Second Reading SpeechMr Robb (Minister for Vocational and Further Education)
That this bill be now read a second time.
The bill amends the Student Assistance Act 1973 and the Social Security Act 1991. The bill gives effect to measures announced in the 2007-08 budget that concern the income support for students programs, and updates aspects of the administration of Abstudy and the Assistance for Isolated Children (AIC) in line with similar provisions under the Social Security Act 1991.
Amendments to the Student Assistance Act 1973, under schedule 1, provide legislative support for the provision of services to Abstudy and the Assistance for Isolated Children (AIC) schemes.
The first amendment aims to simplify the processes currently used by the Australian government (as represented by Centrelink) to recover payment(s) made under the Abstudy and Assistance for Isolated Children schemes that have been deposited into an incorrect financial institution account. This is consistent with the provisions of the Social Security Act 1991.
The second amendment will allow notices issued under section(s) 343, 344 or 345 to be issued electronically. This amendment is required to incorporate current technologies and data transfer processes used by Centrelink for other student income support payments into the administration of the Abstudy and AIC schemes.
Amendments to the Social Security Act 1991, under schedule 2, insert a new category of Level of Course to the levels of eligible study. This adds master's degrees as eligible courses and removes the current restriction on Austudy recipients which prevents them from receiving payment if they have already gained a master's level degree.
The amendments also attach rent assistance payments to Austudy to increase the support for mature age people participating in education. Items 1, 3 and 6 to 8 clarify existing policy by inserting that a course supplied by a VET provider qualifies along with a TAFE course. This updates terminology to reflect current usage.
From 1 January 2008, students enrolled in an approved master's by coursework program, which is required for entry to a profession, or is the fastest pathway to professional entry, will be eligible for youth allowance and Austudy payments. This provision will also extend to students enrolled in a master's coursework program where a university has diversified by restructuring its course delivery. The Minister for Education, Science and Training will determine approved courses on application by higher education providers. The legislative amendment makes provision for the approval process.
The extension of Youth Allowance and Austudy to include approved professional master's degrees responds to a growing trend to increase the level of qualification required for professional entry. The measure enhances Australia's international competitiveness, will assist in addressing Australia's skill needs and contributes to the nation's skill development. The measure ensures that low-income students have the financial assistance they require to complete a master's degree to obtain entry to a profession.
To maintain consistency with student income support policy, as defined by the act, and the new amendment which extends income support to master's courses, an additional amendment is required to remove the current restriction on the provision of income support to students who have already attained a master's degree. This amendment has no effect on the existing allowable time and progress rules, which are maintained. It also does not apply to students who have attained a doctorate.
From 1 January 2008, Indigenous students in receipt of the Abstudy living allowance will be able to access crisis payment under the Abstudy scheme. Amendments to the Social Security Act 1991 will clarify that a social security crisis payment is not payable if the person is qualified for an Abstudy crisis payment in respect of the same circumstance.
Items 12 to 17 provide access to rent assistance for eligible Austudy students. From 1 January 2008, students aged 25 years and over who receive Austudy will be able, if eligible, to receive assistance with their rental accommodation expenses. This amendment provides additional support for mature age students from low-income backgrounds, providing them with the opportunity to participate in education and training. Extending eligibility for rent assistance to include recipients of Austudy brings this payment into line with other income support recipients, such as those receiving youth allowance and Newstart.
I commend the bill to the House.
Debate (on motion by Ms Plibersek) adjourned.