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Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Page: 18019

Senator MARSHALL (11:17 AM) —I will not be taking up too much time of the Senate today in speaking to the Family and Community Services (Closure of Student Financial Supplement Scheme) Bill 2003. However, I feel it is important that I add my name to those speaking against the bill. The operation of the financial supplement loan scheme is in no way perfect. The government recognises this, as do we. However, while the government seeks, via this bill, to wind up the scheme, it has failed to provide an alternative scheme or any measure that will increase the income support offered to students in this country. I therefore simply cannot support the bill.

As it stands, the financial supplement loan scheme is one of the only avenues for students—particularly those who are unable to undertake paid work—to supplement their incomes, which they are entitled to from the Commonwealth. I have received numerous emails and letters about this issue from a number of students around the country—as I am sure other senators have and have already indicated in the debate. Fundamentally, what they are saying to me and to others is that without access to this scheme—and the cash students are able to access from it—they will be forced to abandon their studies. Take, for instance, the email I received from Timothy Hart, the convener of the Australasian Network of Students with Disabilities, who writes:

... despite the availability of income support including Youth Allowance, Austudy and the Pensioner Education Supplement, these do not meet the financial needs of most students; especially those with disabilities.

Mr Hart writes on:

... the abolition of the scheme will severely undermine the academic success of the poorest and most disadvantaged students; with the majority being unable to continue their studies.

This is a totally unsatisfactory outcome, and we must do all we can to avoid it. The sheer fact of the matter is that students—40,000 of them—rely day-to-day on the money they borrow from the government through this scheme.

It is well known that, under the Howard government, Australian students and their families are paying some of the highest study and living costs in the world. According to a study undertaken by the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo, Australian students and their families are paying some of the highest costs to undertake higher education in the world. According to the study, Australian students with low-level expenses—such as those living at home and undertaking band 1 studies such as a humanities degree—require around $9,445 per year to undertake such study. Those undertaking studies incurring moderate level costs, such as those living in dormitory or shared accommodation, need to find $14,640 per year. Those with high-level expenses, such as those living as fully independent adults, need to meet $22,910 in costs to undertake such study.

It is also well known that there is an alarmingly high level of poverty among students, particularly among those undertaking higher and further education in this country. Everyone recognises that we as a nation must be doing more to financially support our students—not less, as this government and this bill would have it. We need to be supporting our young people, financially and otherwise, to ensure that they are able to concentrate on and accelerate at the study they are undertaking. We need our young people equipped with the necessary skills to be important and productive contributors to our society in the future. We should be offering people incentives to encourage further and higher education, not introducing measures that will further prevent them from accessing it. We must not be starving our young people of the much needed funds they require to undertake education and to equip themselves with the necessary skills to become the business and community leaders of the future.

The fact that this government has absolutely no plan to constitute any sort of reformed scheme offering students access to much needed cash is an absolute disgrace. Labor's amendments to this bill will not only retain the option for students to access loans under the Student Financial Supplement Scheme but also ensure that students are fully informed of the conditions of the loan. The amendments will also have the effect of extending rent assistance to Austudy recipients and lowering the age of independence from 25 to 23.

This is a mean-spirited government with mean-spirited intentions. The bill as it stands is totally unacceptable and cannot be passed by the Senate. I recommend Labor's amendments to this bill and submit that, if they are rejected, the bill as a whole should be rejected.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—I call Senator Ludwig.

Senator McGauran —The only good thing about the speech we just heard is that it was short.