Why Abstudy is important
As many are no doubt aware, over the weekend, a motion was passed at the Liberal National Party (LNP) Queensland convention in Brisbane calling for the federal government to scrap Abstudy. Stating that Abstudy encouraged segregation, and that "disadvantage is not linked to skin colour", the Secretary of LNP Youth, Luke Barnes moved the motion. Federal MP and National Party Whip, Paul Neville, strongly spoke against the motion stating that "education is the key to removing Indigenous disadvantage" and adding that rather than scrapping the programme, the party should be looking at ways to make it even more effective so that more Indigenous people are able to access education and break the cycle of poverty. Despite Neville's pleas, the motion was narrowly passed by the LNP convention.
It was therefore heartening to read yesterday that Federal Opposition Senator, and opposition spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, describe this motion as "nonsensical and ill-conceived", and stated plainly that it would not be supported at a Federal Level by the Coalition. However, despite this reassurance, the NTEU remains concerned that Abstudy, which has been already subjected to a number of cuts and changes over the years, is easily targeted by those who have no real concept of the difference it makes in the lives of many people, and thus calls on both the Government and the Opposition to commit to the long-term growth and security of Abstudy as a programme.
Abstudy has now been running for over 40 years, and was initially introduced to support Indigenous Australian students undertaking university studies. Due to the fact that many Indigenous students were not eligible to attend University at that time as most had not finished high school and a good portion had not been engaged in education at all, Abstudy was grown and specifically tailored to address the many special circumstances facing Indigenous students. Abstudy has also been subject to cuts, and over the past 20 years, changes have been made to bring it more in line with Austudy and Youth Allowance; the two mainstream payments that support Australian students. However, it is due to the unique attributes of Abstudy, such as additional criteria for recognition as an "Independent Student", "Away from Base" funding making a lot of our university block release programmes an option for Indigenous students, incidentals allowances, and "Residential Cost Option" (allowing Indigenous students to pay residential college fees upfront, therefore receiving a reduced living allowance), that many of our Indigenous students have been able to see University (and other) studies as a reality.
The situation for Indigenous Australians has not changed enough to justify any proposals to scrap Abstudy. Recent Census data shows that Indigenous students are still less likely to finish year 12, that they are still more likely to drop out of school at year 10, and considering that the average household income for Indigenous families is just under two thirds of the mean income for other Australian families, Indigenous students are still more likely to come from a financially-disadvantaged background. Whilst the NTEU acknowledges that many suffer from disadvantage, to suggest that disadvantage has nothing to do with Indigeneity when there is clear evidence that states that it does, really shows that this motion has come from an ideological framework rather than any sound research.
Abstudy is also a programme that is supported by a great portion of Indigenous students. All Indigenous students are currently eligible to apply for the mainstream allowances, but most have chosen not to due to the fact that Abstudy was tailored to address their unique needs. Students on Abstudy Independence Allowance, and Living Away from Home Allowance have a guaranteed income base which ensures that they are able to pursue their studies knowing that they have ongoing financial support. This support, however, is contingent on successful academic progression. There is no doubt that Abstudy has directly contributed to Indigenous students' success whilst undertaking studies. With Indigenous youth making up a majority of our Indigenous population in this country, it is clear that Abstudy is going to be even more needed in the coming years if we wish Indigenous students to continue to participate in education and go on to have careers.
The LNP motion is short-sighted, ignorant of the specific circumstances affecting Indigenous students, and if implemented would have a quick and marked affect on Indigenous student numbers and success rates, such as was the case when changes have been implemented previously. The NTEU encourages the Federal Government and the Opposition to continue to reject any such proposals from the states, and instead commit to the growth of Abstudy so many more Indigenous students have the opportunity to access education.