seems willing to see that money wasted by allowing approximately 10 per cent of students to drop out as a direct result of financial hardship. These figures do not count for the unmeasured thousands of graduates who underachieve at university because they have to work 20 hours or more every week. The minister is quite interested in getting rid of `cappuccino' courses at Australian universities, but when it comes to turning out cappuccino graduates who know how to make a coffee because they had to spend all their time at university working in part-time positions doing this sort of work the minister is quite happy for these cappuccino graduates to come out of our universities.

The meanness of the government's approach is underlined by the affordability of possible solutions. To raise Abstudy and Austudy in line with Newstart levels, which is similar to the scheme that exists in New Zealand, would cost approximately $270 million per annum. To extend rent assistance to Austudy recipients would cost a further $25 million per annum. This is a small price to pay for improved numbers and quality of Australian graduates. These measures, along with the reduction in the age of independence to 18 from 25 and the simplification of the interface between Centrelink and students, are the kinds of measures Australia should be making to support students.

The Greens are not alone in calling for these sorts of measures for improved student income support. In fact, it is hard to find anyone outside the government who does not support this argument. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee in their report to the minister has called for the higher education legislation:

... to be supported by changes to the income support system to ensure that students from low to middle income families do not face financial barriers to education and training but are encouraged to undertake suitable long term education and training.

Even the Group of Eight, the group of the wealthiest universities, has noted the need for greater equity measures. They have joined the National Tertiary Education Union, the Australian Council of Social Service and the National Union of Students who have all articulated the need to create a liveable financial environment for students to succeed.

The overseas experience reinforces this consensus. In both the United Kingdom and New Zealand, experiments with the withdrawal or downgrading of student support funding are being reversed. The House of Commons select committee report released in June this year recommended that the recently reintroduced means tested student maintenance grant scheme should be expanded. The committee report endorsed the comments of Professor Brown of Liverpool John Moores University who said:

... the main cost borne by students is not that of tuition fees, but is in fact the cost of personal maintenance, which is very inadequately supported through the student loan system.

The committee went on to conclude that the `re-introduction of the maintenance grant is welcome' but that it was too low, instead recommending that measures be found to `enhance maintenance grants,' making it possible to `pay full cost maintenance grants to students from poor backgrounds'. The reasoning here is simple. Universities should be places where we as a community can give students an opportunity to further their education in order that we may all benefit and be enriched by the development of our collective intellectual capacity. The expenditure of taxpayers' money on ensuring that background and financial hardship are not barriers to this opportunity is obviously money well spent—but not according to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Mr Larry Anthony, who in reference to the Student Financial Supplement Scheme told us:

For many customers, clearly the scheme works more like a gift than a loan. However, this is a gift that Australian taxpayers can not afford.

This statement shows the market based perspective from which this government views students and the miserly approach displayed by the legislation before us in taking away what small student support is available.

The government proposes to abolish the Student Financial Supplement Scheme—a scheme which, whilst clearly in decline, is still accessed by many thousands of students. The Greens are not big fans of this scheme and we share many of the concerns that have been voiced by a range of different parties in this debate. Central to these concerns is the contribution this scheme makes to the rising level of student debt. Removing a scheme that contributes to this debt problem is, on the face of it, an attractive prospect. But when that removal is not accompanied by any replacement scheme, any measure to fill the gap that will be left if this scheme goes, the appeal quickly fades. The Greens decision not to support these bills is about looking at consequences, particularly the consequences for the 30-plus thousand students who currently rely on the scheme for additional income.

In the context of the current public debate around higher education, I have been visiting universities and numerous students have approached me in horror at the government's intention to withdraw the Student Financial Supplement Scheme. These are individuals who are relying on this scheme to enable them to maintain attendance at Australian universities. Many of these students fear they will be forced out of higher education when their funding is withdrawn in 2004 if these bills are passed. They are understandably feeling betrayed. They made life plans based on the accessibility this scheme has delivered.

What does the government think these people should do? We do not know, because the minister does not deal with these human consequences of the bills in his second reading speech. But we can assume that he has in mind more of the same formula that asks full-time students—I emphasise full-time students—to live a double life, working 20-plus hours a week in paid employment whilst trying to continue to be full-time students. If we had workers trying to work another 20 hours in another job, I am not quite sure we would refer to them as full-time workers, but that is what we are expecting of full-time university students in Australia.

For many students, this double life is not possible, because their time is already in demand as carers for young children or family members. They simply cannot take on the extra shifts of part-time work that would be required to meet the shortfall from the government. They are faced with the unenviable decision of either dropping out or taking out commercial loans. The government's proposals do not address these consequences; they do not consider the damage the summary withdrawal of this scheme will inflict. The situation facing Australian students—and, as a consequence, its graduates and university academia—is a dire one. The intellectual capacity of this country is already under significant pressure from the much reported brain drain, yet the government continues to undermine the ability of our student body to succeed.

The government tries to say that its higher education package is about `backing Australia's future'. It does nothing to back the ability of the poorest of its students, those with parenting responsibilities or those with different cultural backgrounds. If the government had a genuine interest in backing Australia's future, it would be presenting a comprehensive package of student income support measures that would enable those willing and able to study to do just that. Instead, it seeks to kick away one of the few crutches available to those most in need and to turn its back on the consequences. The Greens will not have any part of this betrayal and oppose these bills accordingly. I now move the Australian Greens second reading amendment that has been circulated in the chamber in the course of the debate:

At the end of the motion add:

“but the abolition of the Student Financial Supplement Scheme be opposed until such time as the Commonwealth moves to improve student financial support measures to meet the need this scheme currently addresses and that the Commonwealth move to improve current financial support measures in the following ways;

(a) that the Commonwealth Govern-ment replace Youth allowance and Austudy with one simple payment that incorporates the following measures:

(i) the age of Independence be reduced to 18,

(ii) the eligibility criteria should not be based upon previous personal earnings,

(iii) the personal income threshold (current set at $236 per fortnight, without affecting benefit payments) should be increased to a more realistic figure,

(iv) the parental income test cut-off threshold should be increased to allow greater access to higher education,

(v) that same sex couples be recognised as de facto relationships for the purposes of income support measures including student income support,

(vi) all postgraduate awards are redefined as `approved courses' for the purposes of rent assistance,

(vii) as a minimum, students be provided with benefits consistent with the Henderson poverty line, and

(viii) that these benefits be indexed to the Consumer Price Index, with reference to the Henderson poverty line; and

further that Abstudy be maintained as a separate scheme, and that within this payment structure:

(b) all supplementary benefits, allow-ances and payments available under the Abstudy scheme be maintained;

(c) all payment structures be endorsed and approved by Indigenous community organisations;

(d) any future rationalisation of the Abstudy allowances only occur after sustained and authentic dialogue with Indigenous communities across Australia; and

(e) the changes made to Abstudy in the 1997-1998 Commonwealth Budget should be reversed”.