House debates

Thursday, 23 August 2018


Social Services Legislation Amendment (Student Reform) Bill 2018; Second Reading

10:35 am

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted, with a view of substituting other words. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to.

10:36 am

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, it's one of those days when clashes between the Federation Chamber and the main chamber come into play, but thank you for giving me the opportunity to continue my remarks on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Student Reform) Bill 2018. I've run several forums in my electorate of O'Connor since my election to the seat in 2013. In 2015, Senator Bridget McKenzie came to O'Connor to co-host forums on this topic and, in 2017, Albany Senior High School and I co-hosted a forum regarding access to independent youth allowance. I also attended forums held by Professor John Halsey, who conducted the independent inquiry from which this legislation and reform have emanated.

Every forum I've held on this issue has been well attended by high school and gap year students, parents, teachers, educational professionals and others concerned about barriers that country kids experience in obtaining tertiary education. I commend all the attendees for sharing their personal and often heart-rending stories, and I acknowledge their welcome set of recommendations on how the federal government can address the obstacles they have encountered.

A common scenario told to me by students and parents across the years in O'Connor is that students who have worked towards youth allowance eligibility under the regional independence criteria only failed due to a parental income of $150,000. These students have to rely on either part-time work or their parents to finance their living expenses of between $17,000 and $25,000 per year while studying at university. Youth allowance is the main benefit regional students seek to access to allow them to live guilt-free from a financial burden otherwise incurred by their parents, many of whom are supporting other siblings at school and university. My personal experience is that I worked for two years to obtain independent status for youth allowance and was able to move to the Muresk agricultural campus of Curtin University to pursue my agribusiness degree. Thirty years on, I'm proud to be part of a government that continues to work to make it easier for regional students to access tertiary education.

I want the House to know that, in 2017, 86 per cent of students from non-metropolitan areas earned an offer for a place at university, compared to 81.7 per cent of metropolitan kids. Yet, in the same year, only 72 per cent of those country students would accept their offer, compared to 78 per cent of their urban counterparts. Of those that accepted, 17 per cent of country students deferred their enrolment, more than double the deferral rate of their city-student counterparts. These statistics do not take into account those who did not accept a place but chose to take a gap year and apply for a place the following year.

The independent review identified that young people in regional Australia are half as likely to have completed a university degree as their city counterparts. This is largely due to difficulties accessing financial assistance. In the year of 2017, there were approximately 1,400 year 12 graduates across O'Connor. Assuming they all pursue tertiary studies and all fall under the new criteria, just over 1,000 of them, or 75 per cent, will now be able to apply for youth allowance where they hadn't been able to do so before.

Despite the disparities regional families, students and schools often face, I want to congratulate our regional schools for their commitment to academic excellence. One of my local schools in Albany, the Albany Senior High School, celebrates 100 years this year and is a testament to the success of regional education. Among a long list of very highly regarded alumni, I want to mention one of the graduates, Alan Carpenter, who was the Premier of Western Australia for many years in the mid-2000s. In 2017, Great Southern Grammar was one of the top schools, based on the number of eligible year 12 students, that achieved a WACE completion rate of 98.8 per cent. In that same year, 2017, four schools in O'Connor were ranked in the top 60, based on ATAR median scores, with Manjimup Senior High School ranking incredibly at No. 8 and Great Southern Grammar coming in at No. 30.

This bill revolves around parental income, how to access independent youth allowance and how it should be tiered based on this. Some may think $150,000 combined parental income is high enough for families to be able to support their children while at university, but the national average cash income of a registered nurse is around $75,000 and for a policeman it's around $90,000. That means the combined national average income in the partnership of a policeman and a nurse is $155,000. Under the system, any child of a nurse and a policeman would not be eligible to receive youth allowance because the combined gross parental income of those two professions is above the $150,000 cap. People providing essential services to regional Australia have struggled to offer their children the opportunities for tertiary education under the existing system. The changes this government is proposing mean that, for an average two-child family of a nurse and policeman, their children will be able to qualify for independent youth allowance for the first time.

I applaud the quality of our regional students. They are distinguished by their excellent academic achievement, qualifying for university places only to be hampered in their aspirations by the tyranny of distance from their desired course and the inherent financial barriers to obtaining self-sufficiency. The Social Services Legislation Amendment (Student Reform) Bill 2018 and its proposed increase to the combined gross parental income cap is a welcome change and another step in the right direction to see regional students given equal access to tertiary education. I strongly endorse the legislation to the House.

10:42 am

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today in support of the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Student Reform) Bill 2018. Everyone in this parliament knows the importance of education—higher education and tertiary education—and how quality education can improve the lives of individuals, families and communities. We saw this the other day in a great speech by the member for Chifley, who told us that he was the first person in his family to have a higher education and a university degree and how it affected him and his entire family and how it bettered his life. We know this, and that's why my colleagues on this side of the House will support this bill. In turn, this bill supports increased participation.

We know that universities are a doorway to the world, through their staff, their contacts, their relationships with other universities, their students and the global partnerships that they have. These Australian institutions provide opportunity. They have provided opportunity to many young Australians to better themselves, get a career and go to the cutting-edge jobs that we talk about for the future. I'm pleased that this bill is before the parliament. I'm also pleased to support this bill, just as I was proud to support the then Labor government's introduction of the youth allowance regional workforce independence criteria in 2011. It's so important to break down the barriers to higher education and increase participation, and that is what this bill seeks to do. We know there are many barriers to a higher education. It could be economic barriers or family situations. The fact is that people are seeking pathways to higher education, and we should be doing absolutely everything to break down the barriers for them to be able to access education and gain the increased skills that will be required in this country.

This bill will support our future workforce and those cutting-edge jobs that I spoke about earlier. It was good for the Prime Minister to be out in the 2016 election talking about jobs of the future, which was his mantra, and cutting-edge jobs, but at the same time he was cutting millions of dollars from our schools and universities. We know the vital role that universities play in our country and in the region. Even the Prime Minister himself recognised this in a speech at the University of New South Wales, where he said, 'Universities bring the world together.' It truly was a good sentiment. However, the actions of this government are something different. They've been anything but respectful when it comes to education. We've seen cuts continuously since 2016 and before.

Not long gone are the days of this government pushing for an American-style higher education system. I suspect that that will continue to be its mantra if it can get it through. We saw $100,000 degrees where, if you had the money up-front, you'd get a place at a university. Modelling has shown that these $100,000 degrees were a very real threat to university students. We know that putting financial constraints on university students does nothing to better our education system and makes education something to be provided to a few privileged people, as it was prior to the Whitlam days.

We also know that this government is doing other things that affect students. Penalty rates were cut. Many people in part-time jobs in the hospitality industry and other industries are students who relied on those penalty rates that were cut recently. The government would not support the Leader of the Opposition's private member's bill. These are all people on very low incomes who are dependent on those part-time jobs and who have had real money taken from them.

In 2016, Australian universities cost the taxpayer approximately $12 billion, but a report has shown that $66 billion was returned to the economy. So you put some money in and you get more than quadruple the return on what you spend on education and universities. But what did the Minister for Education and Training and other members opposite do? They froze university funding just before Christmas, making it harder for universities to deliver the quality education that's required. That's exactly what they did. On the one hand, this is a good bill, but, on the other hand, we have to remember those cuts and how they're hurting university students. What is a funding freeze by another name? They called it a 'funding freeze', but it's a funding cut. The reality is that it's a cut and it's been dressed up with a bow tie to be something else. Approximately $2.2 billion in cuts have been delivered by this government to Australian universities. And then there are the Gonski cuts, which are affecting our schools around the country.

It's right to improve accessibility to universities. It's a good thing. It's shameful that the government are only doing so after they made it so difficult. It's estimated that, directly due to those cuts, approximately 10,000 people did not have the opportunity or ability to attend university this year. That's 10,000 people who would have received skills and would have become professionals who generated wealth in the future economy of this nation. So we're seeing universities, such as the Australian National University, not wanting to take on more students, saying that they have reached their natural cap. Why do they say that? It's because there have been cuts. They need the funding to be able to have more students.

In my state of South Australia, we have three quality universities. For the 2018 to 2021 academic years, the cuts to funding of those three universities in my state will be in the millions and millions of dollars. That is wrong. I'm sure my colleague the member for Adelaide, who's here, would agree and won't be supporting any cuts. Flinders University, for example—a quality university—had $48 million cut. The University of Adelaide had $52 million cut. The biggest recipient of the cuts was the University of South Australia, with $60 million cut.

The government want to increase the university completion rates for rural students, so they introduce this bill, which is a good thing. Qualifying students will increase by approximately 75 per cent, but at the same time we're seeing the largest cuts that have been implemented on universities by this government, which means that universities have less funding to be able to take students and provide the services those students require for their education. One of the largest cuts in South Australia is to Uni SA, with two regional campuses. They will be affected by the cuts.

Make no mistake; this government is no friend to universities, nor are they friends to students. They've proven this by the massive cuts they make continuously to schools and universities. The Prime Minister likes to get up, as he did in the 2016, election and talk about us being a great nation with hi-tech jobs, cutting edge jobs and new industries, but to have those you need to fund education. That's where it starts. It starts in our schools, in our high schools and certainly in our universities by training people for those professions that we need so desperately for the future.

The Student Start-up Scholarship has been replaced with the Student Start-up Loan. And they may be changing the accessibility to youth allowance with this bill, but they also have another bill before this parliament—to cut youth allowance, which in turn affects those very same people. The government continue to work on scrapping the energy supplement for all recipients of Centrelink as well. These are all real cuts.

Of course, I mentioned earlier that penalty rates have been cut, which certainly affects many university students who work part-time jobs and depend on those penalty rates. The voluntary HELP debt repayment bonus has been abolished and the HELP debt repayment threshold has been lowered. All these things affect students. All these things affect the livelihood of students; they make it harder to access universities and for students to finish degrees and to go on to be part of our economy.

This government is scoring a trifecta. We have their policies which are affecting students before they apply, whilst they're studying, and when they've graduated. Of course, we will support this bill because it will support university students in regions to complete their degrees. We know how hard it is in a region when you have to travel into the city to attend a university, the economic constraints that are on families and the economic constraints that are on those students. Perhaps they are paying rent and running a separate household from the family household. I call on the government to do more for students, our universities and our future workforce.

We support this bill. As I said, we introduced the youth allowance regional work independence criteria in 2011 as part of our reforms to increase the number of regional students attending a university. This also increases the regional independence criteria and parental income limit for students from regional and remote areas from $150,000 to $160,000.

We know of regional university cuts, as I said earlier. Just before Christmas, there was $2.2 billion cut from Australian universities. They made these cuts bypassing parliament, because they couldn't get it through the Senate. I think they attempted three times, and the three attempts were blocked. That is three attempts to make these cuts since coming to office. If they had their way, we would already have an Americanised university system with $100,000 degrees, which would be shameful in a nation like ours, where we believe in equality and ensure that everyone has the same go. The MYEFO decision to freeze undergraduate places from 2018 to 2019 and the cap on growth from 2020 onwards effectively kills off Labor's successful demand-driven funding policy legacy. It absolutely kills that, and it was a good thing that assisted so many of our institutions.

I'm very proud that on our side we opened the doors of our universities. Right through from the Whitlam era we've been supporting universities. When we were last in office, we nearly doubled university funding. What did that doubling of university funding do? An additional 190,000 Australians got a place at a university, many of whom were the very first people in their families to go to university, to change their entire lives and to go in a different direction to their parents, their grandparents and their great-grandparents. We know that education is so important. We know we can change someone's life by giving them an education. We were very proud of those 190,000 extra places for people who perhaps may not have had the opportunity to go to university, whatever their circumstances were. Opening places is so important.

We hear the other side saying not everyone needs a university degree. I agree. Not everyone needs a university degree, but people, if they choose to get one, should be given the opportunity. That opportunity should be directed through this parliament, through the bills that we put to this place to make it more accessible, to give those students or those people that are finishing high school the opportunities and the pathways to go on and better their lives. It is a fact that, no matter where you are in the world, you can change your entire life through an education. We also know that the higher the education and the higher the degree, the less likely it is that you will be unemployed. That is a fact. If you go to university, it's less likely that you'll be in the unemployment lines.

These are all facts that we all know, but sometimes those on the other side refuse to acknowledge them. They refuse to acknowledge them because of an ideology that they still want up-front fees. They would love to see the privatisation of our universities. If it weren't for the constant campaigning by others in this place, I'm sure that they would have their $100,000 American-style fees. We know what it's like in the US: if you don't have the money up-front, you just don't go—or you can access loans that are extremely high in interest rates. There are methods by which you can do it. But is it fair? No. Does it give the opportunity to every person? No. Does it give people the opportunity to go to university that perhaps they did not have because of their economic circumstances and family circumstances? No. This is what we would have if those on that side had their way. I implore the government to do more for universities and to assist students, because those students will be at the cutting-edge jobs of the future which we will require to drive this economy.

10:57 am

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

I rise to speak on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Student Reform) Bill 2018. This has been a very long campaign and a personal campaign for me. I am joined by many of my colleagues, particularly rural and regional ones. I came to this place in 2007. One of my driving factors was to try and get a better deal for rural kids, in particular for access to tertiary education. Having put three children through their last years of high school in the city, and then through university—in fact, at that stage, my last child was still at university—I think I've brought some real understanding of the penalties, the extra imposts that are placed on rural families and why we need change.

On the rural disadvantage: our country's schooling system is quite good, I believe, across a wide range of schools, up to about year 9 level in the smaller communities—the larger communities can certainly punch out really good students right up to year 12. What happens in rural communities is the populations drop within the schools and the subject choices fall away. Firstly, families face the issue of how they finish off those final years of high school education and, then, how they get their children through university. It's widely accepted that it is about a $25,000 impost on a family to put a student in the city. They need a place to live, and, of course, they need to go to university. They can access HECS, which allows them to deal with at least the educational cost. But they also need a car, because we want to see them from time to time and we want them to travel safely on the roads, and they've got to pay for their food. These are all things that children who are brought up in the city and can attend university by hopping on a bus do not face. This is the $25,000 excess that goes on rural families.

So when I got here in 2007, hoping to make things better, it came really as a hit to the solar plexus, if you like, when the new Rudd government, under education minister Julia Gillard, turned the access to independent youth allowance, which had been the tool that most rural students used to try to address some of this imbalance, on its head and turned it into a system where, instead of a student having a one-year gap between high school and university, it was effectively turned into a two-year gap. Previously they had to earn 75 per cent of wage level A of the National Training Wage declaration, which in those days was a little less than $20,000. If they could earn that in an independent fashion, and their parents didn't have too many assets or too much income, they were deemed as independent. The Labor Party, in 2008 I think—it may have been 2009—moved to make that a two-year gap period, with 30 hours of work a week over a two-year period. Effectively, it became a two-year gap period. This is very disruptive to students. Many of them, even with the gap year, don't actually get back to their original intention. After two years in the workforce, getting used to having an income, getting used to being independent—perhaps it mightn't be the greatest job, but you're getting money; it is working all right; you're only 18 or 20 years old—it's difficult to get that student back into university.

I absolutely thought this was a terrible idea. The fight was on! There was a group on the coalition benches—I used to call us the rural rump for education. We formed and we fought hard to try and reverse those arrangements the Labor Party had made. I was just listening to the member for Hindmarsh bragging about the changes the government made in 2011. In fact they were brought kicking and screaming to the table. It was not Julia Gillard's preference to do this, but in the end they reversed most of that impact on rural students. For all those who live in inner, outer, regional and remote and very remote communities it went back to close to the status quo—there were some changes—when it came to qualifying for independent youth allowance.

So there we were in 2011, right back to where we had started in 2007, with a deal I didn't think was good enough for rural students. We kept agitating through the years in opposition and through the years in government. In the 2016 budget, in government, we delivered what I think is a great reform to this system. We removed the parental assets test from the disqualification for these students to access independent youth allowance. We often have talked in this place about farmers, in particular, being income poor and asset rich. That is what this was about. Some, particularly farmers, have high assets tied up in farming. They might go through a long period of time—unfortunately we're in another one of them now—when they don't have any income. So the $25,000 or so that they might be supplementing their child to live in the city becomes a real burden for them. I didn't think that was fair, and we removed it. I'm very pleased that was done. We could actually go to the heart of the question about what on earth parental income has to do with a student being independent. I would have thought that, by definition, an independent student is not relying on the parents' income, whatever it is. It is where we are in Australia. I think there's a very good argument we should make that, if you're independent, you are independent of your parents, and it really shouldn't matter what your parents' assets are. But I understand the political argument and why that is difficult—the argument about: why, if someone has $50 million, should their student be able to access independent youth allowance? There must be a line in the sand somewhere, and I guess I accept that as being the case. But it is a curious question.

We removed the parental assets test, but I have to say that this gap still sits there. It sticks in my craw. We are still running at a deficit when it comes to tertiary education. Only 18.3 per cent of people aged 25 to 34 in remote or very remote areas and 20.4 per cent in regional areas obtain a bachelor's degree or above. That compares with 42.4 per cent in the major cities.

So we are basically running at about half—about half as many rural students complete bachelor degrees compared to the city. This is an arrow to the heart of rural Australia. If there is one thing we are going to have to be in rural Australia if we are to survive and prosper, it is 'smart'. The challenges of agriculture in particular, but also the other industries that sit within rural and regional Australia, demand that we have well-educated, smart and sharp people. That is not to say that smart people aren't still in the country, but, if you are equipped with a higher level of learning, you are better able to access that intelligence and use it within your business and to grow your business. This is essential, yet we are languishing at half. We have increased the rate—that is true—but the rates in the city have grown even faster.

In VET, we don't do so badly, it must be said. But certainly at diploma level, once again, we are running at about half. It is not good enough. It comes back to—and I know this is not the whole answer—the severe financial impediment that is placed upon families. Often children will say to their parents: 'I don't really want to go to university, Mum and Dad. Don't worry about it. I'm quite happy to go down the road and get a job doing whatever.' But, in fact, they are saying that because they know their parents can't afford it; they might not even consciously know that. People say, 'It is tough here and we just don't have the money.' Or maybe the parents will get one kid through and they can't get the second one in. And I've heard that many a time: 'We sent one away to school, and that was the only one we could afford to send away to school or to university.' So no wonder our bachelor completion rates in the country are half what they are in the city.

This group, which I call the rural/regional education rump—one of the co-founders, the member for Forrest, is sitting alongside me; she has been passionate in this area; she and I have worked very hard over a long period of time—got the government to agree to a review. We took that to the 2016 election. I was delighted when Emeritus Professor John Halsey, from Flinders University, was appointed to lead that panel. I have known Professor Halsey for a long time. In fact—and I am a bit reluctant to say it in this place—I have known him ever since he taught me year 8 maths. He was one of the most gifted teachers I ever had. He rose quickly through the ranks to become a principal in a country area a couple of times and in the city and then he went into the department. He did a wide range of work and then he did some more education and ended up as a university professor in the Sydney Meyer School at Flinders University. He has prepared an excellent report. I thank him for the work and application that he put into that report. He probably knows more about rural education than any other person in Australia, in my opinion.

The government have adopted the recommendations from that report, and this legislation today is a reflection that we are trying to work towards implementing all of the outcomes that Professor Halsey recommended. The parental income threshold for independent youth allowance will now be lifted to $160,000—and I have already spoken about whether parents' income for this purpose should be assessed at all. But let's squeeze it up a bit and make it a bit higher. It sounds like a fair bit—unless you live in Paraburdoo or Roxby Downs, where the rent for your house might be $1,000 a week. Maybe one person in the household is earning a good income working long hours down underneath the ground on a tough task, but perhaps the partner is only working at KFC. That is quite a likely outcome. These people are not rolling in money. The cost of living in these environments is higher, so they don't necessarily have more disposable income to go shunting children off to university. So, with the lifting of the threshold from $150,000 to $160,000, the numbers provided show that quite a few extra people will qualify for independent youth allowance. That is a move in a good direction.

Given time, I would hope that the budget in Australia will continue to improve. I certainly believe strongly that we need to keep the government we have at the moment to ensure that outcome. We are looking at a surplus next year—the first one in Australia in 10 years. It comes back to this fundamental point: governments that can't run the economy can't spend money on education and they can't spend money on health. Governments that can't run the economy can't put extra money into aged care.

This government is hitting the targets. We're reducing our spend—well, we're eliminating the growth of spend, to be more specific—and the economy is recovering; the jobs are flooding in. We are at a very good point. We have a good story to tell. It is most unfortunate that, as I speak here today, other things are happening in this place that are detracting from our ability to tell that good story. But the world doesn't stop. The mechanisms of government don't stop. We are still here today. We are still legislating for the good of Australia.

We are legislating, in this case, for the good of rural Australia, not just for the students but for the long-term future of rural Australia, which needs these born and bred—actually I always think that's the wrong way around; I think they are bred before they are born, so bred and born—in the country. We need them back in the country but really tooled up to lead to us the next level, to take our agricultural industries and turn them also into manufacturing industries, value-adding to that product so Australia gets full value. If you look at our wine industry, for instance, grapes are worth so much—I know this will go into the Hansardand they can't see how far apart my hands are; let's say my hands are 100 millimetres apart, okay? Grapes are worth so much, but wine is worth that much—my hands are a metre apart now, for the benefit of the Hansard. They are the kinds of knowledge and skills we need back in the country to deal with a whole host of other products that we produce.

I heartily back this legislation. It's been long, arduous work for the member for Forrest, for me and for a number of others on this 'rural rump for education', as I named the group. I am heartened by the fact we are making progress, steady progress, with subsequent budgets. We keep clawing a little bit more, just getting a little bit better package for rural and regional students. I highly recommend the legislation.

11:12 am

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

I'm very pleased to be speaking on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Student Reform) Bill 2018. As you heard from the previous speaker, this is something we have worked on for 10-plus years. When the member for Grey and I came into this place 10 years ago, even though we weren't in government at the time, something we had heard so much about from families and from young people in our electorates repeatedly was that there was a real issue with the cost of higher education for young people from rural, regional and remote areas who could not and still cannot access higher education, university and other training where they live. Unless you actually live in rural and regional Australia, and unless these are your children or your family, you don't understand this. It was something that we repeatedly saw. As the member for Grey said, the actual proof is there.

The reason we've worked so hard is to try to provide a greater equity of access for young people from rural and regional Australia to actually be able to pursue higher education. And the member for Grey is absolutely right. When Labor changed the rules around who were deemed to be inner or outer regional students in the review, when they changed the legislation and students in my electorate were totally excluded from accessing independent youth allowance, it caused massive, massive problems. The member for Grey is right. When I went to schools, there would be young people who had the dreams, the ambitions and the absolute capability of going on to university or other higher education, but they actually consciously said to their parents: 'I don't want to go. I can take that job that's available, and I will.' At the time, there were some mining jobs coming along, and a lot of them made those decisions because they knew their family simply couldn't afford to send them away to university. One of the most tragic stories I heard was about a mother who had to make a choice between which one of her children she could afford to send to university. That's why the member for Grey and other members on this side have worked so hard. We know that young people in rural and regional Australia are only half as likely to actually complete a university degree as their city counterparts. It's not because they don't have the ability—they do.

I have enormous confidence in young people who live in rural and regional Australia. We do need them back; they are our future. With the education and the opportunities that they get through higher education, they then go on to work and then come back to our regional areas, bringing their great, new, young ideas and bringing their experiences. They will help to sustain and grow our regional areas. We know this very well. We see it all the time. We've worked constantly and we've seen incremental improvements, budget after budget. I'm really proud of the work that the government has done on behalf of rural and regional students. Yes, there's always a competition in a budget for where the money is spent, but we've worked constantly so that young people in our areas have a greater opportunity to go on to higher education.

One of the other issues in this bill is the fact that we would make it much easier for young people to pursue these dreams. We reduce the periods of employment. This is something that really matters, because, prior to this, young people would often have to take two years to qualify for independent youth allowance. They had to meet a range of criteria. When it was an 18-month criteria, for practical purposes, it meant that they were out of university for two years. Some courses actually started mid-year, which meant it was even worse for them. Of course, it didn't even guarantee that their university place would be held for them, even though they were accepted in that space. This reduction from 18 months to 14 months is something that we—referred to as the rural education rump—have worked very, very hard on.

Even the assessment of the parents' income being at the time the young person actually starts their 14-month period is equally as important. It's so the young person can have confidence that when they actually qualify, when they do their 14 months of work, their parents' income is still assessed at the point that they started, so they know that, when they've done the work, they're actually going to qualify for youth allowance. It gives them certainty to know that they are going to be able to go on and afford to be away from home. But, as we know, they still have to get a job. They also have the issue of not having the social support of a family around them when they have to move away. There are a lot of challenges for our young people when they have to go away to study.

Lifting the combined parental income is another step. It's moving from $150,000 to $160,000, and then, if you have two children on the independence measure, it goes to $170,000. Yes, it's an improvement, and the evidence tells us that there are a whole lot more young people who will be able to go on to higher education as a result of this—from 3,000 to over 5,300 young people. So there's another 2,000 people, member for Grey, who are going to get the opportunity to go on to higher education as a result of this measure and the constant measures that we are taking as a government to improve young people's access to higher education.

Like the member for Grey, I'm particularly pleased with the work that Professor Halsey did. He came to my electorate as well, and he listened to parents and people from the education sector. He had a very clear understanding of the challenges facing our young people. We've accepted all of the recommendations out of his report. What you're seeing today in this legislation is part of the government's response to that.

Another part of the package is our rural and regional enterprise scholarships. Twelve hundred regional, rural and remote students will each be provided with an $18,000 scholarship as part of the program. These scholarships will help young people undertake science, technology, engineering and maths studies, including in ag and health fields, for up to four years full time. Applications are due to open in another couple of weeks, and I would encourage our young people in regional areas to apply for these scholarships and take advantage of this opportunity, because those skills are actually so many of the skills that our young people need in rural and regional areas.

Look at the diversity in my electorate: my electorate has everything from mining to resource manufacturing through to agriculture, forestry, fisheries, retail construction—you name it. But we could do value-adding. We produce some of the world's best products in my south-west of Western Australia, and we can value-add to those wonderful products. Of course, it is the manufacturing side, and the science and the engineering, that will be important in all of those future options. With our free trade agreements, we are concentrating on those more niche, high-value markets. So we need skilled people to take up these pursuits.

We also need young people who will be prepared to actually start their own business. It could be a home based business. It could be in an existing business or a new one altogether. But these are the young people who need to leave places in my electorate like Harvey, Brunswick, Bunbury, Australind, Busselton, Margaret River, Augusta—this is the catchment area of the young people who really have no choice but to leave home. The courses that may be offered locally at regional universities are not the ones that they need in this space. So they have no choice but to go away to study. So having access to independent youth allowance is critical. We also know just what it costs to go away—because it's not just the cost of the education. For young people, there's the cost of accommodation, which is significant. We've also got additional costs. One is the cost of having to get to and from home. Parents also worry about their children travelling backwards and forwards when they've gone away to university, because sometimes young people make a decision to travel home late in the day or in the evening and often when they're tired. This is a real worry for many parents in rural and regional areas. So the more support that we're able to provide for young people, the better. In my electorate, young people frequently have to move—they don't have a choice—to Perth, or, sometimes, even further, to pursue the career of their choice.

I want to reassure all those young people that, since we got into government—and even before we got into government: it was my private member's motion that brought to account the then Rudd government when the then Minister for Education Julia Gillard made changes to youth allowance that disqualified all my young people from actually accessing independent youth allowance—we've worked on this consistently. I would say to the young people and their families in rural, regional and remote Australia: our work will continue in this space for you. Yes, we've made quite a number of changes, and we're making improvements all the time to your access to education. In the view of the member for Grey and of a range of my colleagues, and in my own view, we want to see equitable access for young people to education. I've been very passionate about this, since before coming into politics. This is something, still, that families will come and talk to me about—they talk to me about it constantly.

Previously, I had a mum with five children, and all five wanted to become GPs. We know that, in rural and regional areas, often, we struggle to get GPs who are prepared to live and work there, particularly in small communities. I would see that these young people are the ones who are likely to come back. Through the rural clinical schools that the government has put in place, they actually get experience in regional areas as well and are much more likely to come back.

The young people who are born and raised in the south-west understand how great it is to live and work there and what the opportunities are ahead for them in life through bringing their skills back to our part of the world. I don't have to convince them what sort of opportunities they will have in the south-west of Western Australia. They already know. So we need them to be able to afford to go away. The mum with five kids used to have to choose which of those children she could afford to send away to university. What sort of a choice is that for a family? That's why we've worked so hard for every incremental improvement that we as a government have repeatedly made for far more equitable access for young people from rural and regional Australia. I want to see the percentages change. I want to see that more than half have actually completed a university degree, as their city counterparts do. I want to know they are able to come back to the regional areas and use all of those skills and all of their experiences in their own communities.

As the member for Grey said, Professor Halsey did a very good job on this report. But I also want to recognise and thank my colleagues. When I put together the very first meeting of ministers around this very important issue, over 33 of my colleagues came along and supported us. We've repeatedly worked across the portfolios to make sure that all of the parts of this, whether in the education space or the social security space, come together as a package around the education and training opportunities for young people who live in our electorates. I'm particularly proud of this. I want to thank every one of my colleagues and the ministers and the government for actually understanding just how important this is and for the fact that the government, through its management of the budget, has been able to support the initiatives we see in this bill.

11:27 am

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party, Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill, the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Student Reform) Bill 2018, will introduce changes to improve access to youth allowance for regional, rural and remote students who have to move away from home to study. It will also make technical amendments regarding approved courses for student payments. Schedule 1 of the bill will increase access to youth allowance for regional students who have to move away from home to study. It forms part of a package of measures announced in the budget that respond to the independent review of regional, rural and remote education.

The requirement that students engage in employment over an 18-month period after they have finished school meant that many students were deferring their university studies for two years. In 2016, the government announced it would reduce the 18-month self-supporting period to a 14-month period. This means that students can now satisfy the independence criteria by taking a single gap year, rather than having to take two gap years. For example, if a student finished school in November 2016, they could commence university in February 2018, following their gap year. This reduction responded to evidence that the longer students are disengaged from study the more likely they are not to recommence studying. To be assessed as independent under these criteria, students are also be required to live away from home to undertake full-time study. Their combined parental income must be less than $150,000 a year and the student's family home must be categorised under the remoteness structure as inner regional Australia, outer regional Australia, remote Australia, very remote Australia, or on Norfolk Island.

The $150,000 parental income threshold was set in 2011 and it has remained at $150,000 since its introduction. This threshold is the same, regardless of family size. This doesn't reflect increasing wages or the extra costs associated with raising a larger family. The criterion aims to support regional students, but, due to the normal effects of income growth, fewer families fall under the $150,000 threshold. To address this decline, the bill will increase the threshold from $150,000 to $160,000. In addition, it will introduce a $10,000-per-child amount, which will increase the parental income cut-off for larger families. This means that for the average two-child family, the parental income threshold for the youth allowance regional workforce independence criteria will be $170,000, which is a significant increase from $150,000. These increases will commence from 1 January 2019.

This bill will mean that more regional students will get more youth allowance in their pockets. This is because students who qualify as independent for youth allowance do not have their payment reduced by parental income testing. This bill will therefore provide greater access to youth allowance for regional students. It is expected the number of students who qualify for youth allowance under the criteria will increase by some 75 per cent, from 3,029 to over 5,300. In summary, this bill allows for the implementation of measures that will help students from regional, rural and remote Australia who must move away from home to study.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the minister. The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton moved an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. So the immediate question is that the amendment moved by the member for Barton be agreed to.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.