EDUCATION: by Caroline GeogheganNews Weekly
Seeking a better deal for rural and regional students
, September 19, 2009
Recently announced changes to the Commonwealth youth allowance were threatening to disadvantage many university students from rural and regional Australia. Student representative Caroline Geoghegan describes the upshot of talks she and her associates had in Canberra with the Commonwealth Government.On August 24, a small contingent of students from rural and regional areas across Australia met the Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Julia Gillard, to discuss the proposed changes to youth allowance which were announced in May as part of the federal Budget.
There are three current criteria for eligibility for the independent youth allowance: a) work 15 hours a week for two years, b) earn $19, 532 within 18 months, or c) work for 30 hours a week for 18 months within a period of two years.
Under the new system, due to commence in January 2010, the first two criteria are to be abolished leaving students who are midway through their gap year stranded and country students once again left behind in the education system.
Once the May Budget changes were announced, students across the country began to protest as more than 30,000 students who were then in the middle of their gap year suddenly had their plans severely disrupted. Also, students who were still in high school suddenly had to start looking for alternative ways to get to university.
Initially, my fellow students and I feared that we had little opportunity to do anything about this issue. This Rudd Labor Government, having been elected in November 2007, had a clear mandate to choose the path Australia would take. Ironically, most of the young people who were being adversely affected had not been of voting age at that election.
However, we soon found ways of making our voices heard. In Ballarat, Victoria, there was a strong response from young students, some of them studying and others in their gap year trying to earn the $19,532 a year.
Together we looked at various strategies - public protests, meeting our local federal member of parliament, and writing submissions to a Senate inquiry - by which we could influence the Government.
After a few months of campaigning we received a response. The federal member for Ballarat Ms Catherine King was asked to bring two students to Canberra to raise our concerns with the Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Julia Gillard.Adversely affected
We were flown to Canberra where we met up with a dozen other young students who were also going to be adversely affected by the government changes.
During the meeting, we expressed our three main concerns, which were:
1) The Commonwealth Government's decision was retrospective as its changes to the youth allowance would be effective six months before students currently on their gap year would be able to complete their required 18 months.
2) The new eligibility criteria of working for 30 hours a week for 18 months was a particularly difficult hurdle for young people to overcome, particularly during the current economic downturn and particularly in rural and regional Australia where jobs are often scarce. The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently reported that, in the last three months, "workers aged 15-24 accounted for all of the net loss of 122,000 jobs", and that unemployment for teenage males has doubled in a year from 9.1% to 18.5%.
3) Working for 18 months means that students either have to take two years off before attending university, or for the first four months of university they would have to study full-time as well as working eight hours short of a full-time job.
Ms Gillard listened to everyone's concerns, and we were able to discuss possible changes and suggest what we thought would be a fairer way of distributing the money allocated for youth allowance.
Two days later, the Government announced that it would delay until July 2010 the start date for the changes.
This means that for those students currently in the middle of their gap year who needed to move away from home to access their higher education course would be eligible under the current system.
We were gratified that, with the help of many young people across Australia, we had been able to bring about some change. We were encouraged that we had been given a hearing.
For some days after the announcement I received a flood of messages from students around Victoria who were grateful and relieved about this amendment.
In Ballarat a large majority of current high school students have been fighting alongside us for a fairer system for regional and rural students. Now what will happen to those students when it is their turn to choose their further education path?
The Federal Government still has much to do to address their concerns and give them greater access to higher education.
As always, there is room for improvement, and we hope that the Government continues to look at ways to make higher education more accessible to country students.