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February 25, 2009

The Nationals Member for Gippsland Darren Chester has called on the Federal Government to better assist rural and regional students, including tax breaks for parents facing high accommodation costs.

Mr Chester has told Federal Parliament that there needed to be more Government support to assist regional students and their families to overcome the cost barriers of moving out of home to access a tertiary education.

The Gippsland region has one of the worst retention rates in Victoria—compared to the state and metropolitan rate of about 80 per cent, in 2006 just 65 per cent of Gippsland students finished year 12.

“There are many barriers to accessing higher education, including the lack of access in our electorate. But I believe the biggest factor is undoubtedly the cost,” Mr Chester told Parliament.

“When you have to move hundreds of kilometres to study, set up home, get a part-time job and then excel in your studies, it is an enormous burden for students from regional areas. I fear that we are actually setting them up to fail.

“We need to be doing more to help rural and regional students and their families overcome these cost barriers.

“I support greater use of cadetships and bonded scholarships or studentships to pay students an allowance while at university and then guarantee them a job after a fixed period if they return to serve in a regional area.

“We also need to be innovative in regard to the extra costs borne by country families when sending students away from home for further study.  We need to explore all the options to overcome those accommodation and cost of living pressures, which I believe place a disproportionate burden on rural and regional families.

“Making these accommodation costs tax deductible for supporting parents would have the extra benefit of increasing the expendable income for the families back in those regional areas where there are low socio-economic factors and the household disposable income is somewhat lower than in metropolitan areas.

“Such initiatives to reduce the cost barrier would help to open the door to further studies for regional Australians.”

Mr Chester said improving educational opportunities for Gippslanders was a personal priority.

“Education is an issue that is dear not only to my heart but to all other parents that I speak to in regional areas,” Mr Chester said.

“We simply want to make sure that our children have access to the services that sometimes I fear metropolitan families may take for granted.

“From a social justice perspective it is a question of equity, and for the hard-nosed economists of the world it is a question also of productivity.

“Helping children from rural and regional areas to achieve their full potential will help to improve the skill base of country areas and reduce the skill shortages we are constantly faced with across a range of industries.”

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