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Second Reading Speech: Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 16 Nov 2009

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (9:26 PM) - I rise to speak to the Rudd government's attempt to restructure the way in which student income support is offered to those undertaking tertiary study in the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009.

I would like to point out from the outset that the Greens have been upfront from the beginning, from budget night, about how we do support some of the positive measures contained within this bill but that we have ongoing concerns with the negative measures that we feel will have an unfair consequence on students from rural and regional Australia.

Various speakers in this place tonight have alluded to a number of those concerns. They are strong concerns. They are held not only by people in this chamber but also by the people we represent, rural and regional students around the country, their families, educators, teachers-the people in those rural and regional communities who are concerned about what this means for the education of their young people.

The need for adequate student income support is particularly acute for those who have no other choice but to leave home in order to take their place in a higher education institution and to fulfil the potential they have demonstrated in earning that university place.

At a time when young people are under increasing financial pressure, students and those in guaranteed training places need to be better supported if they are to stay on and excel in their chosen path.

For young people in rural and regional Australia the obstacles in accessing higher education are even more pronounced. Many prospective students wishing to pursue tertiary studies who have no other choice but to leave home to do so are forced to take a gap year following secondary school in order to earn the required money to access the independent rate of youth allowance.

Our big concern is the removal of the workplace participation criteria without replacing it with something comparable.

Even the Bradley review into higher education, which the government continues to reference as its point of call on this issue, identified the obstacles for country kids in accessing higher education, with the report noting the decline in the participation rate in tertiary education from 25.4 per cent down to 18.1 per cent for rural and remote students.

Surely these figures should be ringing alarm bells within the government as to how we can ensure that the most disadvantaged students from these areas are provided with appropriate levels of support to participate and fulfil their potential? I understand the government's claim and its will to deal with the system and retarget youth allowance for those most in need, and I believe in many of the measures it has been able to do this.

But in its targeting it has overshot and missed those who are going to incur extra cost simply because of where their family is geographically located. They are, of course, the rural and regional students.

I am also concerned that, whenever we talk about this issue, question the amounts and look at the numbers, the government insists that the scholarships provided will indeed add to that extra fortnightly amount. But let us not forget what these scholarships are for.

These scholarships are things for which organisations right around the country-student groups, political parties like the Greens and others-have been pushing for quite some time. We are quite committed to the scholarships scheme.

We know that students need that extra money at the beginning of each semester to cover their educational costs, their textbooks, their ancillary fees-all the things that you need to set up for the semester. But it should not be considered by anyone, particularly not the government, as part of their fortnightly allowance, because it is not part of their living costs.

It is part of their educational costs. That is the difference. It is not good enough for the government to suggest that, just because students are going to get some extra money through a scholarship fund, that means it can cut their fortnightly rate, which effectively is what the government's package of reforms will do for 30,000-odd students.

Some will get less and some will get nothing, but there are 30,000 students, on the government's own figures, that are going to be worse off under this scheme. It is not good enough just to say that they will get some extra money at beginning of semester, because we know that this is for educational costs and is not a living allowance.

As part of its reform package the government announced that two of the three workforce participation criteria for a young person to qualify as independent and therefore get the maximum rate, $371.40, of youth allowance as income support while they study will be removed from 1 January 2010.

As I have already mentioned, the government's own estimates suggest that 30,700 young people will be caught short by these changes. While the moving of the goalposts was originally intended to commence on 1 January 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has since announced that the commencement of this change would be delayed for six months, finally acknowledging-after months of hard campaigning and awareness-raising from the young people affected, who have done an outstanding job at having their voices heard-the unfairness of this proposed budget measure, which would have had a retrospective effect on those thousands of students currently working towards qualifying for student income support next year.

The government has addressed some of those concerns but clearly not all of them. While I want to place on record our support for the improved targeting of income support payments and scholarships, we remain concerned that the government's approach to better targeting has resulted in a negative impact on students from rural and regional Australia.

Those students arguably are among the most in need of support and will be disproportionately affected by the independence criteria, as they are the way in which most students who have to move out of home to go to university access the income that they need.

During the public inquiry Universities Australia informed the committee that if you compare the income support of Australian students against the OECD benchmarks, we rate very lowly. It just puts before us the speculation-and perhaps it is more than speculation; it is a probability-that being revenue neutral in relation to these expenditures will just shift pockets of inequality rather than address inequality on a structural basis, and that is precisely the point here.

The government has said, ‘We want to be able to give more people some type of support without putting any extra money into the pot.' I have heard the minister say numerous times: ‘We're going to be helping 100,000 extra students.' But they have not put any more money into the pot, so they are spreading it more thinly. They are spreading it amongst a large number of people, which means that ultimately everybody gets less.

Those students who need the maximum amount are students who are independent because they do not live at home. They cannot rely on their parents and have to move out of home in order to go to university. Those students primarily are from rural and regional Australia.

This idea of shifting the pockets of inequality from one place to another and not dealing with the issue of inequality really sums up the root of the problem with this package of reforms. There was not one extra dollar put into the pot for student income support in the 2009-10 budget by a government who went to the electorate saying, ‘We will be the party of the education revolution.' We are all still waiting. At the moment it is purely rhetoric.

At this time we know we need to be investing in the education of our next generation to ensure that the recovery that we have had over the last 12 months will not just be a blip but will drive us into the future and set us up for the future. We need to be training and educating our young people.

We know that when unemployment levels rise the desire for upskilling and training rises. We need to capture those people and not leave them in limbo. This is the time to be investing in education and investing in the support that we give to students, because without supporting students there will be no education revolution.

It will all be words and it will all be semantics. It will not actually be a generation of trained, upskilled, educated young people who can go back to their communities and be the professionals we so desperately need.

While the government has been more forthcoming with producing figures on how many students will benefit from this reform package, the department have failed to adequately identify just how many students will be worse off or in fact will miss out on payments altogether and have not advised what type of economic modelling, if any, they have used and relied upon to derive this budget package.

The government continues to tell us that this is a budget neutral package, yet it cannot show us the modelling. I question whether you can honestly tell the electorate it is budget neutral without actually giving us the figures.

What we are continuously being told is that some of the estimated 30,700 young people affected-and this is the only real figure the government has been able to come up with-by the proposed change will still benefit under the proposed changes to the parental income threshold. But of course we know you cannot give more people the same amount of money without putting more money in or cutting people's payments.

These kids are not going to get the full amount of youth allowance that they need to get them through their university careers. It is just mathematics: you cannot cut the same bit of pie of into smaller pieces and assume you have more.

This is not a magic pudding; this is the government saying they have a budget-neutral package and that we should all be proud of that. Well, I am not.

This is the time when we need to be investing in education, not making students carry the can for the government's budget issues and the economic crisis. We need to be investing in the education of our young people.

Given Universities Australia's own estimates that suggest the average cost of being a student is about $670 per fortnight-and that is a very conservative figure-the fact that we have not seen one increase in the fortnightly youth allowance rate of $371.40 aside from the annual indexation is appalling. This is not just a reflection on the current government; this is clearly a reflection on the coalition as well.

For 12 years the coalition ripped money out of universities, expected students to skimp and save in order to get themselves through their basic living costs and made it very difficult for young people who honestly wanted to get an education, get through their university career and move on to being wonderful workers in our workforce and participating in the productivity of the economy.

The coalition also have a lot of responsibility to take here, and perhaps this is the time for them to make it up. Perhaps it is time for them to say: ‘Yes, we need to see more investment in education. We need to be supporting our students, so not only are we going to deal with the retrospectivity aspect of these youth allowance changes; let us make it fairer.

With those people who need the maximum amount because they have higher costs because of where they come from-generally rural and regional areas-we will support those kids in getting to university.'

An increase of the budget to bring the youth allowance to at least somewhere in the realm of the Henderson poverty line, which is $673.12 per fortnight, or at least to bring the current youth allowance up to the rate of Newstart, which is $456, as opposed to the maximum youth allowance rate, which is $371, would be a start in order to address the real costs of education for students. This would be very welcome.

In saying that, I now move my second reading amendment, which deals with that exact issue:
At the end of the motion, add: ‘but the Senate calls on the Government to commit to an increase in the 2010-11 Budget to bring Youth Allowance in line with other social welfare payments such as Newstart, which provides a maximum fortnightly payment of $456.'

These concerns are not new to government, and nor are they new to the coalition. The Greens, and formerly the Democrats, have long championed the need for the government to provide better support for young people in pursuing higher education, particularly for those students from rural and regional Australia, yet we still find our students receiving amongst the lowest of income support in the OECD.

We know that the response from students around the country to this budget measure has been loud and very clear. They feel gypped that the government has decided to change the rules halfway through. It is not good policy for any government to be making changes that are retrospective.

At the very least the government should deal with the retrospectivity aspect. Let us not deal with that simply by making changes that rip off other students who desperately need support; let us see some honest investment in the education revolution.

The feedback from the community around the country has been loud and clear. Students, their parents, their teachers, their communities, their local councillors, their parent and teacher school councils, their employers and people around the country are very concerned at the impact that these changes will have in the long term. Of course, they also welcome some of the good things.

The scholarships are fantastic. Let us keep them there and get them started. Let us work across both sides of the chamber and get this legislation to a point where we remove the bad policy-the ‘scribble on the back of the envelope' approach to the retrospectivity aspect.

Let us ensure that we do give support to students who need it because they have no other choice but to leave because their university is in the city and they happen to live in the bush. Let us make sure we see a proper investment in educating our young people.

We cannot just take away two of the workforce participation criteria without replacing them with something comparable. If as a student you are required to move out of home to go to university and there is a 90-minute travelling time back home at a minimum-that is a suggestion-then you should automatically qualify for the independent rate for the purposes of youth allowance.

If you have to move out of home then you are no longer living with your parents. If the one thing that is going to stop young people from rural Australia from going to university is the fact that they are not going to be able to support themselves through their university career because the government will not give them the income support they need, we need to seriously question what we are doing. We need to review it.

A number of students gave evidence during the Senate inquiry into this legislation, and I just want to read a quote from one student, relating to the fact that the only workforce participation criterion left in this legislation is the one that says you have to work 30 hours a week for 18 months in order to prove yourself independent.

She was puzzled at the idea that the government could think that this would even be possible for a young person-somebody on a junior wage trying to find that type of work in a rural and regional area.

She said:
I collected papers over the last two months to see what jobs we could apply for to suit this criterion. I come from Orange, which is quite regional- in comparison to some of the remote areas these girls are from.
I circled nine jobs in four weeks that I could apply for and that gave me 30 hours a week. Just nine in four weeks!

There are another 300 kids graduating-from year 12. There are just not enough jobs. The proof is there; it is in the papers and the statistics.

There is a young woman who has taken the initiative to say, ‘Okay, let's see if I can do this and get the 30 hours a week.' She has gone out and bought the paper and gone through the paper every day for the last two months to try and find a job. She came up with nine, and she understood that there are 300 other kids in year 12 who are going to be in the same situation. The jobs simply are not there.

The government has not given a comparable option to those students who currently rely on being able to earn the $19½ thousand, take their gap year and then qualify for the full amount-they need the full amount because they are the ones who incur the highest costs because they have to move out of home.

The geographical location argument seems to be the one of most concern to prospective students, and it is a valid one. It is why the Greens will be seeking to amend the legislation before us to remedy what we have seen as being an unfair disadvantage for some of the most vulnerable students.

The principal of Loxton High School, in my home state of South Australia, highlighted to the committee during the course of the inquiry into access to rural education the inequalities in accessing education between metro and non-metro students. He said: ... if you look at the inequity between two families on the same income-one in a metropolitan area and one in a rural area-the rural family, by the mere fact that they are living rural, has to find some significant additional financial income support or whatever for their child to access the same quality of tertiary education as an urban family.

They have to find some significant additional financial income support to allow their kids to go to university. We are putting barriers in place. We are putting barriers in front of kids from rural and regional areas that are going to make it much more difficult for them and much more difficult for their families to get them to university.

Unfortunately for our country kids, they are the ones who are being forced to pay for the government's budget savings. It is not good enough to simply say that this is a budget neutral package. It should not be.

We need to be investing in the education of our children. We need to be investing in the education of the next generation. We need to be investing in the education of those kids, wherever they are from-metropolitan areas, country areas, remote areas, regional areas or rural areas. This package, because it has been so poorly drafted, misses the boat.

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