Since being elected in 2007 I have waged a long battle to get a fair go for regional students in the education system in this country. That was when Labor made deliberate changes to youth allowance that discriminated against rural and regional students. I commend the member for Durack for this motion.
It was my own motion on 28 October 2010 that called on the then Labor government to reverse their decision to discriminate against regional students in the changes they had made to youth allowance. That motion was the first defeat on the floor of the House for an incumbent government for a long, long time and represented what I think is a low point for Labor in power. I had to meet those students and families who had no choice but to change their dreams, hopes and goals as a result of Labor’s discrimination. Labor had, as they are prone to do, disadvantaged regional Australian families and students to divert funds into outer metropolitan seats—seats they thought were Labor strongholds and in which they were desperate to find an electoral advantage. As a direct result, over and over I was approached by families, young people and their parents—families who just could not afford to send their children to tertiary education and young people who had their education dreams dashed in that one effort by Labor.
I heard about the parents—and this really hurt me—who had to decide which one of their children they could afford to send to university. The parents said, ‘Well, because I don’t have access to youth allowance’—that is what Labor did, took away their access—’I actually have to choose which one of my children can go to university.’
We know that Australia’s geography and demography pose significant challenges for regional families, especially as their young people move beyond the education experience offered by very good country schools to secondary or tertiary education in larger cities. Many regional students have absolutely no choice but to relocate. It is not that they choose to relocate; in many senses they have no choice if they want to pursue their particular course. They and their families face significantly increased costs of living away from home.
Students from regional areas are less likely to finish year 12 than their metropolitan counterparts and are significantly underrepresented in tertiary education. A far greater percentage of metropolitan students go on to tertiary education compared to our students from regional areas—as the member for Durack knows well. Evidence has shown that the financial barrier of the cost of relocation often prevents more regional students from undertaking tertiary studies. It also affects their aspirations. If they believe their families cannot afford to send them, these young people just do not aspire. They make a conscious decision not to aspire to higher education because they know their family cannot afford it and they know they are not going to put their family under that level of pressure.
Of course, 14.9 per cent of students in Western Australia whose homes are outside the capital city defer their studies. Often that is simply so that they can earn some money to be able to study at university. I have spoken on and represented this issue frequently in this place. It is one of the core issues for us as rural and regional members of parliament. We have taken a very direct and active role in this issue. There are few issues that impact on students in our electorates more than this does, and we continue to work on this. Yes, on 1 January we made changes to the assets test for youth allowance, but this does not apply to non-independent young people —and ‘non-independent’ is really an odd way of saying ‘dependent’. Dependent youth allowance recipients will no longer be assets tested. Removing the family assets test for dependent youth allowance will allow 4,100 additional dependent youth allowance claimants to qualify for the first time, accessing average annual payments of more than $7,000 a year. The change means that farming families will not have farm assets counted towards the means test for their dependent children claiming youth allowance. It is an important reform and a step in the right direction, but it is for non-independent youth allowance. The changes also impact on the income test component of youth allowance for a section of the community. I will continue in my battle to provide a more level playing field for rural and regional students and their families, as will the member for Durack and my colleagues.