Tuesday, 2 June 2009
Matters of Public Importance
Rural and Regional Australia: Education
I have received a letter from the honourable member for Lyne proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The need to close the education gap for regional and rural Australia.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I thank the majority of members from both sides of the House. As an Independent, I am certainly flattered by the support. Hopefully, it demonstrates the importance of the issue before the House of closing the education gap for regional and rural Australia. This issue is not only about education but also about social inclusion, probably the most important social inclusion issue at a public policy level we can address. From the perspective of regional members—and I know many members in this chamber share a similar view—we certainly do enjoy the language of the education revolution that we have heard in the last 12 to 18 months. We are certainly engaged in the process of reform, whether it is post Bradley or post budget. There are many good aspects and a few difficult aspects that we continue to work through with the government. However, on the sheer statistics of education in regional and rural areas compared to metropolitan areas, it is without question that we need not only the education revolution but also an education intervention within Australia today.
The statistics for the Lyne electorate show that the proportion of people aged 20 to 24 years who have completed year 12 is 47 per cent—one in two on the most recent statistics—compared to the statewide average of two in three or 66 per cent. That is a significant difference in completion rates for year 12, which this House needs to consider and address. It would be the same in most regional and rural electorates throughout Australia. Likewise, the proportion of people with a degree or higher level qualification in the electorate of Lyne is 17 per cent, or one in six, compared with the New South Wales statewide average of 30 per cent, or one in three. Again, I think that would be a similar statistic shared throughout regional and rural areas when compared to their metropolitan counterparts.
We can go through the education statistics to drive home the point that there needs to be an education intervention in rural and regional areas, whether it is the proportion of people holding a certificate-level qualification or diploma, where the number is higher in regional and rural areas, whether it is the proportion of workers classified as ‘professionals’, where the number is significantly lower in the Lyne electorate compared with the state, or whether it is the proportion of workers classified as ‘labourers’ being slightly higher. The point of the comparison of those three statistics is that there is a direct relationship between education levels and education status and a range of other factors in play in regional and rural areas, whether it is low-income levels or the status of poverty in regional areas. On the North Coast, the four electorates are all in the top 10 poverty regions of Australia. So there is a direct link between the length of stay in education and the aspirations of the community and, as a consequence, the full range of the needs and wants of the community.
So the problem not only concerns the Lyne electorate but is one shared right throughout regional and rural New South Wales and Australia. The problem has been talked about at length by many and clearly identified, I would hope, in the minds of many. The reason I wanted to propose this MPI and to engage this chamber in this debate is not so much to repeat the problems but to start to consider some of the answers that we can work through. I mentioned the Bradley review before and the post-budget environment, and I think this is potentially a very exciting time for education in a regional area such as ours. Some of the issues that have been picked up through the Bradley review are certainly welcome: the increase in the parental income test, the change to the independence age and the new start-up scholarship—which I just wish was named something that identified it as an annual scholarship rather than seeming to identify it as a one-off. However, that funding is certainly welcome. The relocation scholarship is welcome, the personal income test threshold changes are welcome, income support for masters coursework programs in 2012 is welcome, and the relaxation of means-testing of equity and merit based scholarships provided by universities and philanthropic organisations is certainly welcome. All those changes are necessary and are talking to regional and rural Australia.
The Minister for Education has been engaged in discussions with the member for New England, many other members of this place and I on some aspects of the post-budget environment. The gap year for students already on the pathway to try to qualify for independence under the youth allowance is one matter that I do hope, in good faith, the executive reconsiders in buying six months or 12 months as a compromise position. It is a horrible first lesson in civics for many 18-year-olds, particularly from rural and regional Australia. I certainly hope, in good faith, that the government reconsiders its position on that issue and does not, as part of the process of reform, accept collateral damage. If that one issue alone can be addressed, the overall package starts to look a lot rosier in the eyes of many and particularly starts to address some of the fundamental underlying questions that we face in rural and regional areas.
There has been discussion on the detail of the relocation allowance. There was a very good article in the Australian newspaper—and I note that the member for Kennedy has also raised this with the minister—on the non-means-testing of the relocation allowance so that it become more targeted as an access payment for rural and regional students. I ask, as part of two potential answers to improving the reform package, for Treasury modelling to be done on both of those considerations. They will make a difference in the lives, the choices and the pathways of many rural and regional students or potential students in the future.
I also wanted to raise some other issues for the government’s consideration and to identify the importance attached to some previous announcements about, and hopefully delivery of, programs for areas such as the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Without doubt, if the language with regard to broadband is fair dinkum and the delivery is within that eight-year time frame, we really are starting to seriously see the gap closed in the delivery of services such as education. A need for an Australia-wide communications network that makes education equally accessible to regional and rural students is a no-brainer. It would certainly change the game of the delivery of education and the choices of entering education. It would change it in the minds of many in the area that I represent.
In this place it is easy to forget, in a practical sense, what life is like in many regional and rural areas. In this chamber and in this House, it is a very quick process to turn on your computer and to access any website anywhere you want in the world. Think of people such as year 10 students from Camden Haven High School who are still on dial-up. Think of the challenges that they face in a knowledge economy and trying to keep pace with students in communities such as where we all are now, discussing this issue. It is inequitable; it is unfair that in a nation that prides itself on its egalitarian spirit we have such a stark difference in the ability to compete in the knowledge economy. Not only do I know of many people still on dial-up; the associated frustration of the dropouts that go with it have many people in regional and rural Australia not engaging in the use of the internet to access information. So the broadband announcement is vitally important and hopefully is delivered upon and will make a difference.
I also want to put on the record some broader themes that are not talked about in the cut and thrust of an adversarial parliament. Some of these are the questions of the fundamentals that underpin completing education, in particular higher level qualifications. Some of the issues around identity—and this is where it does become a social inclusion question rather than an education one. I would hope that the government and the executive really consider some of those identity questions. Too often I see in households within my community that replication of themes: ‘My parents didn’t study so I won’t’, ‘I’m not smart enough’, ‘We can’t afford it’ and so on. I really hope that the government, with its social inclusion hat on, starts to address some of those questions of identity in the regional and rural areas, as well as those aspirational questions. Holding higher education qualifications in a high regard is probably not as significant in many of the homes in regional and rural areas as it is in some of the metropolitan areas or, I might suggest, for some of our Asian neighbours. This is something that we need to address as a nation and for government to address during its consideration. There are also the blunter considerations of the options and the pathways that can be provided to rural and regional students. The issues of access are fundamental to many people and that is why the changes to Youth Allowance have got under so many people’s skin in regional and rural areas. It is seen as a direct attack on what is already a difficult pathway choice in trying to access and stay in higher education. So those general themes are ones that I hope government will consider.
As part of that, I would also ask the government to consider bottom-up thinking rather than top-down thinking. In principle, eight of the government’s own social inclusion policies name the silo thinking of government and the inflexibilities that go with it as barriers to addressing social inclusion. As a community, we have a proposal before the government called ‘Learning in place’. It has been generated from the bottom up. It is a holistic view of a community wanting to help itself. We are waiting on a response from the government, but there is frustration in our community that the response so far from various departments is ‘DEEWR can fund this bit, FaHCSIA can fund this bit’—no-one is looking at the holistic view of the overall needs of our community. We have done the hard work on the ground. It is a bottom-up response; it is meeting the full needs of our community. Yes there are some creative elements to it, but we really need a government response to appreciate that silo thinking sometimes clouds the decision-making in this chamber and of government generally.
Attached to that is the issue of the short-term, one-off thinking that comes from here and the difficulties that go with that with regard to addressing long-term structural disadvantage, which is the issue being addressed here today. We need government to be shoulder to shoulder for the long term and commit to at least three- to five-year programs if we are talking about some serious structural reform in regional and rural areas. At the moment it is frustrating that it does not happen as much as we would like. Again, I hope the government considers that.
Finally, a positive consideration is the change in thinking about the cost, the market place, the contestability issues. The delivery of education in regional and rural areas does have greater costs— (Time expired)
I begin by thanking the member for Lyne for raising this very important matter but also for his contribution to the debate so far and his continued advocacy for the people that he represents as well as for our education system. I know that he is genuinely interested in education and I want to reassure him and the good folk of Lyne that the government’s efforts to support students in rural and regional areas will continue.
I also want to acknowledge a couple of points he brought up, particularly the broadband announcement. It is very significant issue when we are talking about the education of young Australians. It is also very significant when we are talking about the opportunities which are available to those in regional Australia, and it is significant when we are talking about not just the education opportunities of regional young people but also the opportunities through health and the opportunities through communication, through bringing people together, to note that this broadband announcement is hugely significant for education but, beyond that, for building the nation.
I recognise that particular concerns have been raised both in this discussion already and also in the community more broadly around some of the recent announcements on youth allowance. I want to assure the House that I will come to these but, before we get onto the specifics of youth allowance, this is a much more general matter of public importance as it is about the education gap for rural and regional Australia more broadly. I want to assure the House that we are a government that believes in education for all. We believe that investing in education, in raising the educational opportunities for all Australians, is the pathway towards building a smarter, a better and a fairer nation. But we also recognise that students in rural and regional areas and their families do have specific needs, and there are barriers to their effective participation in education—particularly barriers to their effective participation in higher education, which is why as a government we provide a range of education investments which are specifically for rural and regional Australia. I want to take a few moments to go through some of these before we come in more detail to the recent debate about youth allowance.
We offer a range of different supports, including drought related support, including general income support, including student income support and including funding for schools. We offer assistance to farming communities and financial incentives to employers in regions which have been affected by drought. I note the member for Kennedy’s presence in the chamber today, although he has not had too much experience with drought problems recently. We also offer programs which are targeted at rural and remote schools and students, and other assistance to rural and regional students at school through the national education initiatives. As part of this debate, I want to talk about the contribution that the Building the Education Revolution initiatives and the huge modernisation of schools right across Australia are having on schools in regional Australia. The Drought Assistance for Schools initiative is part of a $715 million package of drought assistance for farmers, small businesses and communities in rural and remote Australia. It is a program that makes it easier for rural families to meet ongoing education expenses and the cost of educational activities such as excursions which may be prohibitive for families experiencing financial hardship as a result of drought.
In 2007-08 nearly $23 million was delivered to 3,030 schools in rural and remote locations across Australia. A further $23.9 million is available in 2008-09, and the program has been extended until 30 June 2010. Another program, the Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme, supports eligible primary, secondary and tertiary students who are unable to attend an appropriate government school because of their geographic location. It provides financial assistance to families to meet the cost of boarding and other expenses for their children. Another program, the Country Areas Program, is designed to help schools and remote communities improve educational opportunities and outcomes for students who are disadvantaged because of their geographical location.
In the area of training, the declared drought area incentive is designed to encourage primary producers who hold an exceptional circumstances certificate to continue to offer skills development and job opportunities to people living in a drought declared area. The Rural and Regional Skills Shortage Incentive program provides a special commencement incentive for rural or regional employers who employ an apprentice or trainee in an area of skill shortage. So a significant number of programs have been put in place with the very purpose of closing the gap and giving students the opportunity for a quality education, a world-class education, no matter what part of our country they may come from. We saw in the member for Lyne’s own electorate a number of projects which have been funded through the Building the Education Revolution program which I know have been warmly welcomed by both the member and the local community. The government has been very proud to announce those projects. I note also through the trades training program that nearly $3 million of funding has been awarded to the Taree High School to work with the Chatham High School and the Wingham High School in a project to refurbish and equip existing hospitality facilities—something that is really important and something this government is very proud to be able to invest in.
We have seen since the budget quite a lot of attention and debate, and in regional areas I think it is only fair to say some controversy, around the recent changes to youth allowance. I fully appreciate that the member for Lyne is particularly concerned about the impact of student income support changes and what that might mean for students within the electorate that he represents. I know he is quite genuine in his concern over some of these issues. I want to start by getting the facts on the record. It is important that we recognise that not every student across Australia gets youth allowance. That is the system. What we need to do is have in place a system where we determine who does get youth allowance and who does not get this income support; a system that is fair, a system that is transparent and a system where we can all be confident, and taxpayers can be confident, that the taxpayer dollar is being awarded in the most appropriate way.
That is why we believe the changes announced in the budget are so significant. Under the government’s reforms to be introduced from 1 January 2010, 100,000 students, including many from regional areas, are expected to get more youth allowance or to become eligible to receive youth allowance for the very first time. Under these reforms, we will be able to provide this additional support to thousands of Australian students and their families by retargeting the current system to assist those most in need. The reality is that under the existing system, which was implemented by the previous Liberal government, youth allowance is being paid to students whose household incomes are right up the income scale—$150,000, $200,000 and $300,000. These students are living at home in the city whilst attending university and their parents’ income is of that magnitude. We on this side quite proudly say that we want to see the money going to those who need it most. That is why we accepted the recommendations of the Bradley review—to ensure that student income support is received by those who need it most.
Before they saw the chance to run a misleading and untrue scare campaign, the opposition in fact said that they supported the changes. Amongst all the criticism and scaremongering which we have heard since the budget and all the work that members—and I will get to the member for Gippsland in a minute—are doing in their own communities, it is quite easy to forget the comments by the member for Sturt on 25 March. He said about these changes:
If the Government is serious about reform, then come Budget time we should see some consideration given to reforms suggested by Bradley in student income support—to ensure that sufficient support is going to those who need it.
That is what the member for Sturt said before the opposition saw the opportunity for this scare campaign. That is, of course, what we have delivered in the budget, but now many of those within the Liberal and National parties are running around and telling their communities only half of the story. So it is very important that we use this opportunity to set the record straight. The fact is that 100,000 students will miss out on more payments or miss out on higher payments to help support them attend university if these changes are not accepted. As I said, not everybody is entitled to youth allowance, so we need to make sure that it is directed fairly. What tighter targeting means is that we can afford to pay 150,000 students a student start-up scholarship, which is worth $2,254, each and every year to help them with their study costs. That is equivalent to an additional $87 a fortnight on top of the youth allowance that they already receive. Tighter targeting also means that we can afford to pay a relocation scholarship of $4,000 in the first year and $1,000 in later years to students, particularly from regional and rural areas, who have the opportunity to relocate.
I notice that those opposite interject. Let’s consider for a moment what they do not talk about in their communities when they go around scaring potential university students by saying, ‘The government are ripping this away from you; you won’t be entitled.’ What they do not say is that the government is in fact substantially increasing the parental income test, which means that many of these students will now be entitled to youth allowance without ever having to prove their independence, subject themselves to the work test or take a gap year because, as a result of the changes to the parental income test, they will now be entitled to youth allowance.
I will give an example of how significant some of these changes are. Obviously there are taper rates and there are different circumstances depending on the number of students living at home and on the different incomes—
but this is an example of how it has changed. Under the previous system, if you had two children who were aged 19 and 23 and living away from home, the cut-off rate for them receiving any youth allowance was $79,117. Under the new system this has been increased to $139,388. This means that a lot of these young Australians who, because of the dishonest campaign that has been run by those opposite, have been scared into thinking that they will not be entitled to youth allowance will in fact be entitled under the changes to the parental income test—something that members opposite are not telling them.
On this side of the House, we are happy to have a debate, but we want to make sure that young Australians out there are getting the facts. Before they believe the scare campaigns of those opposite, I encourage all of those students who might be listening to this debate this afternoon—and I am sure there are young Australians right around the nation with their ears glued to the radio—to ring the hotline that has been set up.
Ring 132490 and find out for yourself whether you are entitled to youth allowance.
I had the opportunity on the weekend to head down to the member for Gippsland’s electorate, where I spent the weekend in Sale. The member for Gippsland had been running a campaign and had got himself some front-page media scaring the local community about changes to youth allowance—and then, I might add, was unavailable to front up and attend a forum to actually talk to young Australians about the changes and put the facts to them directly. But I spoke to them and I can tell the House that a lot of those young Australians who were terrified by the member for Gippsland’s campaign will be better off. And it is not just young Australians in Sale; over 100,000 young Australians will be better off as a result of these changes, which make the distribution of youth allowance fairer and the system more transparent.
I know we will continue to debate this and many other issues, but the member for Lyne is quite right: it is crucial to ensure that students in regional Australia have every opportunity for a quality education in this country. That is something that we believe all young Australians—and, indeed, all Australians—should have the opportunity to receive. The government are very proud that we have been investing in education on such a major scale. (Time expired)
I am pleased to speak to this matter of public importance. I thank the member for Lyne for bringing it into the parliament. I appreciate what the Minister for Youth has just said. This is a very important debate. Essentially it is about legislation which is before the parliament at the moment, and particularly relates to access to youth allowance, whether that be through the parental income test or through the work test to prove independence. The government has initiated a number of changes in relation to how youth allowance can be accessed.
The Minister for Youth made some important points a moment ago because there are some good points in the changes. Some students will receive more in youth allowance than they did before, not only in relation to the relocation scholarships but also in relation to the start-up arrangements, the $2,254 that will be available to anybody. Whether it be through the work test or parental income assessment, they will be able to access that money. Even students whose family’s income is, say, $90,000 will be receiving a very small amount of youth allowance, probably $6 a fortnight. Their family will be able to access the $4,000 relocation scholarship in the first year, $1,000 in the second year and also the start-up arrangements of $2,254. For that particular family, with one student living away from home, there will be access to some moneys. If there are two students, one in first year and living away from home in a country environment, they could access only a small proportion of the youth allowance out to $1,390, I think it is. It would still trigger the mechanisms of the scholarship arrangements.
There are some anomalies in relation to this. I speak today for a number of members who are not able to speak. The member for Gippsland—who may well have been running a campaign in his own electorate—has highlighted the gap year, a very significant issue. For students who left school last year, who did so in good faith, believing that earning $19,600 during the year would allow them to access youth allowance, the rules have changed. The student will have to work 30 hours a week for 18 months in a two-year period. Essentially, that means that students who were embarked on that process under the old rules, and in good faith, will now have to miss university for two years in many cases. As the minister said, some of them may be able to access youth allowance through the parental income test; many will not.
Given that there are savings of $1.8 billion to the budget bottom line from these changes, there is room to move in relation to those kids who are locked into the gap year event. I urge the government to look at this more closely. As the member for Lyne said, this is a dreadful introduction to civics for students who left school last year, assuming that, if they obeyed the rules, they would be able to access youth allowance through an independence test. They suddenly find the rules have changed.
The Minister for Education—I thank one of her staffers, Jim Round, for coming to me on a number of occasions to talk through the mathematics of this issue—has used the phrase ‘social inclusion’ time and time again. If we are serious about social inclusion, we have to make sure that young people do not miss out on youth allowance because of a retrospective policy change. It is time that the government reviewed this particular policy. Another member who is unable to speak is the member of Ryan. The people of Ryan have mentioned great concern as to the outcome of this debate. We are all very well aware of the member for Ryan’s concern for the people in his electorate as we have seen it on many occasions.
Another issue I would like to address is the structural components within this particular change of policy. I thank Senator Hanson-Young for her initiatives in the Senate in relation to this. I am told there will probably be a Senate inquiry into this policy. I suggest the government look much closer—once we have the Treasury modelling which has achieved the $1.8 billion in savings—at the structural gap which still exists. If I were able to tell you exactly where it exists, I would, but I think the modelling will show it up. Country students who do not have the choice of attending a university in their town will have to travel away to access university. In many cases they will now have to leave home, to go to another town, to work for 30 hours a week for 18 months so that they can say that they are independent of their parents, and that makes a mockery of it. There is not going to be an opportunity in country towns for a lot of those students to find what essentially is full-time work for an 18-month period. There is a structural fault in this policy change which really needs to be examined when the Senate committee looks at the way in which Treasury came up with the numbers.
There may be a way where this could be fairly close if not revenue neutral to Treasury. There is a distinct difference between country people who have no choice, with no university in their town, and those who live in Armidale, for instance, who have access to the University of New England. They should be treated differently from a young person who comes from a community like Walgett, which has no university. That young people has to physically leave a community where it is highly unlikely that they will get 30 hours work a week, where there are major unemployment issues, where it is highly unlikely that they would be able to achieve the independence allowance.
The last thing I would say in terms of this government is that I do not believe they want to restrict people from gaining an education. I think they do want to encourage it and a lot of their other policies, including some of the education revolution policies, are sending positive signals to young people and communities, whether they be in the country or in the city. But this particular piece of policy sends two direct arrows through the hearts of country children: the capacity to work to 30 hours a week in a full-time job in a town where there is no employment. How do we handle that structurally? We send them away so they can work for two years so that they can come home to go to university? Those sorts of things really have to be looked at. I think the integrity of a Senate inquiry may well pick up some of those issues.
I would also congratulate schools in my electorate who are particularly upset about the gap-year issue. They see it as one of real inequity. The McCarthy Catholic College community—the students and their families et cetera—are part of a petition that I put before the parliament earlier in the week. I would hope that the minister and the Prime Minister would have a very close look at this.
In relation to the politics of this, there has been a lot of people from the coalition who have rightly argued the points that the member for Lyne raised, I know the member for Kennedy will raise and other country members have raised—and even privately raised from the government side. This will be a test as to where they stand when this particular piece of legislation does get before the Senate. It is one where we have to work out the structural problems and then make a definitive vote in relation to supporting those country students who are going to miss out through not being eligible for the parental income test and not being able to acquire youth allowance because of the lack of work in their particular jurisdictions. I thank the House.
It is thanks to the member for Lyne that we are here today talking about the need to close the education gap for rural and regional Australia. Clearly all the speakers here would agree, and our colleagues with us here in the chamber would agree, that equitable and accessible education is important for all Australians, no matter where they are from or what their socioeconomic background is. The government knows that people from regional and remote areas are underrepresented in higher education, just as we know that Indigenous people are vastly underrepresented. We understand that attending university is more complicated for our regional students than it is for metropolitan students. After all, for uni students in Brisbane, getting to university might be as simple as 15 minutes riding on a train. But for students in Claremont it could mean a five-hour drive to Rockhampton.
The Bradley review of higher education has already told us that there is a need for a more innovative, sustainable and responsive model of tertiary education provision in regional areas to respond to rapidly changing local needs. Rural areas have lower population numbers and cannot capture the same economies of scale as those enjoyed by cities. In responding to the Bradley review, the education minister has set some ambitious yet achievable targets for tertiary education in the future. She has also set out a plan for ensuring the strength of our regional universities.
The Rudd government supports diversity in higher education and is committed to assisting universities to develop their distinctive missions. We announced in the budget, therefore, a $5.7 billion program over four years to improve higher education, which is in direct response to the Bradley and Cutler reviews. These reforms include: a move to a student-centred system underpinned by a national regulatory and quality agency, which will enable an extra 50,000 new students to commence a degree by 2013; substantial resources to promote equity and performance funding tied to quality; a landmark increase to university indexation; a phased move to addressing the gap in funding for the indirect costs of research; major reform to student income support—as we are discussing today—to better support our most needy students and an increase in postgraduate stipends; importantly, major investment in higher education research and VET infrastructure through the Education Investment Fund totalling $3 billion; and additional recurrent funding of $2.1 billion over the forward estimates for higher education, teaching, learning and research.
We are seeking to raise the education level here in Australia and recognise that there are barriers to be overcome to achieve that goal. For instance, only 32 per cent of young Australians have been to university here in Australia compared to targets of 50 per cent in the UK and Sweden. As I said, the minister has committed to the aspirational target of having 40 per cent of all 25- to 34-year-olds attain a higher education qualification by 2025, and I applaud the minister for setting that bold target. We know that this means a focus on regional areas and low-socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as our cities. Higher education reform is a key element of our education revolution. As the minister has already outlined, the Bradley review will make a valuable contribution to the preparation of the government’s higher education policy agenda for the decades ahead.
As the federal member for a regional electorate, I can say that the government is committed to providing high standards of education for those people living in rural and regional areas. Our budget of three weeks ago is already instigating major changes and improvements to the education sector and it contains substantial measures that I believe will close the education gap between rural and regional Australia and metropolitan Australia.
There has been much media in recent times and a lot of comments from the opposition and my colleagues on the crossbenches here that we have supposedly delivered a cruel blow to prospective students in rural areas and that we are slashing the number of youth allowance recipients. This is not the case.
To be fair to the member for New England, I can see his point that it is not a question of slashing youth allowance recipients but it is a question of the transition. I believe that reforms will provide better and more equitable support for students and families, including those in rural and regional areas. The reforms come in direct response to the findings in the Bradley review. We have improved the parental income test, meaning more students will be eligible, because a student’s parents can earn more before their child starts to lose that eligibility for student income support.
I turn to the detail of the reforms in the budget. The reforms will benefit around 100,000 students: 68,000 students will now be eligible to receive support as a result of the changes to the parental income test and 35,000 students will receive a higher payment than they have previously received. The Bradley review found that current income support arrangements were poorly targeted, with not all support going to those most in need. It found that 36 per cent of independent students living at home were from families with incomes above $100,000, 18 per cent of students in this situation came from families earning incomes above $150,000 and 10 per cent came from families earning above $200,000. The government has accepted the recommendations of the Bradley review and has decided to take this decision to ensure that student income support is received by those who need it the most. The workforce participation criteria will be tightened and the savings will be invested in increasing access to income support for students who need it the most by increasing that parental income test. This means more support for more students.
There are also specific benefits in the budget for rural students. Rural students in receipt of youth allowance still have access to the higher away-from-home rate of payment as well as rent assistance, remote area allowance, fares allowance for up to two return trips home per year and other benefits such as the low-income health care card and pharmaceutical allowance. Rural students will also be eligible for the full value of the student start-up scholarship, which is worth $2,254 per year if those students receive some amount of student income support. This is equivalent to a $43 per week increase in the rate of youth allowance for those students. To assist thousands of university students with the costs of relocating to study, the government has introduced the relocation scholarship of $4,000 in the first year and $1,000 in later years. This will be on top of the student start-up scholarship, meaning that students who receive this will receive $6,254 in the first year and $3,254 in subsequent years. These figures will be indexed. There are significant amounts of money in those scholarships alone. Those are things that I welcome as a representative of students who travel away from Central Queensland to undertake education elsewhere.
I turn away for a moment from student income support and look more broadly at the priority that this government has given to education at all levels—primary, secondary, VET and higher education. We are seeking to provide a better education system for students right across the country, at whichever stage of education and wherever they live. That includes schools and students in all of our regions. For example, hundreds of new computers are being rolled out in my electorate, along with trades training centres and a raft of new school buildings that will come thanks to our stimulus strategy. The Rudd government is investing a record $62.1 billion in Australian schools from 2009 to 2012. This is almost double the $33.5 billion invested in the last four years on funding and infrastructure. As part of the government’s education revolution, this record investment will help ensure that every Australian school is a great school and every Australian child receives a world-class education. In addition, through national partnerships agreed with state and territory governments, the government is investing $540 million to improve literacy and numeracy, with pilot projects already beginning in schools around the country; $550 million for reforms to improve teacher quality, including a $50 million investment in leadership development for principals; and $1.1 billion over five years for disadvantaged school communities.
In addition to these initiatives, the government is investing in the biggest school modernisation program the nation has ever seen, with a further $14.7 billion boost to the education revolution over the next three financial years through the Building the Education Revolution program. There are two other programs. One is the digital education revolution. Innovation will be central to securing Australia’s competitive advantage in the future. The $2 billion digital education revolution program includes funding of $807 million to school authorities to cover the associated costs of implementing the computers in schools initiative. This means that school students will experience a technology-rich learning environment which will prepare them for the technology-rich work environments of the future. There is also the Trade Training Centres in Schools program. I am pleased to say that already two of these have been approved in my electorate. We are working to raise the status— (Time expired)
This issue is very real to me. It probably cost my parents about $1 million by the time the three of us were educated through tertiary education. The difference between my brother, who had four kids and lived in Brisbane, and me, who had five kids and lived in Cloncurry-Charters Towers, was that he had a university in Brisbane and I did not. I must say, we did not find the money; my kids had to borrow the money through the borrowing arrangements. Four kids by four years by $10,000 a year is $150,000. So there is a $200,000 difference between a family who lives in Brisbane and wants to have their children educated and a family who lives in Charters Towers and wants to have their children educated. You would say there is a cost at home. Hold on a minute: the home is free, for starters, if you live in Brisbane; and, of course, your mother cooks the meals in the main, so you do not have the cost of cooking. My experience at university was that most of the people had to buy take-away meals, twice a day anyway. So there is a huge cost difference between a person who lives in a city where there is a university and a person who does not.
That results in a huge difference in the number of people in tertiary education. I represent pretty close to 200,000 Australians in my electorate and about 40,000 of those are in the very remote areas. Those remote and very remote areas have eight per cent of males completing tertiary education while metropolitan areas have 27 per cent, and the figures are 18 per cent versus 33 per cent for females. So where metropolitan areas have an average figure of 30 per cent completing tertiary, we have an average figure of 12 per cent completing tertiary education. That is one hell of a gap. I say to the minister that when you go ahead with something it is hard to check out every single thing, but we ask the minister to look again at this. Through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I say to the minister: there has been a huge hole created here that people will fall through. There is a yawning gap now, and I might add that even for 12th grade there is a gap: 35 per cent in very remote areas—and a quarter of my electorate would probably fit into that category—versus an average of 68 per cent in the metropolitan areas. How can you justify this gap?
Also, remember, the government does not have to pay for us because we are not going there—because we cannot afford to. So you do not have to pay anything for us, but the city kid gets something because he has got the opportunity and he takes advantage of the opportunity. We say, ‘You can get it so long as your kids go and work for a year and a half.’ So my children could have got it so long as they went and worked for a year and a half, which one of my five children did in fact do. If you are in the country areas, you have to take a year and a half out of your life, working for no other purpose than to be eligible to go to university; if you are in the city, you do not lose that year and a half out of your life. So we plead with the minister: please, Minister, will you look at the hole that has been created here. There is now a hole that was not there before, so would you please address this issue and try to close the gap. We are closing the gap for Aboriginal people as far as death rates go. If you do not have a secondary or tertiary education, then you have most doors closed to you in life. So doors are closed for us that are not closed for people who live in the city. There is a huge yawning gap here. Minister, as a responsible minister, it sure would be nice if you tuned in here instead of listening to the opposition— (Time expired)
I rise today to make my contribution to this matter of public importance debate. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the hard-working member for Lyne for raising this significant issue for discussion. I note the contribution of all speakers, in particular the Minister for Sport and Minister the Youth and I note her ongoing commitment to education as well as her detailed summary of the changes to the youth allowance.
By way of background, education is a subject that has always been and continues to be very close to my heart. Both my parents are teachers and my sister is a teacher as well. Collectively, they have a combined teaching experience of over 80 years. Much of this teaching experience has been gained in the Territory, where there is a great wealth of knowledge particularly in remote Indigenous education. Education and closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous are two issues that I am absolutely passionate about.
I will just quickly focus on Indigenous education, because Indigenous kids make up the greater proportion of school kids in regional Territory areas. In 2006 the gap in years 3, 5 and 7 reading, writing and numeracy national benchmark testing results of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students was somewhere between 13 and 32 per cent. Our government has acknowledged that more needs to be done to accelerate the pace of change if we are to achieve the challenging targets of halving the gaps in literacy and numeracy achievement, halving the gaps in attaining year 12 or equivalent and halving the gaps in employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians. The government is working with government and non-government education and training providers to achieve these targets. We are establishing national collaborative arrangements that will assist us to work collectively towards these targets. However, the Commonwealth must maintain an ability to provide national leadership and perspectives to close the gaps.
That is why we on this side of the House are proud to support the Building the Education Revolution initiatives. Over 6,000 families in Darwin and Palmerston received a back-to-school bonus of $950 to help with the costs of kids returning to school. Over 2,000 students and people looking for work in Solomon received the training and learning bonus of $950 to support their study costs. Every one of our hard-working 41 primary schools are receiving capital funding provided for essential new buildings and upgrades worth over $30 million. We are continuing our election commitments such as providing funding for an additional 200 teachers in the Northern Territory. Together, we also aim to see every Indigenous four-year-old in remote communities have the opportunity to access an early learning program. Our government is reducing the red tape to improve flexibility for education providers to focus on education outcomes, particularly for Indigenous Australians in regional and remote areas.
Our government acknowledges the difficulties faced by rural and regional families because of the extra costs with moving away from home to study or to train. Key elements of the government’s response to the Bradley review of higher education will ensure that student income support payments are better targeted to those students who need them most, including regional and rural students.
During the election campaign Labor made it clear that Australia needs nothing less than an education revolution. So what is this? What is an education revolution? It is a substantial and sustained increase in the quantity of our investment and the quality of education for all Australian youth. This is required at every level of education, from early childhood education through to the education of mature age students. Education is the platform for our economic future. Our prosperity rests on what we commit to education now. One thing I have learned from Mum and Dad is this: education is not something that you just go through the motions with.