Standing up for Canberra

Social Security (Student Income Support) Amendment Bill 2011

Once again it gives me great pleasure to speak in favour of another education reform of this Labor government. It has been my great fortune to be elected to this chamber at such an exciting time for education. It is an exciting time for teachers, for lecturers, for parents and, most importantly, for students. As many in this place know by now, I have a very deep commitment to education —specifically, enhancing access to education for every Australian. I have made a point to take every opportunity to talk about the benefits of education, not just on productivity and the economy as a whole, but also on the individual.

Education leads to a better and more prosperous life and a better quality of life. I know my colleague the member for Fraser, who is here today, calls education a 'poverty vaccine', and I agree. Education is indeed the silver bullet to cure all manner of social problems. Better education leads to a longer, healthier and happier life. It leads to better opportunities. Most importantly, it leads to a life of empowerment—a life where the individual can choose for themselves and not have that choice made by others because of their background, relative wealth or careers of their parents.

In this I speak from experience. I am the daughter of three generations of women who were hardworking, industrious and intelligent—three generations of women who were more than capable, I believe, of taking on any task and any job. However, because of their background, their gender and their class, they had their futures forced upon them. They had no choice about the future that they had to endure. This cycle was something my mother was keen to end. She was determined that my sisters and I would be educated to get the life and future that we chose, not one that would be forced upon us because of our background. In doing this my mother had plenty of help. My sisters and I are the great beneficiaries of the dramatic education reforms of the Whitlam governments and Richard Dawkins. They introduced reforms that led to the largest expansion of the higher education sector in this country's history—reforms that quite literally changed the face of education, leading not just to more students but to different kinds of students.

Thanks to these visionary leaders and to the commitment of the Labor Party to education and education reform, the upfront costs of university education are no longer a block to going through tertiary education. A student today, thanks to Labor, no longer pays upfront tuition fees and receives a subsidy on their education. It is a system envied by the world for its responsibility in terms of both budget impact and its ability to deliver education and social outcomes.

The major barrier to higher education today is not the cost of tuition fees but is, in fact, how a student can afford to live while studying. Basic items such as accommodation, food, heating and textbooks are all a source of serious financial stress for too many students. They are today a greater barrier to access to higher education than HECS fees. The National Union of Students estimates that as many as one in eight tertiary students miss a meal each week due to financial constraints and as many as half report that financial stress has impacted negatively on their studies.

Today's students are working longer hours to try to make ends meet instead of focusing on their studies and getting an education. One study conducted by NATSEM and the University of Canberra found that, while some level of employment was beneficial for a student's education outcomes, any more than 14 hours per week had a detrimental impact. I shudder to think just how many students drop out of university because they cannot simultaneously pay their bills and study. I shudder to think how many students, having completed school and made the decision and commitment to try to get a degree, have been forced to leave because they cannot afford to pay the rent. These are facts that do not sit well with me and certainly do not sit well with this government. That is why since being elected we have embarked on much-needed and overdue reforms to the higher education sector and to student income support—reforms that every university, student body and community organisation in the country called upon the Howard government to implement for 11 years.

The claims from those opposite that this government is neglecting students, especially rural and regional students, are completely spurious. Their commitment to student welfare is nothing more than an opportunistic policy devoid of any substance. We know already that more students are going to university under this Labor government than ever before. We know that an additional 100,000 students are attending university this year, with an increase of 22 per cent since we came to government in 2007. We know that more regional students than ever before are going to university, with a 10 per cent increase in regional students in 2010 over the previous year. And there are many more encouraging figures about the success of this government's policy in higher education. So I am not going listen to those opposite who say this policy is a failure. Unlike those opposite, who sat and did nothing on this issue for over a decade, we on this side always ask: can we do more? Can we do more to overcome barriers to education and to participation? Can we do more to overcome entrenched disadvantage? For this reason the government commissioned a review by Professor Kwong Lee Dow, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, to examine the impact of student income support. Professor Kwong conducted 20 round tables, including 14 in regional areas. His review received over 250 submissions from the sector, from community organisations and from parents and students.

The legislation before us today reflects the government's response to this review. This bill will further amend the Social Security Act to extend to inner regional students the special workforce participation and independence test arrangements that currently exist for outer regional, remote and very remote students. It will also change the value and distribution of the relocation scholarship, change the value of the student start-up scholarship and cease the Rural Tertiary Hardship Fund. This package acknowledges the pressures and costs faced by students who come from regional areas. This reform will mean that a further 15,300 students will receive an additional $1,783 over four years, compared with current arrangements. It will also mean that a further 5,500 students will receive assistance as independent persons under these arrangements each year.

This legislation is yet another step in this government's plan to improve education outcomes, to improve education opportunities and to ensure all Australians can make the life choices they want. This legislation is yet another example of Labor's strong commitment to universal and quality education. I am proud to be part of a government that will never stop examining what more it can do to help Australian families get their kids the education they deserve. I commend it to the House.

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