Jason Clare MP, Member for Blaxland

I thank the member for Lyne for bringing forward this matter of public importance for debate in this House today and, more generally, the issue of education in regional and remote Australia. On that I make the point that the Learn. Earn. Legend! program is underway in parliament this week. It includes 100 Indigenous students that are doing work experience in the offices of different members of parliament. They include two who are in the chamber today sitting in the advisers’ box, Skye Bortoli from Port Stephens, who is 17, and Zari Hardie from Shepparton, who is 15. These two people are great young leaders who are learning about how the process works here in parliament but also they are two young people who come from regional Australia, two of the people like those mentioned by the member for Lyne, who understands the importance of education in building opportunities for young people, those from regional Australia not just those from the cities.

I have spent a bit of time working with the member for Lyne on this issue and I understand how seriously he takes this issue. He understands the direct link between education and employment opportunity. School retention rates on the mid-North Coast, the area that the member for Lyne represents, are lower than the national average. Unemployment is higher. I had a look at the data for the mid-North Coast this afternoon. For Bellingen the retention rate is about 50 per cent, for Gloucester it is 49 per cent, for Greater Taree, 55 per cent, for the Hastings area, 65 per cent, for Kempsey, 51 per cent, and for Nambucca, 47 per cent. The average across the mid-North Coast is 57.6 per cent. The national average is 77.5 per cent. Unemployment in the region that the honourable member represents is higher than the national average. Unemployment across the country is 5.2 per cent. On the North Coast it is now 6.9 per cent. This is the same story that I find working in all 20 employment priority areas across the country. Over the last 12 months I have been on the road with Bill Kelty and Lindsay Fox working in these areas, areas that have been hardest hit by the global recession. We have gone as far north as Cairns and as far south as Burnie. We have been to the northern suburbs of Adelaide and the south-western suburbs of Perth.

All these areas are very different and all have their own different challenges, but they have one thing in common: in every one of them, high school completion rates are lower than the national average and unemployment is higher. That is the common thread, and that is why what we do in education is so important. It is the key to boosting employment in electorates like that of the member for Lyne and in electorates like mine.

This is very important because the workforce is changing. In the future there will be more high-skilled jobs and fewer low-skilled and unskilled jobs. I was in Washington in January, and I spoke to some think tanks and employer groups there. They told me that three out of four jobs created in the next decade will require postsecondary skills. In other words, 75 per cent of new jobs created in the US over the next decade will require completion of high school and an extra qualification after that. Monash University has done the same research here in Australia, and it reached the same conclusion.

If most of the jobs of the future are going to require postsecondary qualifications, then we have to boost both retention rates in schools and the number of people who go on to get qualifications at TAFE or university. That is why the government has set the target of 90 per cent of students completing high school by 2015. We have also set the targets of halving the number of adults without a certificate III qualification or higher in the next 10 years and of increasing the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a university degree to 40 per cent in the next 15 years. The government is already making progress. This year there are 44,495 more places at university than there were this time last year. That means that more young people from both the city and the regions are going to find it easier to get a place in university. Important in this debate is the point that the Deputy Prime Minister made in question time—that is, the biggest increase in those reaching university in the last 12 months has been among people from low SES backgrounds, and that is a good thing.

It is not enough just to increase retention rates nationally or increase the level of qualifications nationally. We have to do it in areas of greatest disadvantage, and many of those are in regional Australia. The Bradley review of higher education identified regional and remote students as one of three groups that remain significantly underrepresented in higher education. The others were students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous students, and there are plenty of students from all three of these categories in the member for Lyne’s electorate. The member for Lyne spoke about the report recently prepared by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, entitled Regional participation: the role of socioeconomic status and access. This report says that university participation among 19- to 21-year-olds from regional areas increased from 18 per cent in 1996 to 21 per cent in 2006. Interestingly, though, university participation amongst metropolitan students increased at a faster rate, from 28 per cent to 35 per cent. That confirms the findings of the Bradley review and also the point well made by the honourable member for Lyne in his contribution that regional students are falling behind their metropolitan counterparts. The Deputy Prime Minister and the government recognise this. The Deputy Prime Minister wrote about it in the Australian last week. She said:

If we are serious about building our national economy, strengthening regional communities and improving the lives of Australians, then we have to be serious about lifting the capacity and performance of Australia’s universities, especially those beyond our capital cities.

That is why we have created more than 150,000 new annual student start-up scholarships this year worth $2,128 or $1,300 in 2010 and why we are increasing the parental income test, which will benefit over 100,000 students. On top of this, we have created a new relocation scholarship worth $4,000 in the first year and $1,000 for each subsequent year in which a student is studying. Already there are around 18,000 of these scholarships, compared with 3,571 Commonwealth accommodation cost scholarships when this government came to power. I particularly thank the member for Lyne for supporting these reforms on student income support when they came before the parliament.

We are providing universities with $433 million over four years to enrol, engage and support students from low socioeconomic backgrounds through partnership funding focused on outreach. We are also providing a loading which will be worth $1,500 by 2012. I am sure the member for Lyne would agree this is a very important initiative, one that is important not just for students in regional parts of Australia but also for students in the sort of electorate that I represent where, as in the electorate of the member for Lyne, fewer students go on to finish high school and fewer students go on to university. I know that the member for Watson, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry at the table, would understand that as well, because there are similar statistics for the area that he represents.

The loadings involved in the reforms we are undertaking represent 15 times the current equity program. Regional and outer metropolitan universities in particular will benefit from these new loadings, given their local student populations. The new loadings include $325 million to enable universities to provide intensive support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and $108 million for a new partnerships program that will enable universities to work towards raising the aspirations of students of low socioeconomic status. The sector has already responded by increasing its effort to bring in more disadvantaged students. As I mentioned earlier, the figures already indicate that the greatest growth this calendar year in the number of students at university has been amongst low SES students, and that is good news. I also note that the government has begun a review of the system that provides additional financial support to regional universities. This review will design a more transparent and logical system and is due to report at the end of the year.

I encourage the House to compare this with the record of the Howard government. When the Howard government was in office, the number of students from regional Australia going to university actually fell. As we heard in question time today, the commitment that was made by the National Party at their conference on the weekend is not all that it appears to be. On the weekend, a commitment was made of a $1 billion regional education fund, but we heard that Senator Williams, when questioned about it on radio, said that it would not be $1 billion after all; it would only be the interest earned on that $1 billion. Significantly, that amount would be around $50 million.

We learned that what you get on one hand will be taken away on the other because, whilst you might get the interest on this fund, what members in this House should know is that their communities will lose the funding that they would otherwise have got—from computers in schools, from trade training centres or from the investment in teacher quality that this government has committed to—but that the opposition has said it will take away. The shadow finance minister, who is at the table now, knows this very well because he is the author of that decision to take money out of schools if the opposition were to be elected. That means that regional schools would no longer receive computers in schools and would no longer receive funding for trade training centres, and there would no longer be funding for teacher quality. So regional communities need to be aware, and the member for Lyne needs to be aware—all members of the House need to be aware—that were an Abbott government to be elected regional communities would be worse off. The coalition ignored education for more than 11 years and now they are trying to cut funding in areas like computers in schools, trade training centres and teacher quality.

I have spoken about universities. It is not just tackling disadvantage in universities that is the key; we also have to tackle it in our schools. I know that the member for New England will talk about this in some detail. I will use the time remaining to me to talk about the importance of tackling disadvantage in our primary schools. The program called smarter schools that the government has initiated is very important. It will fund extra classroom teachers, so primary school classes can break into smaller groups and practise reading, writing and maths. It will also fund extra assistance for children who fall behind, and extra pay for our best teachers to come and work in places like my electorate and like the electorate of the member for Lyne. In my electorate, that means $62 million for 42 schools. In the member for Lyne’s electorate, it will mean $23 million for 22 schools. This is really good public policy in action. It is not just allocating the money to any electorate irrespective of the disadvantage or the need; it is allocating money to schools on the basis of need. You can see that through the schools falling behind on the MySchool website. They are the schools that get that extra funding and support to break kids into smaller classes and help them to catch up with reading, writing and maths. It is good public policy. Schools in my electorate, and I suspect schools in the member for Lyne’s electorate, have never seen funding like this before from a federal government. It would never have happened under the Liberal Party, and it will never happen under the National Party. They had 12 years to do something and they never did anything. In fact, and the shadow minister knows this, part of this program would be cut if the Leader of the Opposition were to be elected Prime Minister.

I will finish on the point of apprenticeships. It is about universities, it is about schools, and it is also about preparing young people for work. I was in the member’s electorate recently and we were talking to two young people who had recently got apprenticeships as part of the Apprentice Kickstart program. One, Jessica, who is an apprentice chef, and another, Jesse, who is an apprentice mechanic, are two of 227 young trade apprentices who got an apprenticeship over summer on the mid-North Coast through the Apprentice Kickstart program—a great initiative and a good practical example of what government can do to make a difference in a region like the member’s electorate. You just have to look at the data to see what has been achieved there. In the summer of 2008, the number of apprentices put on on the mid-North Coast is 188, the global recession hits and it drops to 144, we take action and we boost it back to 227—more than before the global recession. That is what has happened all across the country. We are now recruiting more apprentices today than we did before the global recession. It is a good example of government taking action in a practical way to really make a difference for regions like the member for Lyne’s and all across the country. It is these things that we are doing in education and training that will help us to build a stronger economy and a fairer country.