House debates

Monday, 18 October 2010

Private Members’ Business

Youth Allowance

7:45 pm

Photo of Nola MarinoNola Marino (Forrest, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

requires the Government:
urgently to introduce legislation to reinstate the former workplace participation criteria for independent youth allowance, to apply to students whose family home is located in inner regional areas as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics instrument Australian Standard Geographical Classification; and
to appropriate funds necessary to meet the additional cost of expanding the criteria for participation, with the funds to come from the Education Investment Fund; and
to send a message to the Senate acquainting it of this resolution and request that it concur.

I put this motion on behalf of every student in Australia whose higher education is being so badly affected by the Labor government’s changes to accessing youth allowance due to the unfair Australian Standard Geographical Classification of ‘inner regional’. The Prime Minister herself is responsible for introducing these changes as the education minister and I am asking the Prime Minister and all parliamentarians for fairness and equity of access for the thousands of regional students who have to relocate to attend tertiary education who are currently classified as ‘inner regional’. Put simply, I am asking whether members of this parliament believe in a fair go for rural and regional students and their families or whether this parliament will continue to discriminate against these same students and families.

Thousands of regional students around Australia have no choice but to relocate to study, which means that they and their families face significantly increased costs from having to live away from home. We all know that regional students are significantly underrepresented in tertiary education. Fifty-five per cent of metropolitan students go on to tertiary education, compared to only 33 per cent of students from regional areas. Most importantly, evidence has shown that it is the financial barrier of the cost of relocating that prevents more regional students from undertaking tertiary study, and that is why this motion is so important. The Labor government has altered the eligibility criteria for independent youth allowance, which effectively forces students from areas identified as inner regional to work more hours for a longer period. Inner regional students must work an average of 30 hours per week for 18 months out of two years.

Students classified as ‘outer regional’, ‘remote’ or ‘very remote’ have three alternative ways of qualifying for youth allowance, including only having to take one gap year. Students defined as ‘inner regional’ cannot. Inner regional students have to take at least 18 months away from tertiary education or training. For set courses at university that have no mid-year intake—like medicine, law, veterinary science and many others—students are now forced to take two years away, and that is a long time. Unfortunately, many students will simply not come back to their studies at all. The Labor government is clearly discriminating against students from areas they have classified as ‘inner regional’ in electorates around Australia. For instance, nearly three-quarters of my own electorate has been classed as inner regional and one-quarter as outer regional. Yet none of my electorate is within daily commuting distance of the metropolitan area, with some at least 220 kilometres from a metropolitan tertiary institution.

If the government agrees to this motion, inner regional students will only have to take a 12-month gap year, rather than two years. We currently have a totally inequitable situation where students from the same year 12 class in schools like Busselton and Dunsborough find that some of them qualify for independent youth allowance under one criterion of outer regional, while others do not qualify because they are classified as inner regional. They live metres apart perhaps but 220-odd kilometres from a tertiary education or training facility and both have to leave home to study. One will qualify for youth allowance with a single gap year; the other is now forced to take two gap years. This is inequitable and unfair. It is a ridiculous situation where students are discriminated against and treated differently because of a line drawn on a map based on an assumption that finding 30 hours of work a week in a regional area for 18 months is easy. And where are the jobs for these young people? Those of us who understand regional Australia know that these are often at best seasonal employment areas in tourism, agriculture and hospitality—if there are jobs at all. Even worse, under the current rules the government will calculate the hours a student has worked in 13-week blocks. The student must work 390 hours in each 13-week block. How does the student fulfil this requirement under seasonal work conditions only?

The Victorian parliament’s Education and Training Committee report was supported unanimously and commented on the government’s youth allowance measures that ‘the Committee believes that the removal of the main workforce participation route will have a disastrous effect on young people in rural and regional areas’. We need to act, and nothing the government has proposed is addressing the disadvantage of these students and families. I am hearing this from my constituents all of the time. I constantly hear what I call ‘horror stories’ from students and families who are struggling financially to cover the costs of having young people living away from home to study, parents trying to find extra hours of work or take on a second job just to fund their children’s education. There is the horror story of parents who are having to choose which one of their children they can afford to send to university. This is 2010—it is not acceptable to limit the educational opportunities of our young people to one child in a family simply because the family lives in regional Australia.

One father wrote to me saying: ‘Along with many others I think that this package ignores many country children. In our particular situation Busselton is classed as inner regional, yet 20 minutes down the road at Yallingup, those families qualify. Hard to figure how we can be in the same category as Mandurah where students can be in Perth on the train in 45 minutes.’ Another parent said: ‘Our daughter Grace completed year 12 in 2009 and this year is taking a gap year prior to starting university in 2011. We are devastated to find out that she will qualify for absolutely no allowances or scholarships as we do not meet the new criteria. We believe this location categorisation is outright discrimination. We have to relocate her, she will have to find employment to supplement her living expenses and these costs are substantial. I believe this decision will have an adverse effect on where people choose to reside.’ Another parent said, ‘This inequity for non-remote rural inhabitants will result in them making hard decisions as to whether their children are actually able to attend university.’

One concerned mother from my electorate wrote directly to the Prime Minister. She said:

My question to you is WHY? Please, please explain to me the government’s reasoning. My daughter was prepared to work 42 to 45 hours per week over 12 months to complete the required hours. Why is this not good enough?—

I would have to ask the same thing: why is this not good enough?—

She has worked hard at school to get the marks to go to university in Perth to study Architecture or Engineering.

She has ‘lined up’ 2 jobs by working part time while in year 12, in order to be able to start work as soon as school finishes. She is prepared to work 7 days a week if necessary. But the new way of working out ‘average’ hours means she would have to still be working 30 hours a week when she starts university, impossible with a heavy study work load.

Another family said

I have already seen a change in people’s university plans.

Most have lost all hope of their children being able to access youth allowance and many are encouraging their children to go to the local TAFE instead.

It is generally agreed that one gap year is okay, but any longer than that and there is very little chance the kids will go to uni as they are established with whatever they are doing.

It is hard for us seeing all those city kids taking for granted the fact they can go straight to uni from school and live at home. It is such a huge advantage for them.

I will finish with this email from a very worried parent:

I have no idea how we will find $15,000 per annum so our daughter can fulfil her university dreams. And what about our 3rd child? We will then be having to find an extra $30 000 per annum to support both of them in Perth.

What are we supposed to do?

It is like a return to the olden days when families could only afford to send one child through education (my parents era) and the others had to do without.

I am asking members of this parliament not to discriminate, to allow equity of access to Youth Allowance for students and families in regional and rural areas in Australia.

I said to the mother who said to me that she would have to choose which one of her children would go to university that I was committing to her that I would fight this issue on behalf of all students who are affected by this inner regional classification. To those who have no option but to relocate to pursue their higher education dreams I say that I will continue this fight on their behalf. I seriously ask the House to support this motion and I urge all regional members to stand up for their constituents. This is so important. And it is also important that these young people qualify as doctors. We are short of GPs in regional areas. These young people are ideal to come back to our areas and practice as GPs in underserved areas. I ask all members of this House and all regional members to stand up for their constituents and support this motion.

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

7:55 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Forrest and I have some things in common and one of them is a passion for education and our grief when we see people not being given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. In my community in Western Sydney young people enrol at university at just over half the rate for the rest of Sydney. In the ten years of the previous government we saw the gap between enrolment rates in Western Sydney and the rest of Sydney actually widen. We saw a decrease in enrolment from people of low socioeconomic status and a decrease in enrolment from our Indigenous communities, all of which should be regretted. They are things that we need to change profoundly.

Prime Minister Gillard holds as one of her core beliefs the transformative power of good education, and I share this passion. In fact I believe that if Australia wants to continue our currently outstanding economic performance we have no choice but to drive investment participation and productivity in higher education. The Gillard Labor government will not accept anything less than a high-growth, highly skilled, high-wage economy for Australia’s future. To deliver this we need to broaden our skills base. Put simply, we need more people from a greater variety of backgrounds to be given a chance to possess higher skills and higher qualifications. This is the context in which the government’s reforms to the youth allowance system become of critical importance. These reforms to the youth allowance system were all about driving increased participation in higher education.

The previous government left behind an incoherent and poorly targeted system of youth allowance that was completely lacking in policy direction. The Bradley review of higher education found that 18 per cent of students who were living at home and were receiving Youth Allowance because they were considered independent were from families with incomes above $150,000. Ten per cent were from families with incomes above $200,000 and three per cent were from families with incomes above $300,000. Professor Bruce Chapman, carrying out a review of HILDA data, found that 36 per cent of Youth Allowance recipients were in households earning more than $100,000 a year. By contrast, 32 per cent of recipients were in households earning less than $50,000 a year. The number of students qualifying as independent by earning the required minimum income of $18,500 between school and university rose by 27.7 per cent between 2001 and 2007, but the number of dependent students who passed the critical parental income test fell by 21 per cent over the same period. So people from a lower socioeconomic status were choosing well and truly to withdraw from the possibilities of higher education.

By 2007 the number of students who qualified as independent by working, often during a gap year, exceeded the number of students eligible as dependent because of low family income. At the same time rural and low-SES participation was falling. Participation by regional young people was falling under the old system, not rising. Participation of regional students at university fell to 18.8 per cent by 2007 compared with 25.4 per cent of the population and the remote participation rate fell to 1.1 per cent compared to 2.5 per cent of the population. Low-SES participation languished at around 15 per cent compared to 25 per cent of the population.

Bernard Lane, commenting for the Australian in 2008, said:

The Youth Allowance program appears to have lost its rationale, as a growing number of university students from affluent backgrounds sidestep the parental income test.

Soon after that, Mr Lane received support from the then opposition spokesperson for education, Tony Smith, who called for a review of the youth allowance, saying it had become ‘too easy for students from affluent backgrounds to qualify’. Speaking at a gathering of Liberal students at the Australian National University in 2008, Mr Smith said, ‘The program, introduced by the Howard government, should be reviewed,’ and went on to argue:

The evidence seems to suggest that it has become too easy for students from affluent backgrounds to qualify and too difficult for students from modest backgrounds—or can I say anyone from a family whose parents earn more than $30,750—to qualify.

Mr Smith continued:

This shows up in the figures, with the number of students qualifying for Youth Allowance under this threshold actually falling by 22 per cent since 2001.

Mr Smith concluded his remarks with reference to the particularly adverse affects of the Howard system on country areas. He said:

It particularly disadvantages many students—particularly those from the country—who have to leave home to study, and has resulted in a situation where record numbers of students, or around one in 10 students in my home state of Victoria, defer their studies with many of them taking a year off to earn enough money to qualify for independence for Youth Allowance and possibly not returning to study.

This federal Labor government could not support this incoherent and poorly targeted system, which saw participation rates fall for the people who needed our help the most and financial windfalls for the better off who would be attending university regardless. Parramatteans were particularly horrified by this waste, because at that time they were seeing declining investment in our university and falling participation rates across the west generally.

This system of youth allowance existed side by side with declining investment and declining enrolments in my electorate. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations figures show that the number of students commencing courses at the University of Western Sydney in 2006 was down 11.5 per cent on the previous year, and the total number of students attending the University of Western Sydney in 2006 was also one per cent down on 2005 numbers—again, an outcome which is not acceptable to this side of the House. Both regional enrolments and enrolments in the poorer areas of our cities were in decline—something that we had to reverse and reverse quickly.

We had a lot to clean up and a backlog in investment, but now we have a youth allowance policy which is coherent with national objectives—policy that realises that spending has its limits and makes sure that the priorities are right. Our changes to youth allowance particularly benefit students who have to move away from home to study and students from low-income backgrounds. The age at which a person is automatically independent is changing. It will be phased down from 25, where it is now, to 22 by 2012, at a rate of one year per year. This change means that more young people will be eligible for youth allowance and that many existing youth allowance recipients will receive a higher rate of payment.

Under the government’s new arrangements, many students who previously had to prove independence will now be able to access support automatically as dependants through the raised parental income test. Those who have worked full time and are independent of their parents can still access support in this way. The annual parental income test threshold for dependent youth allowance recipients to get the maximum rate will increase from $32,800, where it is now, to $44,165 per year, making more young people entitled to youth allowance and many people who are already receiving youth allowance receiving a higher rate of payment.

The parental income reduction for youth allowance has changed from a taper rate of 25 per cent per person to a family taper of 20 per cent—again, reducing the effect of parental income on a youth allowance recipient, particularly where the parent has more than one child. The parental income cut-off for a family is substantially raised. For a family with two children living away from home, the parental income cut-off point is raised to almost $141,000 per year, up from $79,000 under the previous government. These changes are allowing 68,000 students to become eligible for income support payments and will result in higher payments for a further 34,600. Again, these changes will impact in areas where enrolment rates were in decline under the old system.

We are also raising the personal income-free area for youth allowance and Austudy students and new apprentices. It will rise from $236 to $400 per fortnight. Students and apprentices will therefore be able earn up to $400 per fortnight without having their payments reduced. All students receiving youth allowance while undertaking an approved course are receiving a student start-up scholarship. In 2010, the scholarship will be $2,254 for the year and will be paid in two annual instalments. This scholarship is benefiting 146,600 students in 2010—28 times more than the number of equivalent scholarships that were provided when the government came to power. DEEWR estimates that by 2012 a total of 172,000 students will benefit from this additional assistance, which will help students meet the costs of books, equipment and lump sum expenses in each year of their course. Unlike the previous system, where the number of scholarships was limited and many eligible students missed out, under the new system the scholarships will be administered by Centrelink and all eligible students will receive a scholarship. So there have been many, many changes that have increased the amount of allowances paid to students who are in most need. (Time expired)

8:05 pm

Photo of Barry HaaseBarry Haase (Durack, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening in strong support of the motion moved by the member for Forrest on the youth allowance criteria. This is not, as has perhaps been alluded to by the member for Parramatta, about statistics. It is not about spin. It is not about what was done in the past and excuses for not doing something in the future. This whole issue is about equity. It is about a fair go for rural families who have students who aspire to attending tertiary education. The past has seen government assistance for those primary school students and secondary school students who necessarily have to board away from home. When they achieve well with that government support, they are left absolutely high and dry with nothing once they aspire to attending tertiary institutions.

If they live more than a reasonable daily travelling distance from an institution they need to be supported so as to create a level playing field equal to all metropolitan students around this great nation, and right now that is not the case. A classic example of the inequity: any family group that is living in one of the very many prosperous areas in regional Western Australia has an income that is far in excess of this paltry $44,000 allowance before youth allowance is reduced. It is laughable. The cost of living in these high-wage areas is comparatively the same as in the low-wage areas. It is a nonsense to simply talk about these people being incredibly wealthy and therefore having excessive disposable income because they earn in excess of $44,000. It is a ludicrous sum. What is required here is equity. Government assistance ought to be given to those whose schooling in primary and secondary years has created a situation where they might reasonably aspire to obtaining a degree. We talk about the lack of professionals in regional and remote areas and yet we do nothing to encourage them back to those areas. If you are a star scholar and you want to get tertiary institution training, you ought to be encouraged to go back to your regional homeland and contribute to that community. Right now there is nothing, and there ought to be.

There ought to be a tertiary access allowance that is not anything to do with whether or not you are an independent student. There is a whole list in the department as to how you might qualify as an independent student and therefore be entitled to an allowance, but you should not have to be an independent student simply because you do not live within cooee of an institution. This government ought to come of age, look to its conscience and see how they can justify treating those who live outside metropolitan areas as second-rate citizens. There ought to be support given to all of our youth who have done the right thing in their schooling years and aspire to being professionals, enabling them to go back into our regional and remote areas to make a contribution. To that end, to carry on and talk about the fine minutiae of why we can and cannot do particular things with our metropolitan students and what paltry allowances we make for outer regional and remote students is an absolute nonsense. This debate is about equity. It is about fairness. It is about doing the right thing so as to empower our youth to go back and serve their community. Anything less than the creation of a tertiary access allowance will be seen to be paltry and insufficient, and anyone who has spent any time with families who have come from those areas where there is no tertiary institution know that that is what they expect from government. It is not an unreasonable expectation.

Something ought to be done, because to hear continual bleating from the government about how many more students have now been included because the parental income per family has been raised to $44,000 is an absolute nonsense. You cannot afford to live in most of my areas unless you are earning well in excess of $44,000. It is time the government woke up and did something to display their humility and to create a level of equity for all Australian youth.

8:11 pm

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the motion from the member for Forrest, because it gives those of us in the parliament an opportunity to talk about fact and to dispense with some of the myths being propagated by the opposition on the very important issue of youth allowance. I heard the member for Forrest call upon us to stand up for students in rural and regional communities. That is exactly what the government is doing. I am standing up tonight for the hundreds of young people in my electorate who will now qualify for youth allowance and for Abstudy because of the relaxation of the parental income test—a test which was out of sync with the family tax benefit test and which, of course, was extraordinarily low. It was a test which meant that a student whose parents were earning just $59,000 a year was not qualifying for youth allowance.

I do agree with the member for Durack on this point: this is a debate about equity. This is ensuring that the limited money government has available to spend in this area of public policy is well targeted. Usually when we have a debate about hard policy issues in this place, it is about money. It is about government ministers trying to find savings in outlays for redirection to other government priorities. But this debate is not about money. This policy is revenue-neutral and expenditure-neutral. This is about taking the same amount of money and making sure it is properly targeted—making sure that more students have an opportunity to go to university. And guess what: the people who are currently disadvantaged are typically those living in rural and regional Australia and, more particularly, those living in rural and regional Australia who are from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. So this is an initiative on the part of the government which is designed, in particular, to help and assist rural and regional communities. I am happy to admit that when the then education minister first announced this policy I was not particularly happy. I thought we had not got everything right. But since then we have improved significantly on this policy and I believe we now do have that policy right. This will mean the policy will be well targeted.

Take my own electorate, for example. More kids will get a student allowance because parental income is lower. Those who live in the more remote parts of my electorate will get special concessions. I remember only too well when the government’s first response to the global financial crisis was to give to eligible people a $900 cash bonus—it was very effective in dealing with the financial crisis. My three teenage children, all in study—and I am not talking about self-interest here in any sense—wanted to know why they were not getting the $900 cheque when all of their mates were. I scratched my head for a little while before determining that the reason all of their mates were getting the $900 was because they decided to game the system. I am not suggesting that every student games the system, but many of the ones I know were. They were taking a gap year to enable them to avoid the parental income test and to get on with life under the youth allowance. Sometimes they moved back with mum and dad, who were earning $300,000 or $400,000 a year, but were still getting youth allowance, while other kids who had taken the conscious decision to go straight on to university for whatever reason were missing out not only on youth allowance but on the cash bonus that the government had designed as part of its rescue package for the global financial crisis.

Let us not bleat in here about equity. There is no better example of an equitable proposal than taking a bucket of money and making sure it is properly targeted. Yes, there will be losers. There have been losers in my electorate and I have spoken to many of them. I sympathise with them, but the government has to make tough decisions. I am very confident and am convinced that these changes target this funding more appropriately. Again, the government has made changes to protect those who had already made the decision to take a gap year, so in effect there was no retrospective operation of this very important change.

I welcome the debate. I welcome the opportunity to put some of the myths to rest and I want to reinforce the key point: this is about giving a hand-up to rural students. (Time expired)

8:16 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Roads and Regional Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with great pleasure that I join this debate. Let us reflect for a moment. The member for Hunter made some very good points, but they were in the wrong debate. The member for Hunter referred a lot to the parental income thresholds, which have nothing to do with the motion that has been brought to the House by the member for Forrest. I congratulate the member for Forrest for moving this very important motion and recognise the interest which has been shown by regional MPs from across the political spectrum, primarily of course from the Liberal and National parties, but some Labor regional MPs and some Greens have also expressed a great deal of interest in this debate.

It is a real opportunity for us to prove to the people of Australia that under this minority government in this hung parliament we can actually work together to achieve some positive outcomes, particularly on behalf of regional students. I take up the contribution by the member for Durack, who referred to the fact that this is about equity. That is the crux of this issue, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott. I know that in your own electorate of Maranoa there are some real concerns amongst regional families about the great inequity faced by students from regional communities who go to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne or Perth and try to make ends meet when they move away from home to undertake further studies. Today we have a chance to take some real, positive steps to fix the mess that has been created in relation to student income support in this nation.

Before I discuss the full details of the motion, I want to remind the House about the recent history of this government in dealing with issues surround student income support and particularly the reform measures introduced by the Minister for Education in the Rudd government, and current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Last year, she announced without warning or consultation plans that actively discriminated against students who were on their gap year at that time—students who had done absolutely nothing wrong, who had followed the advice of their careers advisers, parents and teachers. In many cases they had even sought information from Centrelink. As education minister, Julia Gillard was prepared to pull the rug out from under their feet without any consultation whatsoever. The only reason she changed her mind was that she saw a political problem in the torrent of petitions and letters and of pressure and protest coming from throughout regional Australia. The end result was that, yes, some changes were made and students on a gap year at the time were protected from the retrospective nature of the legislation. But the minister’s insistence that the changes were cost neutral created more problems.

This was not an education revolution, as the minister often proclaims. It was just tinkering at the edges and in the process another discriminatory position was entrenched which actively discriminated against many students in regional areas. This concept of inner regional and outer regional classifications for the purpose of deciding eligibility for the workforce participation criteria associated with the independent youth allowance is a mess. Yes, that is a mouthful and that is part of the problem. The system of student income support is ridiculously confusing. It is cumbersome, it alienates parents, students and teachers and it is fundamentally flawed. The government knows it. The regional backbench MPs in the Labor Party know it as well. This motion is an attempt to fix just one of those flaws.

Under the Rudd-Gillard government reforms, we have the ridiculous system where two students attending the same school, going to the same class but living just a couple of kilometres apart have to achieve different standards of workforce participation to achieve independence and become eligible for the highest rate of youth allowance. I remind the Labor backbenchers who have spoken here tonight that we are talking about the independent youth allowance. It might suit them to talk about the parental income test and the improvements to the thresholds, which were supported by this side of the House, but the debate tonight is about the independent youth allowance and the discriminatory classification system of inner regional and outer regional, which is inequitable. The minister knows it and the Labor backbenchers know it as well. They stop me in the hallway and talk to me about it. They talk to me about the system of youth allowance.

Photo of David BradburyDavid Bradbury (Lindsay, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Name them!

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Roads and Regional Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I could name quite a few. You know they will not stand up in your own party room. They are happy to talk to us in the hallways and point out the faults of your policy. They were happy to stop us and demand that we fight for the kids on the gap year last year. They did not have the courage to stand up for their own convictions in public, but they were happy to talk to us in the backrooms here in parliament and make sure we continued to argue the case. The member for Dobell is shaking his head. He just has to get out into regional Australia more often and talk to the people who have been affected by this decision.

This is a chance to help make it a little bit easier for all students in regional areas to achieve their full potential. The motion deals specifically with one section of the student income support system and I believe it is only the first step. There needs to be fundamental reform of the student income support system to address the inequity of access which currently exists. I support the member for Durack in his support for a tertiary access allowance. I believe this is an important first step but we must do a lot more to give country kids a fair go. (Time expired)

8:20 pm

Photo of Craig ThomsonCraig Thomson (Dobell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this private member’s motion and welcome the opportunity to do so. When Labor came to government we inherited a mess in relation to student support and the way in which that operated. I agree with some of the contributions we have had today in relation to how they have identified the problem. There was a problem with equity and there was a problem with access to university. So this government had an expert review the system—the Bradley review. We looked at what was suggested there and we took its advice.

We inherited a problem when we came to government, and that was that we saw a decline between 2002 and 2007 in enrolments at university from rural students. We also saw a decline in relation to those from low socioeconomic areas. In fact, the participation rate in universities of those from low socioeconomic areas was 15 per cent, as opposed to 25 per cent across the whole of the population. Over 10 per cent of people receiving the youth allowance came from families with incomes above $200,000, and three per cent from families above $300,000, and we saw a decline in the number of people from rural and low socioeconomic areas going to university. The problem was squarely an issue of equity. It needed to be reformed, and that is what this government did. We reformed this area so that there was greater access and greater equity. We made sure that we would get more people going to university. In my electorate there are close to 800 kids who are over $1,000 better off because of the reforms that went through, and those reforms were cost neutral. As the member for Hunter pointed out, we took a bucket of money and made sure that it was distributed in a way that was more equitable and in a way which achieved the aim of getting more kids going to universities. That was a good reform and it is something that we on this side of the House should be very, very proud of.

The previous system was broken for young people from low socioeconomic areas and, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, my electorate has the lowest household income in New South Wales, so people from my electorate were particularly disadvantaged. We are lucky to get 40 per cent of our kids finishing high school, let alone going on to university, and we had a system that was weighted in favour of those who were earning high incomes and who were able to work the system so that they could stay at home. They were able to use the system to continue to get youth allowance while those in my electorate and similar ones were simply missing out. That is not fair and it needed to be addressed, and that is why this government took the action it did in relation to student support reform.

It is almost the height of hypocrisy, though, for those opposite to lecture this side on anything to do with higher education, and in particular to do with the funding of higher education. The previous government had one of the worst records in the OECD in funding of higher education. So whether it is about putting caps on GP training places, about reducing the number of nursing places available at universities, about making sure that our universities did not have the funds to be able to do the work they needed to do to train the next generation of Australians or about the mish-mash of the student support system that was in place, those on that side are in no position to lecture this side on what is appropriate or on the best way of addressing issues within higher education. This government made sure that we had an equitable system for student support, a system that made sure that those from low socioeconomic areas got a fair crack in relation to being supported while they went to university, and we did it in such a way that did not lead to an increase in the overall burden on the budget—despite our hearing continually from the other side during the election campaign about the amount of money this side was spending. So we did something that was both economically and socially responsible and which provided equity. They were good reforms and they stand those kids going to university in great stead. (Time expired)

8:26 pm

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to express my full support for the motion put forward by my colleague the member for Forrest and for other colleagues on this side who are supporting this motion. The issue has been ongoing for quite some time now, and I am sure that the Prime Minister, the former Minister for Education, wishes that the coalition would just let it go. But now that she is the Prime Minister for regional Australia, so she says, perhaps she will take a renewed interest in this issue, because it affects the many young people in areas that are considered inner regional Australia, when in fact the definition is wrong in relation to so many communities.

When the former education minister, the current Prime Minister, decided to change the criteria for independent youth allowance, the decision was met with uproar across Australia, particularly from the families of the 2009 gap year students, who had the rug pulled out from under them. Thankfully, after intense pressure from this side of the House, the then education minister performed a very graceful backflip. She also made some changes so that young people from rural and outer regional Australia would not suffer under her new, unfair rules. And at the time this side of the House welcomed those changes.

But unfortunately there are still a number of young people who are disadvantaged by the changes to the independent youth allowance criteria, and they are the young people who live in what is classified as inner regional Australia. In my electorate of Maranoa that includes towns like Dalby, Warwick, Kingaroy and Nanango. They are considered to be inner regional Australia. They are 200-odd kilometres from Brisbane and often further than that from the nearest university. Dalby’s closest university is the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba. It is more than 80 kilometres away. Warwick is about the same distance from the University of Southern Queensland. The same university is the closest for people in Kingaroy, but they are 150 kilometres away. That is their closest university and yet they are considered to be inner regional Australia. The University of the Sunshine Coast is some 200 kilometres away from Kingaroy. Yet these three towns are considered to be even more metropolitan—and this is the irony of it—than the city of Cairns, which has a university and an international airport, because they are considered to be outer regional Australia. The same is true of Townsville, which is home to the James Cook University. It is also considered to be outer regional Australia. I do not dispute that, but they also have the James Cook University, and the students who live there can qualify under the outer regional Australia criteria. But that is not the case in my towns of Dalby, Warwick and Kingaroy, which are considered to be inner regional Australia.

I am sure families in those towns in North Queensland that have those international airports and have access to universities are very happy, but I have to say that families in my electorate are not. In Dalby and Kingaroy, as I said, which have populations of somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 people, the young people will have to work an average of 30 hours per week to be eligible for the independent youth allowance. That is just eight hours short of what is considered full-time work.

For many employers in these smaller towns, why would you hire a young person, train them up and then watch them after the 18 months it takes to qualify for independent youth allowance take those skills to a city like Brisbane or even Toowoomba? Why would they hire them when they know they are only a temporary employee and when they could hire someone they know will stay? And for the young people in many of these towns who are lucky enough to get a job for 30 hours per week, why would they give up a job of 30 hours per week? I know this is happening. There are some students who are taking a job and deferring, perhaps forever, going on to university. That is the great tragedy for so many students and young people living in rural Australia.

That is why during the election campaign the coalition committed to relaxing the work test for students living in inner regional areas such as Dalby, Kingaroy and Warwick in my electorate and many other rural and regional areas. That meant that they would have to earn at least 75 per cent of the maximum rate of pay under wage level A of the Australian pay and classifications scale in an 18-month period, or work part time for at least 15 hours each week for two years. I support the motion put by the member for Forrest. It is on the right track. (Time expired)

8:31 pm

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me first welcome this motion by the member for Forrest, who is no longer with us because she had other duties. This has been of great concern and great interest to me. In fact one of the reasons I entered politics was what I perceive to be the inequity in the way in which we treat rural and regional students. Last March it was quite a breakthrough for the coalition and a reward for perseverance when the Prime Minister—the then Minister for Education—Julia Gillard backed down on at least some of the amendments to youth allowance. I said at the time that I supported many of the government’s amendments to the arrangements for access for tertiary students to youth allowance. Some of the reasons I did support that were highlighted by the member for Parramatta and the member for Hunter—the lowering of the age of automatic eligibility for youth allowance from 25 to 22, the lifting of household income thresholds, the fact that students could earn a bit more before losing payments and the tightening of eligibility so students who live at home cannot qualify for independent youth allowance. I applaud the remarks of the member for Hunter in this area. I was very pleased to see that shut down.

But the move to effectively shut down independently accessed youth allowance by demanding students work a minimum of 30 hours a week for 18 months out of two years was a bridge too far. It unfairly targeted regional students. The coalition insisted for nine months and the then Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, kept saying that the budget could not afford the changes. We were under pressure from those who supported the minister—the student union, the vice-chancellors of the major universities and the government—but we would not budge. Eventually the minister saw some reason and allowed students from outer regional, remote and very remote Australia to continue to qualify under the old criteria. Without going through those criteria, basically they mean you earn $19,000 in an 18-month period, which qualifies and loosely fits the students who wish to take a gap year.

But that policy abandoned inner regional students in Australia. I have just one community in that category—most of my electorate is outer regional, remote or very remote—and that is Eudunda. I am appalled by the unfairness of a line on a map. These lines on a map were drawn up by ABS to assess health eligibility in a completely different debate and had no jurisdiction at all in education. The facts are that if you have to live away from home to attend university you have all the attendant costs. I developed a paper before this became an issue in the budget of 2009 which identified many of those costs and suggested a way forward for regional Australia. Those costs are around $20,000 a year per student. That is not $20,000 to attend university; that is $20,000 over and above the cost of someone living in the city attending university.

Whatever a family’s financial ability to meet these costs, they are inflicted on a student by reasons of nothing but geography. Sometimes students are not part of the decision-making process which determines whether a family would support them through that process. They are the part players in this and are put to one side. If you live in Mount Gambier, Echuca or Eudunda—which is in my electorate, as I have pointed out—you cannot live at home and attend university. It is just too far to travel. But you have all the same costs as someone who does live in a remote area like Port Augusta, Wudinna, Ceduna or Coober Pedy. Yet this line on a map says that you do not qualify for the same level of assistance. The reason I have chosen to speak in this debate even though I have only one affected community is the principle of fairness. We have abandoned this group of students and said, ‘You shall have something lesser than the rest of Australia.’ I do not think it is good enough.

For the coalition this is unfinished business. I concur with the member for Durack and the member for Gippsland, who would prefer to see a living-away-from-home allowance established outside the youth allowance framework. But we are where we are in this debate at the moment. The motion that the member for Forrest has put up does actually meet at least minimum criteria.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.