Pic source: Ag Workforce
Tonight I briefly want to spend some time updating the Senate on a round of consultation that the government is undertaking on behalf of the education backbench.
Over 30 rural and regional government senators and members from right around the country have been very, very concerned for a long time about access to higher education by country students. They recognise that there are issues of achievement which go to state governments and local school districts. There are issues around aspiration—about whether a young person aspires to even attend a higher education institution—and they go to questions of family background, socioeconomic status and the broader community that a young person grows up in as in what are the usual expectations for that young person post schooling.
Obviously, for rural and regional students in particular there is also the issue of access. That means access to accommodation and the capacity to overcome the very significant financial barriers that those young people and, indeed, their families have to overcome in order to access higher education and exercise their choice on where they choose to pursue their career options.
Over the break I travelled around a variety of regional communities meeting with local members and their local community. We opened the batting in Bendigo, which was fantastic. We then went into the seat of Indi and held a forum in Wangaratta which was very well attended by students, by education professionals, by parents and —what I found very interesting—by grandparents who were turning up to have a conversation about how their
young people were going to be assisted to access higher education. I would briefly like to thank both Minister Morrison and Minister Pyne for providing secretarial support for this round of consultations and indeed for sending departmental officials out into the regions to hear firsthand the stories behind the data. I think the officials found that incredibly empowering and will find it useful as they go on to produce the final report which will be presented to minister, who will come up with some policy solutions.
In Wangaratta we heard that parents are delaying retirement and delaying paying into their superannuation, also bringing down mortgage repayments in order to find the extra cash to send their students primarily to Melbourne to access higher education. We then went to Shepparton in the seat of Murray with Dr Sharman Stone, another very passionate advocate for access to higher education for regional students. The main topic discussed there was
that the gap year is such a misnomer, that it is actually a gap of two years. Because of the workforce participation criteria that is structured around accessing independent youth allowance, young people from rural and regional areas have to work over 30 hours per week over an 18-month period, which essentially means they have to find the additional cash early and head off after they have deferred for a year or, indeed, take two years off, which
most universities do not even allow them to do. So to call it a gap year for country kids is a classic case of using imaginary numbers, where one does not equal two.
We then headed to Narrabri with the fabulous Mark Coulton, who has been advocating very strongly on this issue not only in his local community but nationally and here in this place over a long period. We went to the Narrabri Bowling Club. A significant number of locals had travelled there from a wide space. Again the issues went to financial barriers but an interesting aspect which came out in Narrabri was drought and consistency of cash flow.
The rent has to be paid every month when you are living away from home but when home is in drought you are not getting cash flow on a regular basis. Indeed, when a whole region or a community is in drought, that issue is not just for farming families; it is for small business families in the large towns and business centres. That was an interesting and new idea presented to the committee.
Off to Wagga Wagga with the passionate and unstoppable Michael McCormack. We went out to Charles Sturt University, which prides itself on providing access locally to regional students and also conducts a lot of research which is important for the economic development of regional Australia. I also heard about local initiatives and sponsorship of students. The local community are concerned about how they are going to assist their young people to access higher education so that the community will have access to skills and the professionals they
need, whether they be doctors, nurses or engineers, to ensure the economic growth of their communities. They had a range of community scholarships to overcome some of those financial barriers, which I thought was quite interesting.
Then I headed over west last week to Nola Marino country down in Bunbury. What a beautiful part of the world it is. Nola is only about yea high, but she fights hard for her community and fights very hard for young people's access to higher education. In Albany with Rick Wilson we had over 60 locals rock up, some having travelled over 300 kilometres to simply be there, to have input into the process. There I heard consistently something which I had not heard elsewhere—the importance of telecommunications and Mr Turnbull getting very serious
about rolling out the NBN to regional communities so that they can access higher education through online technologies, a very important thing for that community. Then off to Moora with Melissa Price in the seat of Durack where predominantly the day centred on discussion
of the quality of attainment and the provision of quality high school education in regional areas and what impact that was having. Basically, that community said with one voice that, as a bunch of parents, if they want their children to go to higher education, if the children aspired to go on to tertiary education, they had to be sent off to Perth at a very young age.
So there are issues for state govenments, there are issues for local communities and parents and there are definitely issues for us as a government. Over coming weeks we will be heading to Coffs Harbour, to Port Augusta, to Barnaby Joyce country, down to Eric Hutchinson in Tasmania and to Rockhampton, right across the country, to assess what communities feel and what they see as local solutions.
We have been hearing a lot of good positive ideas and a lot of concerning issues. We heard from one parent about their son having to live in the car because payments were rejected by Centrelink, about taking days off to stand in the queue to resubmit their paperwork only to be told that they need to bring another set the next day. 'Please do something. Our children can't eat dirt when they go away to the city.'
One of the things we do not talk about is the emotional cost, which we heard about time and time again. I remember a mother in Shepparton having to counsel her child through a very stressful period in third semester prior to exams. Parents are that far away that they cannot just get in the car to go and provide physical support for the young people who are away from their families, from their friends and from all that they see as normal. To be supportive in times of great stress is a significant issue.
One of the things we heard consistently from students is that they are aware of the additional costs incurred by their desire to get a tertiary education and the impact that has on family budgets. They are making very real decisions not to pursue higher education, not to choose to live away. They are choosing other options, other avenues which are less than what they want and in many cases less than their potential and their capacity.
Educating regional students not only gives the world access to some highly intelligent and resilient human beings in the board rooms of the world but also it gives us a supply of professionals who are more likely to return to regional areas in order to continue our economic development.
When I return, I look forward to updating the Senate on the outcome of our further consultations. I would really like to commend not only the ministers but indeed my Coalition colleagues for their passion and support on this issue. I look forward to delivering a result on behalf of the many parents, education professionals and students I have been hearing from for over the last six weeks.