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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 108

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:51 PM) —As with all of these documents or reports, this report of the Employment, Workplace Relations and Educations References Committee, Inquiry into student income support, is an interim report. These documents are basically short documents put in by the committees at the prorogation of the parliament before the last election. This inquiry into student income support was established on the initiative of the Australian Democrats and Senator Natasha Stott Despoja. It is an area of the education debate that has not had sufficient attention. The big debates we have had in this chamber around the future of higher education, universities, training and TAFE have been very important but they have tended to exclude or very much downplay a major aspect affecting the ability of Australians to access education, and that is the adequacy of student income support.

It does not matter how low or high the fees are, how good the courses are, how good the staffing ratios are or how good the ability to get into courses is if you do not have enough income to survive while studying. This is an issue not just for school leavers but also for mature age people—people in their 40s or over who are seeking to retrain as, in many cases, they are required to these days. In many cases they are encouraged or compelled to by the changing nature of the work force. We are all aware of the continuing change in the work force and industry and the need to upgrade skills or develop new skills to be able to continue to participate in the work force. In many cases it is older people even more so than younger people who simply cannot access adequate income support while they are studying to afford to undertake that education. It is an important issue.

For that reason the Democrats have continued to push the reference. It was pleasing that the Senate agreed to recommence the inquiry. It was initially set up in March this year but the Senate yesterday agreed to readopt the inquiry to report by mid-June next year. There have already been 131 submissions, including a large number from individual students, groups representing students and universities. That shows the level of interest that is already there. It is a welcome sign that the committee will continue to look at this. As I understand it, public hearings have not yet been held, and the committee has indicated that they will be necessary.

I take this opportunity to draw the Senate's attention to the background of the inquiry and the report and the importance of it as well as the Democrats' commitment to the issue, which has been somewhat ignored or put to one side by the other parties. We very much encourage people who do have an interest to engage with this inquiry to try to find ways to address what is in some ways the biggest barrier to Australians being able to access real opportunities into the future to enable them to get the most out of what this country can offer them.

Question agreed to.