Monday, 31 October 2011
Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011; Second Reading
I also rise today to extend my support to the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. Born and raised, as I was, in Australia, I am proud to have gone through one of the best education systems in the world. Regrettably, I could probably have used it more efficiently as I was growing up, but these things do fall to the individual. Nevertheless, the system was available. Not only do all Australians have the right to an education, but, through the hard work and dedication of our teachers, we are fortunate enough to attend teaching institutions that the OECD ranks in the top 10 in the world. I am very proud of our teaching institutions.
As you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker Livermore, my daughter Elizabeth is a high school teacher. I recently attended a school and was talking with the kids about occupations that make a difference. I indicated to them my view that one of the few occupations that makes a genuine difference in our community is teaching. Without our teachers, we would not be able to motivate people to become doctors, tradespeople, engineers, builders, carpenters or, indeed, lawyers. So I take the opportunity to extend my thanks to all those dedicated teachers out there. I acknowledge the powerful work they do in shaping our future.
That Australia's teaching institutions are ranked by the OECD in the top 10 in the world is significant. The fact that thousands of international students flock to our shores every year gives some proof to the standard of our education system and how it is viewed on the world scene. This is not to say that continual improvements must not be made. The government is committed to ensuring that every single Australian has the opportunity to undertake further education as it seeks to improve access to the system.
The bill before the House focuses on our regional students. As we have heard from previous speakers, the bill amends the Social Security Act 1991 by extending special workforce participation independence arrangements, changing the value and distribution of the relocation scholarship and changing the value of the Student Start-up Scholarship. This bill also corrects some drafting oversights in the Families, Housing, Community Services and Other Legislation Amendment (Election Commitments and Other Measures) Act (No. 1) 2011 and the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Act 2010.
Many regional students must leave their homes to study after they complete secondary school. It is our responsibility to ensure that they are provided ample assistance during this time. It is with that in mind that the government proposes what it regards as necessary reforms. Following extensive consultation with Professor Kwong Lee Dow AM, a man with an impressive record in and knowledge of the higher education system, the main challenge that was identified was the additional costs that are incurred through the relocation process. In line with this government's commitment to a stronger, fairer and more productive nation, and in response to this review, I am pleased to rise to support this package of amendments. Under the proposed amendments, we will see changes to the independence criteria for youth from inner regional Australia and improved support for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
In 2010 the government introduced similar reforms to this aspect of the social security system, and since this time the number of independent youth allowance recipients has increased by 29,000. That means that over 160,000 students are now accessing youth allowance. Though we are delighted by the impact of these reforms, we are disappointed to see that regional participation rates still lag behind the numbers in metropolitan areas. We hope that these 2011 changes will be the catalyst for improving this disparity and giving further opportunity for young people in regional areas. We believe that, by allowing for increase in the inner regional student workforce participation that is already available to outer regional and remote students, some of the financial burden will be alleviated. It is expected that an additional 5,500 young people will have access to payments under this new scheme.
By chance I had a conversation with a young lady who is attending the Australian National University. She grew up in inner regional New South Wales and had to relocate to Canberra to undertake her degree. She is the eldest of five kids and, under the current legislation, she is ineligible to receive youth allowance payments. Not only faced with the costs of relocation, for the past four years she has faced the financial strain that comes with being a university student, including paying for textbooks, rent and living expenses. In having to undertake 30 hours per week of paid work to cover these costs, this student told me that she felt that her legal studies have suffered as a result.
The changes to the system proposed in these amendments will directly affect this young lady and thousands like her by allowing them the opportunity to fully engage in their tertiary education. Apart from being of specific value to individuals, these changes will have value to the community. We not only want people commencing studies—in the case of this young woman, her law degree—we want them completing their studies in an appropriate period of time. That is good for the community.
Further changes will be made to the value of relocation scholarships for eligible dependent students and some small numbers of independent students disadvantaged by their personal circumstances. From January next year, 15,000 regional students will receive $4,000 in their first year, $2,000 in each of their second and third years and $1,000 in subsequent years.
I would also like to mention the non-legislative improvements that the government are targeting. We are undertaking a study to determine the feasibility of an income-contingent loan scheme for those students who must live away from home for clinical placement and other formal practicum periods as part of their course requirement. I saw firsthand the need for that when I recently visited the UWS medical school and saw a number of young people who were attracted to studying there. The practice of that medical school allocating out young people during the course of their studies to work in various areas in the community was raised with me, so this is an improvement that will have material benefit. Also, there will be reviews of the effectiveness of income support in reducing financial barriers to student participation and the formation of an education strategy to ensure that young regional Australians are aware of their options for financial assistance. In its entirety the bill represents no additional cost to the Australian taxpayer and, consequently, it would be utterly beyond belief if the amendments are not passed by the House.
Every young person is an asset to this nation. We need to facilitate knowledge development by engaging in continual revision of our education system and the support networks that underpin that. Australian businesses already know the value of our human capital and that it is paramount. It is worth investing in, not just for here and now but for the long term. The government are in agreement. We are committed to removing the distinction between students based on their location and upbringing. All young people have the right to a bright future and we must ensure that financial barriers do not stand in their way as they try to realise their dreams and aspirations.
Australia has always prided itself on its reputation for giving every individual, through hard work and dedication, the opportunity to elevate their economic and social status through participation. The government are proud to represent such a community and we want to give all young people that opportunity. We want to help them step up in order to meet their dreams and aspirations. I hope that those on the other side similarly support these amendments as this legislation is not just about an investment in the individuals concerned but about a real investment in Australia's future. I commend the bill to the House.