BY Jennifer Hoar
REGIONAL communities, as well as students and parents, are suffering at the hands of a university system where high costs force country students to choose between staying at home or gaining a higher education, according to federal National party senator Bridget McKenzie.
Possible solutions, raised at recent Regional Higher Education Forums, included student loans, tax relief, and asking universities to do more to support regional students.
Chair of the senate inquiry into the government's proposed reforms to the university sector, Senator McKenzie said she keeps "hearing the same issues" at the forums.
"The prohibitive cost of accommodation for country kids is having a significant impact on their parent's financial status," Senator McKenzie said.
"I've heard of parents borrowing against the house, but it's also affecting young people's decisions about what they will study and where they will study it.
"We look at why we want kids to go onto higher education: yes, it's about choice; yes, it's their right. But it's also returning and giving back and having sustainable regional communities going forward."
Roughly half as many regional students attend university compared to their city counterparts according to the Country Education Foundation, which estimates accommodation can cost a regional student living away from home up to $35,000 a year.
In Dubbo, about 6 per cent of 15 to 24 year olds were studying at university, compared with 12.5 per cent for the rest of NSW, according to an economic profile released by Regional Development Australia (Orana) in 2013.
Senator McKenzie said government needs to "come up with a very sustainable, innovative way to combat these barriers".
"What we're doing is getting the real stories about regional Australia. We've had some really interesting suggested solutions around tax relief, someone suggested loans, someone suggested getting universities to do more in terms of prioritising regional students in their accommodation.
The father of Australia's HECS system, Bruce Chapman, also suggested expanding the scheme to offer cost-of-living loans to country students, but Senator McKenzie is not a fan.
"That just puts off that economic cost. Whether the student pays it back or the parents pay it upfront, you still have to pay it. It's automatically assumed that that's just the cost of doing business for you," she said.
Proposed changes to youth allowance (used by many regional students to "overcome that financial barrier") in the 2015-16 budget, including the removal of family asset and actual means tests, "were a great first step", but still excluded many middle-income families.
"It's not just farmers' kids. It's the teachers' and nurses' and coppers' kids in those towns who are suffering from this issue," Senator McKenzie said.
"Metropolitan students can go home, dinner is on the table, the washing is done. For country students [there's] also the social costs – they've left their friends, their parents are sometimes 600 kilometres away."
The fifteen regional forums will wrap up this month.
"The education and the social services departments will come up with a suite of policy options in November so it's about continuing to raise awareness so that when the time for decisions come, we're all pushing in the same direction," Senator McKenzie said.