The Australian Greens and Labor Senators support the recommendation made in the committee report that the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Extend Family Assistance to ABSTUDY Secondary School Boarding Students Aged 16 and over) Bill 2019 be passed.
However, the Australian Greens and Labor Senators share concerns about the number and range of issues with ABSTUDY identified by submitters during the committee process.
First Nations peoples still face significant barriers to accessing and completing education in Australia, especially for students living in rural and remote areas.
The committee heard evidence from several submitters about the fundamental flaws with the ABSTUDY system that need to be addressed.
Mr Christie-Johnston, Board Member, Remote Indigenous Parents Australia, said at the hearing:
While we support, in principle, the additional ABSTUDY funding proposed, we realise that this additional funding will not in and of itself somehow fix the significant underlying issues confronting Indigenous parents and families in remote and very remote Indigenous communities.
Many submitters highlighted the need to improve education and access to the ABSTUDY scheme.
Mrs Hick, Immediate Past President, Isolated Children's Parents' Association of Australia, spoke about the complicated ABSTUDY application process as a potential barrier for families to access the scheme. Mrs Hick said at the hearing:
We have been hearing that it is very difficult for the families to get through this process… I would assume ABSTUDY could be simplified as well, but it needs to be a process that families can understand and get through, because if students are missing out on getting that additional education, furthering their education, purely because the families don't know what is available or they don't know how to apply or get enough support to apply and the students are missing out.
Mrs Bennett, Co-Chair, Remote Indigenous Parents Australia, spoke about the challenges involved in completing ABSTUDY paperwork. At the hearing, Mrs Bennett said:
With ABSTUDY itself, writing it down is very hard and challenging because you need identification and immunisation—all these questions—and a few kids haven't got birth certificates because their surname was different to what they have now. I have a niece. She's a very wonderful student here at the school. She's 14. She missed out a year towards going to boarding school because of the waiting. She's still here.
Mr Franks, Chief Executive Officer, Boarding Australia Ltd trading as Indigenous Education and Boarding Australia, discussed the misinformation about ABSTUDY in the community and the need to talk to people on the ground about the scheme:
Out in community, there's misinformation about Abstudy: what purpose it serves, how it works, how it functions or how it doesn't function. It exists not only with families in the bush but also with community administration and with schools in the bush, and that just perpetuates itself. So there is a great need for an education campaign—and this isn't departmental fact sheets or references to going to the website; this needs to be out on the ground, in detail—to really help people understand how the system works.
Several submitters also emphasised that ABSTUDY does not adequately cover the significant costs associated with education and boarding, even when schools or organisations are able to provide scholarships.
Mrs Yates, Associate Chief Executive, Policy, Association of Independent Schools of New South Wales said at the hearing:
The last point I would like to make—apart from the ones that I know ISCA and NCEC will bring up, which incorporate these—is that, overall, Abstudy doesn't actually pay the reasonable costs of boarding. So there are always going to be additional costs.
Mrs Hick, Immediate Past President, Isolated Children's Parents' Association of Australia, discussed the need for a review into allowances such as ABSTUDY to ensure they are meeting the needs of families:
Our members have been asking for a review of these types of allowances to ensure that they are meeting the needs of the families and the students living out there and are bridging that gap, addressing the inequity in access to education that these families have by living where they live and access to education opportunities available to them.
The Government undertakes a wider review into the ABSTUDY scheme that examines the issues raised with the committee that fall outside the scope of this bill.
Senator Malarndirri McCarthy
Australian Labor Party