Thirty-seven per cent of regional students told the survey for State Government initiative On Track they were waiting to qualify for an independent Youth Allowance before studying, compared with 15 per cent of city students. The easiest way to qualify is by earning about $18,000 over 18 months before starting.
For eighteen months now I have been curious about why university students seem to be starting at a later age, with this kind of playing the Youth Allowance system being high on the list of theories.
Unfortunately, there was no data released for 2005 on the ages of students ‘new to higher education’, so I had to use the commencing student data (which isn’t as good, because it includes people transferring from other courses). While the trend of an absolute enrolment decline in ‘young’ commencing students, which I define as those aged 16 to 18, stopped and their numbers started to climb again, they continued to decline as a proportion of all commencing students aged 16 to 21. If the 16 to 18 year olds had maintained their year 2000 market share of all commencing students 21 and under in 2005, there would have been about 6,600 more of them at university than in fact was the case.
If the Youth Allowance independence theory explaining this trend is correct, receipt of Youth Allowance should be going up as more prospective students become alert to how the ‘independence’ test allows them to bypass the parental means test. But The Age reports that:
A rise in the cost of living, including climbing rents, has coincided with about 35,000 fewer students across the country qualifying for student welfare — Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy — over two years. This is at least partly due to strict means tests that cut payments after relatively little is earned.
But this refers to all Youth Allowance recepients, not just higher education students. From the figures that have been published (unfortunately from various sources, as they are not released routinely every year) the number of higher education students receiving Youth Allowance increased by about 19,000 between 2000 and 2005. That seems consistent both with prior theories about changing ages of commencement and the data revealed by the On Track survey.
Even the broader decline in YA receipt may be families playing the welfare system rather than a real drop in social security support. Students receiving Youth Allowance cannot be counted as dependants for the purposes of Family Tax Benefit A, so it can make more financial sense to receive FTB A as a household than for the student to receive YA. The money can be passed on to the student who is also freed from Centrelink’s bureaucratic nightmare.