Abstudy cuts are racist

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Abstudy cuts are racist

By Aaron Benedek

Aborigines suffer an infant mortality rate two to three times that of other Australians. Life expectancy is 18 to 20 years lower. Unemployment among Aboriginal men is over four times that among non-Aboriginal men, and 64% of Aboriginal people have an income less than $12,000.

These statistics speak volumes. Contrary to what Hanson, Howard and Beazley tell us, Australia is, and always was, a country fraught with racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In the face of this reality, the federal cabinet has decided to abolish Abstudy. Abstudy will continue through 1999, but new arrangements will come into effect in the year 2000.

Indigenous students between the ages of 16 and 20 will now have to apply for the common youth allowance. The pensioner education supplement paid under Abstudy will be aligned with mainstream pensioner supplement, and the living allowance for those over 21 will be aligned with the amounts paid for the Newstart allowance.

Indigenous students under 16 will continue to receive special assistance.

Abstudy was first introduced by the Gorton government in 1968 to address the special education needs of indigenous Australians. It is one of the few programs designed to address the educational disadvantages they suffer.

The chair of the National Tertiary Education Industry Union's indigenous tertiary education policy committee, Bob Morgan, pointed out: "[Abstudy is] not simply about income support. It's a scheme targeted to increasing indigenous people's participation in tertiary education.

"It's specifically targeted to the needs of indigenous people, and has a range of conditions and supplementary benefits which reflect the circumstances in which many indigenous Australians live."

For example, Abstudy includes special allowances available to Aboriginal students from remote communities, to enable them to participate in "away from base" studies. These involve study blocks of a few weeks' duration, interspersed with related work experience in their home communities.

Courses such as these play a vital role in enabling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to remain part of their own communities. They are based on a recognition that the mainstream education system is a culturally foreign one, often inappropriate to the needs of indigenous people.

This is particularly true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote areas, where literacy levels are low and English is often a second language.

The government cut $39 million from the Abstudy budget in 1997. Student unions estimate that this resulted in 2500 indigenous students having their benefits either withdrawn or reduced.

Presently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 10 times less likely to complete tertiary education than the rest of the population. This indicates a desperate need to extend Abstudy so as to address this racist discrimination, yet the government is abolishing it.

[Aaron Benedek is an education officer for the Sydney University Student Representative Council.]

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