University science funding drop is deplorable

Australia has always been colloquially known as ‘the lucky country’, but we also need to become a smart country—the smart country. To achieve this, we need to invest in the education of our young people, and once they are educated we need to keep them here to contribute to the Australian knowledge base and the Australian economy, and through research.

We also desperately need educated, skilled people in regional areas like my electorate of Forrest, in the south-west of Western Australia, in the same way that we need lifetime learning opportunities for those people.

We need to nurture our best and brightest but we need to nurture and support all of our students. As Thomas Edison famously said of genius and the development of new advances in science, ‘What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.’ Not all of our advances or inventions will come from someone who is identified as a genius.

Many will come, and we see this, from a sound scientific education, from good old-fashioned hard work and from a genuine interest and great instincts. These will come from a great range of people with a diversity of talents, all of whom we need to value.

Australia has a shortfall in science education, which inevitably results in a shortage of scientists. We know about the shortages in biology, physics and chemistry. As we know, science in its purest form is not necessarily a popular choice and something that is quite notable in Australia.

Our academic and scientific success provides a major contribution to the welfare of Australians, especially for our future generations—something that is not always recognised. Whilst some have been hailed by the wider community—we hear them recognised—most are not. That is the problem. Part of the problem is the profile.

There are scientific rock stars, like Barry Marshall, but there are thousands of others and we meet them busily working away, completely unheralded and unnoticed, just getting on with the job.

Most Australians could name quite a few footballers and they could name quite a few cricketers, but how many scientists could they name? That is something that we need to look at as well. Whether they are current or historical most of us probably do not get past counting on our fingers the first time, although I would make an exception for the member for Tangney, who is in the chamber; I am sure he could list a number of scientists.

But the lack of popular support and recognition for scientific achievement makes it more important that this parliament supports such endeavours.

We saw in 2008 the government introduce the discounted student contributions for those studying mathematics, statistics and science courses. At the time, the government said that this was supposed to make studying such courses much more attractive.

The students we have heard about today, the ones that I am concerned about, will be affected by these changes and are midway through a course. They are the ones who really do bother me.

They have taken up this course believing that probably more than half of the cost was going to be contributed by the government. They have made a decision based on that information, and the government is changing the rules part way through. I imagine that those students come from a diversity of backgrounds, and this will have an impact on them.

This is the problem with the decision that the government has taken. They are midway through their course; can they finish the course? Can they not? What does this do to their plans and ambitions?

In spite of this we do know that there have been some increases in student numbers as a result of this, but there is a diversity of evidence and information about the success of this program.

We know now that the minister and government have said that, in spite of them supporting it initially, this policy has not worked; and through the very introduction of this bill the government is saying that this is not working and is their latest failure. I ask: why is that?

Or is it that the problem of a lack of science students still exists? It does. I wonder whether it is just a direct budget cut, and that is something that does bother me given that these students are part way through their courses.

There may be mixed evidence on the success of this measure, but in many instances cost is an issue for students and it is an issue in the decisions they make both in their education and in their life.

We cannot afford to discourage our students by changing the rules part way through. How do they know when they take up a course that this is the support they are going to receive all the way through?

And if they are on a tight budget, which so many are, this does have an impact on the decisions they make and on the length and type of course that they study.

I know, being in a rural and regional area, that for students who come from that background—and I would be interested to know how many students who took up these courses on the back of this assistance by government actually are from a rural or regional area—cost is a far greater issue than it is for a student who comes from a metropolitan area.

I know because these students talk to me, as do their families, on a regular basis about how costs for regional or rural student and their families are an absolute barrier. And the evidence supports this. So I will be very interested to see how many rural and regional students are part of the cohort that is affected by this decision.

We do know that these students not only face the cost of textbooks and courses—the same as those shared by urban students—but they also face massive relocation, living away from home and accommodation costs.

Those costs are at least $15,000 to $20,000 a year; more than those faced by a student living at home in and around an urban area close to a university. And it does keep regional students out of tertiary education—that is the way it is.

So this type of decision, made midstream, will have an impact on those types of students.

We do know, though, that their parents help them, and we know that often there are two and three jobs taken by parents to support their students when they are studying away.

So if we do have students from rural and regional areas affected by this it is going to have a major impact not just on that student but also on their families, and perhaps the intentions of any other siblings, because increased cost to one student may put education for another one in the family out of the question.

I know that because that is exactly what happened during the changes to youth allowance.

I had parents coming to me and saying, ‘Now, because we don’t have access to youth allowance, I actually have to choose which one of my children can go to university.’

I hope that this decision midstream by this government does not do the same thing. I would ask the government and those responsible for making this decision to think of those things. Perhaps to some people $3,000 or $4,000 does not seem like a lot of money.

But let me tell you: in relation to your education in rural and regional Australia it is a lot of money. And it can be the difference in whether you go to university and study your selected course or you do not.

We have seen this over and over. I had family after family and student after student saying exactly that to me: ‘The changes to youth allowance made a massive difference.’

And I will tell you what made another difference: when I walked into the classrooms and the schools the students said to me, ‘We have actually decided, because of the extra costs, to take a different vocational education course instead of going on to tertiary education.’

So cost does matter, and it does matter most specifically in rural and regional areas because they face additional costs to achieve an education.

As I said, the sum of $3,000 or $4,000 may not seem like a lot of money, but it certainly is to students in rural and regional areas.

We know with the changes to youth allowance that the government, in another backflip, reversed this decision in part; however, they have applied a means test. So students in the outer regional areas either have to meet the means test or have two years away from their education.

So as opposed to having a one-year gap they now would have to have a second year. It is something that I find really extraordinary, because ‘independence’ is defined in the Oxford dictionary as ‘not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence’.

The reason that the students are classified as independent is that they are not dependent, including on their parents for income; they are physically independent of their parents.

But, conversely, the government has then applied a parental means test, so the government by default is saying, ‘Yes, you are dependent on your parents, because we’re taking their income into account.’ Either you are independent or you are not, but not with this government.

I have seen so many students and families, and so many other siblings in families, affected by the issues surrounding cost.

I would say to this government: I know that not many of your members represent rural and regional areas, but there are certainly quite a number on this side of the House, and we understand very directly the impact that cost has on decisions people, including young people and families, make in relation to their education.

We know that the Bradley report said that regional students remain seriously under-represented in participation rates in higher education, and that has worsened in the last five years.

We know that regional students are already disadvantaged, and I would say to the government: you have made this worse.

Without knowing exactly who these students are, I would hope that there is not one student from that background who is going to be affected by these cuts, because it will not just affect them; it will affect their family and it could well affect other siblings in that family.

We know that there remains a shortage of students studying science in Australia, and I know that, as the shadow minister said, the government cut the PrimaryConnections program.

I will never forget that I was at a dinner that night with a range of primary principals. How horrified were they? A program that was just starting to find its legs and deliver benefits was just cut.

It was just appalling. I want to touch briefly as well on some of the issues surrounding agricultural sciences; science covers a broad range. We have a real shortage of those studying agricultural sciences.

There were 69 submissions to the recent Senate inquiry, and a number of issues came out of that.

As I said, there is a reduction in the number. There are only around 700 university graduates a year in agriculture and related fields. The skill shortage is not just confined to university graduates.

I know from the report that the committee itself received evidence indicating that in occupations from farmlands right through to agronomists there are pervasive shortages. We have seen that even with the closure of Muresk in Western Australia.

There are great opportunities in this sector. I know from talking the other morning to a great young man by the name of Lachlan at the primary industry and science breakfast that he sees a great opportunity in the future in the ag sciences. Lachlan Hunter was from Bruce Rock, and he was one of the inaugural Primary Industry Centre for Science Education ambassadors.

What a great young man. He sees a great opportunity, and he wants to go on and study science. These are the sorts of initiatives that we need to encourage, as well as the pure education of students in science and maths.

But I would once again go back to the fact that, by changing this program midstream, the government has affected young people and the decisions they have made.

It is something that, as I said, really bothers me for those students who may be from a rural and regional background. It does concern me, having witnessed my community, my students and my families—the people who used to grab me in a supermarket to say, ‘What do I do now? I have a second job.

I’m assisting my child to go through university. I can’t do any more, but we can’t afford to send them.’ I would hope that there is not one student who, as a result of this decision, will have to change their decision about the course that they have already started. On that basis I make my comments.