Joining the Dots

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My son Nick is in his second year of a nursing degree and as a modern university student he is liable for HECS, the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. The fees for nursing students are in HECS band 1 which means it costs less for students to do this course than, say, medicine, which is in band 3, but at the same time that it is less attractive for cash-strapped universities to run nursing degrees.

The Federal Government claims it is supporting students by allowing them to defer the debt, which will run to over $10,000. But no one can seriously enrol in a university degree unless they have the money for textbooks and there is no textbook allowance for university students. In the case of a first year nursing student, textbooks cost well over $1000.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The Government pays a pittance in means-tested support for university students, which is heavily regulated by Centrelink. Students balance their part-time jobs with constant interrogations about extra sources of money. The kind of part-time jobs that they can get aren’t exactly well paying either. In any case there comes a time when extra hours spent at work begin to damage academic results. Those students without parental support do it tough, and it is no surprise when they drop out.

Before HECS came in, nursing was free, and before 1974 when all university fees were lifted, nursing was also free. That was when nursing students were effectively placed as four-year apprentices and paid badly as they learnt on the job. The profession has changed a great deal since then, and far more is now demanded of our nurses than was then. Even so it seems odd that at a time when we are experiencing a shortage of nurses that those who wish to study in this discipline should suffer financially.

Nick’s twin sister Bec is an apprentice chef, also in her second year. She works incredibly long hours learning the minutiae of fine food preparation and the discipline of making the menus run on time. She is not accumulating a debt, but instead is paid a lowly wage that rises in time, as she progresses up the hierarchy.

Unlike its long-term neglect of university students, the Federal Government has lavished support on apprentices and students of trades. TAFE fees are but a fraction of university fees. The annual fee for a Certificate IV in 2007 was all of $816. In addition every apprentice who completes nine months of their four-year apprenticeship is given $800 to buy a set of tools (the brochures claim they can have their tools at three months, and keep them after nine, but the administration of this scheme is so poor that it is more like ten months before the paperwork is even sighted). Likewise any apprentice who enters the second year of their apprenticeship is given a grant of $1000 towards TAFE fees. As with the tools’ fund this grant is poorly administered and the money comes late, but it does come.

So it would seem to most that adolescents without resources, without family support, would be better off undertaking an apprenticeship. There are, however, two problems for any would-be apprentices. First, unlike university fees, which operate as a low interest loan, TAFE fees must be paid upfront. The second one is that both TAFE and employers require apprentices to have their own tools and uniform before they start. Bec’s initial TAFE set of knives and chef’s gear cost over $300. At least she already had a sturdy pair of boots (needed in the kitchen for OH and S reasons). Other trades have similar requirements, so all apprentices face upfront costs.

We have seen the beginnings of some reasonable policy decisions. We do have a national shortage of skilled tradespeople, and this shortage is going to be increasing. We also have school leavers who would like to take up a trade, and even employers who want to offer jobs. It is surely not too much for the Government to put TAFE fees on the same basis as HECS so that poor students can afford an education. There is also no reason why the tools allowance can’t be linked to students enrolling in TAFE, with the proviso that the tools be returned if they drop out.

By the same token university students need their textbooks as much as apprentices need their tools. Why is it that students studying TAFE are given tools while those studying professions in universities are treated with such open contempt? This is not just a case of catch up. The easiest way to solve the skills crisis is to encourage the next generation.

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