Will access to ‘gap year’ Youth Allowance improve regional students participation in higher education?

In the recent Senate debate on Senator Nash's private member’s bill to extend the criteria for Independent Youth Allowance to Inner Regional students the issue of why so few regional students go on to tertiary education was raised and an argument made that the ability to take a gap year and qualify for Youth Allowance would improve regional students’ access to and participation in higher education.

However past experience would suggest that if the bill–which has passed the Senate–is debated and passed in the House of Representatives it may do little to improve the regional participation rate in higher education. Despite gap year provisions for Youth Allowance eligibility being in place for over ten years the regional participation rate in higher education has been static since 1990. At that time the higher education equity policy, A Fair Chance for All, identified regional and remote students as one of six equity groups. Annual equity reporting since 1990 shows the regional participation rate (regional students as a percentage of all domestic students) has rarely moved from about 18 per cent compared to a regional population proportion of 25.4 per cent. (See Bradley review of Australian Higher Education p. 28) Alternative analysis by DEEWR restricted to students aged 19-21 years (rather than all domestic students) showed regional participation rates increased between 1996 and 2006 from 18 per cent to 21 per cent but metropolitan participation increased more substantially resulting in the gap between regional and metropolitan participation rates widening from 10 to 14 percentage points. Furthermore this underrepresentation of regional students compared to the population increases with remoteness.

If access to Youth Allowance on the workforce participation (gap year) criteria is to improve the participation rate of regional students we might expect it to have increased following the Howard Government’s introduction of Youth Allowance in July 1998 which allowed Independent status for recipients who had supported themselves through employment for a significant period of time since leaving school. Independent status is more attractive because Independent students do not have their parents’ income or assets taken into account when their application is assessed and they recieve the full Youth Allowance payment.

The Bradley review (p.52 Figure 14) reported that since 1999 increasing proportions of Youth Allowance recipients are now in the ‘Independent’ category while numbers of students in the ‘Dependent’ category has declined: Centrelink data for 2008 shows 117 623 university students received Youth Allowance, 46 009 (39.1%) were Dependent and 71 614 (60.9%) Independent. 82.2% of independent recipients (or 58 000) qualified for Youth Allowance through the workplace participation criteria. Despite this large uptake of Independent Youth Allowance the regional participation rate remained static on 18 per cent.

How could the $300 million estimated expense of the current proposal be better targeted if the aim is to increase regional participation in higher education? Research analysed by DEEWR suggests that factors influencing the regional participation rate include socioeconomic status, aspirations, upper-secondary education participation and local employment/training opportunities. A number of studies including Jones et al (2002) conclude that secondary schooling is critical: regional students are less likely to progress to upper secondary levels and complete Year 12 and regional students have lower aspirations for post secondary education. DEEWR data shows that underrepresentation is more related to lower likelihood of applying for higher education than the likelihood of receiving and accepting an offer. DEEWR's report on 2009 undergraduate applications, offers and acceptances showed regional applicants made up 20.9 per cent of university applicants below their population share of 26.3 per cent.
DEEWR noted (p.49) that this 'pattern of under-representation in the initial stage of applying to university translates into lower participation at university'.

With this in mind it may therefore be more strategic to target programs that improve school retention rates and overcome cultural factors that influence student aspirations and choices.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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