Drought-related stress and financial hardship are impacting all aspects of rural life and the effects on young people are often underestimated, the Country Education Foundation of Australia (CEF) has warned.
A University of Newcastle study, published by the Medical Journal of Australia, revealed that stress associated with the drought was more acute in younger people and was affecting their mental health and wellbeing.
CEF’s ambassador and patron, former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer AC, said with 100% of NSW and almost two-thirds of Queensland now drought-declared there was an urgent need to focus on the needs of rural youth.
“There are many crossroads in life, from teenager to adulthood, from student to workplace, and so forth,” Mr Fischer said. “For country people, these crossroads become even harder to traverse in periods of intense drought and other climate wildcards.
“This is exactly where the Country Education Foundation has a vital role to play in its interface with students, to help them through the challenges of academic and practical endeavour.”
CEF provides financial and other assistance to regional, rural and remote students to pursue their educational and career aspirations. Since its inception 25 years ago, CEF has helped more than 4000 young people attend university or vocational training.
Chief executive Wendy Cohen said she anticipated a greater need for assistance for young people in rural areas in coming months to help them secure opportunities for further education and training.
“Regional, rural and remote students already face a participation gap when it comes to education – they are around seven percent less likely to complete high school or attend university than their city counterparts. If they do make it to university they face prohibitive transport and accommodation costs,” Ms Cohen said.
“We need to ensure this drought, shaping up as the worst in living memory, doesn’t become yet another barrier to education for a section of the community that already faces inequality and exclusion.”
Ms Cohen said the federal government’s announcement of a $190 million drought assistance package for rural families through the Farm Household Allowance scheme was welcome; however, the $12,000 allotted to individual families would not go far.
“Rural and regional communities are incredibly resilient and many families are determined to priorities the education of their children, but there’s only so far limited budgets can stretch.”
Ms Cohen urged Australians to get behind those doing it tough and give generously to one of the many charities that had set up drought appeals or that directly assisted rural communities.
“In particular, let’s get behind our young people and acknowledge the long-term benefits that education can bring to individuals, families and communities.”
The call to action mirrors an appeal from the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) for donors not to forget the whole community when providing drought assistance.
FRRR chief executive Natalie Egleton said it was not just farmers but others in small rural townships and communities who needed support.
“When farmers experience prolonged drought, the whole community struggles – the local school, the pub, the vet, the newsagent, the supermarket and the sports clubs,” Egleton explained in a recent article.
“Money dries up for the things that keep community members connected and supported – just when they need it most.”
Ms Cohen said donations over $2 to the Country Education Foundation were tax deductable and would directly help rural students pay for course fees, living expenses, tools, textbooks and laptops.
CEF board member Mr Oscar Oberg, from Wilson Asset Management, said: “We’re in the worst drought in 30 years and CEF is helping young people who will potentially miss out.
“It’s the little donations, even a few dollars, that can make a huge impact. To people that might not sound like much, but it’s a life-changing difference.”