Regional students still need a fairer go

As the Deputy Speaker would know I have waged a long battle, as he has, for a fair and better go for regional students in the tertiary education system in this country. It was my motion on 28 October 2010 which called on the then Labor government to reverse its decision to discriminate against regional students in the changes that they made to youth allowance. This motion was the first defeat on the floor of the House for an incumbent government for a long, long time, and in my view represented a low point for Labor in power at that time.

I thought it was a low point as well because of the importance of that particular issue and the importance of youth allowance to young people who live in rural, regional and remote areas. Labor had, as we saw repeatedly, disadvantaged regional Australian families and students for the express purpose, in this case, of diverting funds into outer metropolitan seats.

For those of us who live in regional areas and work with people in those areas, this had an immediate and profound effect. I know that members like me had family after family and young person after young person coming to see them, and it was the most dreadful time.

I was in a supermarket and had a mum come up to me in desperation because she wanted to talk to me about the fact that she had to choose which one of her children she could afford to send to university in Perth. They lived two or three hours away and they had no choice. Her children did not have the choice to be educated locally; they had to move to the city.

Of course, this meant that families had to choose. I had one particular family who had five children who needed to go to university, and the family could not afford to send them. I had one mum who said to me, ‘Both my husband and I have gone and got second jobs to try to give our children the opportunity to go to university.’ That came about through the changes that the Labor government made at that time.

There was a two-year campaign in 2010 and 2011 before the previous Labor government made some changes. There were profound efforts, and there was an inquiry into this. The inquiry came into my electorate, and many of the families who had worked with me for so long on this came along and gave evidence to that inquiry. They were very honest to the inquiry, and for practical purposes they could demonstrate exactly what this had done.

When I visited schools, what disturbed me most was that these great young people from my part of the world had literally changed their options to the subjects they were taking because they knew their families could not afford to send them to university, so they had made conscious decisions about their futures because they would never be able to afford that option.

That, as you would understand, Mr Deputy Speaker, was something I found very hard to deal with: that these great young people were unable to pursue their ambitions and their dreams. They were not able to go to university. The measure of support that youth allowance gave them was the difference between being able to go to university and not being able to go to university. Of course, we rely on those young people to come back into our communities and to be our leaders of the future or really important parts of our community.

So this was something that many of us fought very hard for at the time. I wondered then why, as part of making the change, the previous Labor government then added a parental means test to the students who were classified as independent, even though they were independent of their families.

We know that many students have to take a year off to earn enough to be considered independent, and that applies particularly to regional students. They have no choice but to move away, and they have so many costs when they move, including accommodation and the food that they need. They cannot even go home to their families.

They have no choice but to live away. Not only does this often create some social and emotional challenges for them; it creates a huge financial burden on each of those families. They are costs that those who live in a metropolitan area would not have to face, and they would have the support of their families around them in often trying circumstances when they are going to university and studying.

The then education minister, Julia Gillard, changed the rules and used the maps where the ABS defined the Australian Standard Geographical Classification remoteness areas to pick the winners and losers. That divided the regional students again: those in outer regional and remote areas, who could access youth allowance after taking a single gap year; and the losers, technically in the so-called inner regional zones, who had to take two years off.

It certainly did what it was intended to do, which was to reduce the number of regional students who were able to achieve independent status. It drove regional students out of the education process. This was a two-year battle.

The Labor government took independent status away from inner and outer regional students unless they took the two years off. Inner and outer regional students could then only qualify under the new rules for independents and earn their funds in blocks of 30 hours over 18 months. So there have been more and more challenges for these young people and their families to meet.

For outer regional students 2013 was the first time that the means test applied. This was really an unforgivable decision by the then Labor government. There is no doubt that this was seen as discriminatory. In my area families came, and still come, to tell me that they believe that this is a form of discrimination against their children and their children’s opportunities.

We know that young people in rural and regional areas are desperate for the opportunity to pursue their education. Often the only option they have for the courses they seek is a city based university. None of us underestimates the disadvantage they face. We are already seeing a reduced number of students from rural and regional areas go to university.

This is something that has plagued me and still does. It is certainly something that plagues rural and regional students and their families. The whole family feels this.

When I look now at it, I see that these same families are being hit again by the debt and deficit we have been left. Our gross debt is over $400 billion and our interest payments are over $10 billion and I think, in relation to regional families and students, that is a lot of education opportunities for students in rural and regional areas.

That is something that the previous Labor government clearly took lightly, but it is not something that regional families take lightly. One of the most important issues is opportunity for their students and their young people. They are constantly talking to me. They know I took a very strong position on this and that I would have sought a review on this whole process.

I intend to keep fighting for rural and regional students and their families. For these young people their time at university makes a difference for their whole life. None of us here underestimate the importance of education, and certainly not for those in rural and regional areas. We want our young people to come back to us. We want them to go away, get an education and qualify themselves.

These are the young people who come back to us. I want to bring them back. I want to see them come back as doctors, specialists, engineers, teachers, whatever. They will make fantastic members of our community, but they need the education to start with. A key part of that is the additional cost involved for a rural and regional student in pursuing their education away from their home.

That is why the issue of youth allowance is so critical to so many students and their families. Like my colleagues, I will continue to work on this issue.