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Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Page: 18012

Senator HOGG (10:41 AM) —I rise to follow the fine words just spoken by Senator Stott Despoja in this debate on the Family and Community Services (Closure of Student Financial Supplement Scheme) Bill 2003. In many ways she echoes many of the sentiments that I will put in this debate today. In this debate, Senator Stott Despoja and others from this side have referred to those who are severely disadvantaged. This is what this bill is really about. If one looks at the Bills Digest just briefly, one can see that it gives a fairly good summary of what the scheme is about. It says:

Currently the scheme offers loans of between $5000 and $7000 per annum to Youth Allowance, Pensioner Education Supplement, Austudy Payment and ABSTUDY recipients who trade in one dollar of their income support entitlement for every two dollars of loan received. Other students can qualify for a loan of up to $2000 if they are a dependent tertiary student who is not eligible for income support, but would have been if not for the Parental Income or Family Actual Means Test and the adjusted parental income and family actual means is below $64500.

So we are dealing basically and fundamentally with people who are disadvantaged. We are not dealing with people who are actively out there seeking a loan for the sake of making themselves rich and leading some luxurious form of life. We are dealing with people who are seeking to get themselves out of the poverty traps that many of them find themselves in, and the most successful way they have of doing that is through higher education, thereby achieving their goals in life.

When I made my first speech in this place, I focused on not just an option for the poor but a preferential option for the poor. I think this is one case of a preferential option for the poor. Many of these people, as I say, are seeking to use these loans out of necessity. They are not seeking them for any other gain. They are seeking to advantage themselves by improving their education and improving their status in life, and that is to be highly commended.

I must say I have empathy for these people because, when I was a university student, I came from a very poor family indeed—and I make no apologies for the fact that university life was a struggle for me in those days. I now have three children, an 18-, a 20- and a 22-year-old, who are all at university. Thankfully one of them is coming to the end of that university career very shortly. Having said that, they do not have the personal financial difficulties in attending university and leading the life of a student that the people seeking the loans do. My children may well disagree with me about their financial status, but that is typical of the relationship between children and their parents. I must say that my children do have advantage in life and are fortunate for having that. But we are talking about a class, a group of people, who do not have advantage and do have an absolute necessity to have these loans. For those people it is a real struggle.

As has been outlined in this debate, Labor's position is one of strong support for the retention of the SFSS scheme as a voluntary option. Remember, it is an option; it is not something that someone compulsorily has to go into. I am led to believe that 40,000 use the scheme per year. But, whilst there is that usage, the government propose no replacement scheme. There is nothing there for those who do suffer disadvantage and, therefore, I claim there is a need for the scheme and a need to have a preferential option for the poor—not just an option but a preferential option—to assist those people who want to get themselves out of the traps that they find themselves in. The government say that they are concerned about the bad debts, but I have been told that that is overstated. The scheme should be reformed if the government has concerns, but it should not be abolished. Labor's Aim Higher package would oppose the closure of the scheme, and I think that is important indeed.

I am not going to take a great deal of time in the debate, but I thought it was worth while to just look at what one of the people affected by this—who emailed all the senators, from what I can see from the email that I have in my hand, outlining their concerns—has to say. Whilst one person does not necessarily reflect what will happen to all people, the concerns that are expressed in this email deserve to be placed on the record in this debate. The person voiced their concern in their opening paragraph and went on to say:

If this change is enacted, a large number of students with disabilities who currently receive the Supplement Loan are likely to be unable to continue their studies.

The person goes on:

However, as there is no alternative support available, the Loan Scheme is the only method by which many students, particularly those with disabilities, can finance their education. Currently, more than 30,000 students, including 12,500 students with disabilities, rely on the Scheme to provide additional income in order to survive whilst studying.

That is what it is about: people trying to survive and make ends meet while they are studying. It is not about greatly enriching these people, because that is not going to be achieved from the size of the loans, as I outlined earlier in my contribution here today. We are talking about making ends meet—giving people the opportunity to study and giving them bare essential support. Of course, as the sender of this email has said, there is no alternative for these people at all. This person goes on to say:

It is obvious that there is a serious and urgent need for an equitable and realistic student support system that will enable students to survive, at the least, whilst studying. The stark truth is that this simply does not currently exist.

Here is a plea from a student which went to all the senators in this place and clearly sums up the need for this person to receive the bare minimal assistance to enable them to partake of the education system. Fundamentally underlying all of this is the dignity of the human being. We are dealing with people. People have a certain pride, and this person obviously is entitled to that pride and entitled to that dignity. They are not asking for a great deal; they are just asking for basic sustenance and the basic opportunity to participate in the education system. Further on in their email, they state:

Proponents of the abolition of the Scheme cite two main alternative sources of income for students to make up the shortfall in the absence of the loan: casual or part-time work and/or student loans from banks.

However, while these alternatives seem simple enough, students will be forced into leading an impossible double life of working 20 or more hours a week as well as studying; with the availability of loans to students being extremely scarce. Furthermore, students with disabilities will likely to be left with no alternatives, as most could not work as well as study, and would face great difficulties in securing a student bank loan.

That really highlights the only alternatives that these people are facing—and they are not alternatives, when trying to maintain a full study workload.

I have observed, when I do spend time at home with my family, the study patterns of my three children. They are in three reasonably intensive degrees and they do a bit of a balancing act with some part-time and casual work, but basically they cannot allow the part-time and casual work to overtake their main purpose. Their main purpose is to study. Their main purpose is to achieve their degree. Anything else may give a small amount of pocket money but, as I said earlier, my children are fortunate. They rely on me, they rely on my wife and between us we sustain them. But these people obviously are not necessarily in that situation at all. They are in a situation where these loans serve a real purpose in their lives. The alternative is not a real alternative for them. The email goes on to say:

It is clear from the above information that many students, and the majority of students with disabilities simply do not have any alternate funding sources.

It continues:

There are no provisions to address these consequences of the withdrawal of the Scheme, with the deleterious effects on current and future students being either white-washed or completely ignored.

Whilst I am not in the habit of quoting a lot of emails that are received by me or my office, I thought that this was well and truly worthy of being quoted in this debate to highlight the plight and the need of these people. They are desperate in the real sense of the word. They need support. The statement goes on:

If the Supplement Loans Scheme is abolished, it must be replaced with an equitable and realistic alternative. This is the only way a large number of students, including future students as well as those currently studying, will be able to finance their studies.

In the end, the writer concludes:

I vehemently disagree with the legislation proposing the abolition of the Scheme. If this legislation is passed, it will be tantamount to preventing many people, especially those with disabilities, from any type of further education.

As I said, that is typical of a number of emails that I received on this issue—and I am not going to take the Senate through all of those today; that was never my intention. It does show that there is a severely disadvantaged group out there. It does show that there is a real need.

I do not believe that the government have put up a case which would warrant these people being left high and dry. They have the right to dignity. There is not a great deal of dignity in having to seek a loan. There is not a great deal of dignity in the processes involved and, of course, you have to pay the loan back. The government's argument that some of the loans are defaulted on is not a valid reason, in itself, for the complete abolition of the scheme—not at all. These people, as Senator Stott Despoja and my colleagues from this side have said, are disadvantaged—in many cases, severely disadvantaged. They deserve not just an option but a preferential option to assist them in achieving dignity, in the realisation that they are human beings who can and should be allowed to achieve their potential and should not be denied that right because a government wants to be heartless and dismantle a scheme which gives them that opportunity. I believe that when this comes to the vote the good sense of the Senate will prevail and the proposals of the government will get what they deserve—to be defeated.