July 27, 2015
Rural and regional families want the best for their children. They are no different to their city cousins in that way. But government policies, state and federal, often lead to unexpected or inequitable outcomes. Grade 7 students in Western Australia now commencing high school provide a good example of this. Kids destined for boarding school are now leaving home 12 months earlier. As a consequence, the family incurs the costs of boarding school 12 months earlier, meaning an extra year of fees for the family budget.
I know boarding school education is not mandatory but often it is the only option for regional families. Many of my constituent families are in this position in the seat of Durack, which covers some 1.6 million square kilometres. They are sparsely located. I sincerely hope that this change with grade 7 students commencing high school a year earlier will bring about better educational outcomes, because in the meantime regional families will feel a pull not only on the purse strings but also on the heartstrings.
I will turn now to tertiary education. I refer to the Review of regional loadings: final report, published by the Commonwealth, which found, unsurprisingly, that regional higher education differs from metropolitan areas in the following noteworthy ways:
higher education participation rates are lower in regional areas
regional secondary-school completers are much less likely to plan to undertake higher education
potential students face greater disincentives to study because of costs and distance to campuses
higher deferral rates
students are more likely to be from a low socio-economic status background
students are predominantly from regional areas
students are more likely to be female, older and care for dependents (and thus less able to move to study)
Higher education participation rates amongst 15- to 24-year-olds in Western Australia are significantly lower in regional areas—some 5.3 per cent—compared to Perth and Peel at 11.8 per cent.
So we can see that this is a big issue in Durack. It is what I think of as the big divide—and it is shameful. In Western Australia we do not have regional universities, unlike the Northern Territory and Queensland, although there are very good TAFEs in my electorate of Durack. The Kimberley Training Institute, which has a campus in Broome and other parts of the electorate, is noteworthy. The popular Geraldton University Centre is effectively a cooperative of universities providing courses in the Mid West. But, as an aside, disappointingly, there are no West Australian universities providing education services at that particular university. However, I do acknowledge that Curtin University and the University of Western Australia have both had an involvement in the past, and UWA still contributes at a governance level. The University of Notre Dame has a campus in Broome, which is in the process of scaling back its degree offerings and instead providing more vocational education and training courses. I have not given up hope that one day we will see, at the very least, an offering of maybe first-year courses in the Pilbara, which is crying out for this in this part of Durack. I will continue to prosecute the case, with the help of those passionate educators in Port Hedland, including businesswoman Jan Ford of Port Hedland.
One of the consequences of the proposed federal education reforms will see universities with more money that they will be able to offer as scholarships to kids in the bush. Of course, that is to be welcomed. It is anticipated that these scholarships will extend to cover the cost of accommodation and education. But, for those regional students who miss out on a scholarship, the decision to go to university is often based on the health of the family finances. For young people in the city, this is less often a consideration, especially if they continue to live in the family home. For those who qualify—and I acknowledge that it is very complex—youth allowance provides some financial relief while studying. There are other amounts available for, say, travel costs to the city, but these are only small offerings and really pale into insignificance with respect to the cost of getting an education.
I am of the view that the federal government must ensure that all young people in Australia, especially those from the bush, have access to some financial assistance that will help with the cost of their education. I believe that that is only just. As part of a group of regional MPs, I have been lobbying the Minister for Education and the Minister for Social Services to bring about such a change. The group met this week with the ministers to continue to put the case. I am pleased that they have listened and will take action to investigate this inequitable state of affairs.
I am determined that rural and regional young people, particularly those in Durack, enjoy the same educational opportunities as urban students—nothing more and nothing less. In a modern country like Australia, I do not think that that is asking for too much.