If you’re thinking of studying journalism, photography, fitness coaching or biblical studies at TAFE or a private college next year, then be warned: you might not be able to get income support while you study.
Last year, the Government cracked down on the number of courses in the vocational education and training (or VET) sector that were eligible for student loans. That was in response to rorting by some dodgy private colleges under the previous VET student loans scheme.
More than half of the available courses – 56 per cent – were deemed ineligible because they did not satisfy areas of skills shortages.
The arts were particularly hard hit – only 13 of the 70 available VET courses were eligible for student loans. You can still take up these courses, but you’ll have to pay the full price of the course upfront. They aren’t cheap – at private colleges a diploma can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
In this year’s budget, the Federal Government included a measure that would cut income assistance – things like Youth Allowance, AusStudy and AbStudy – for students who take on a VET course that’s not on the approved study list.
So if you decide to study something like dance or life coaching – which aren’t approved courses – you could be in for a double whammy. You’ll have to pay for the course upfront, and you might not be able to access welfare while you’re studying.
The budget measure is still to pass through Parliament, but is due to start next year. The Government said it would only apply to new students, and would save the public purse $182 million over five years.
What does that mean for students?
For students like 21-year old Mia Ferguson, it means her plans for next year are up in the air.
At the start of the year she moved from Far North Queensland to Sydney to pursue her dream of being an actor. She saved up heaps of cash after high school to take on a diploma of acting at Sydney Theatre School.
She had to pay upfront because acting is not on the approved course list. The course fees alone cost more than 16 grand.
Mia works at a cafe a few days a week, but still needs government support to make ends meet.
“Whatever I don’t earn at work, Centrelink helps cover, like the rent, groceries and stuff.”
She’s worried about what will happen next year, as she plans to take on an advanced diploma.
“I’d have to talk to my parents and ask if they could help out a bit.”
“I don’t have those savings like I had before,” she said. “I never used to think about how much I could spend on groceries. You would just do it because you know you have enough. But now you have to plan out everything, saying, I can’t really buy lunch today because I don’t have enough money.”
Mia said she’s not the only one worried.
Mia thinks it’s unfair that arts courses in particular have been deemed not suitable by the Government.
“It feels like they’re saying, ‘these careers over here are legitimate, and these careers over here aren’t legitimate’,” she said. “What’s life without art?”
“It’s really disheartening for people who really aspire to want to be something.”
‘Only the wealthy can study’
Private educators are worried the changes will lock out disadvantaged students.
“It’s going to really restrict students’ ability to choose their prefered career path,” Mark Matthews, the Managing Director of Sydney Theatre School, told Hack.
“To be a user-pays system where only the wealthy can afford to train and study, it just isn’t equitable or fair,” he said.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told Hack that poorer students who don’t have family support to study will be the hardest hit.
“The Government says it either wants young people to be working or studying, yet they won’t provide the supports for people to do so,” she said.
“People can’t study effectively if they have to work copious amounts of hours at the same time to support themselves.”
‘This is social engineering’
Federal TAFE Secretary of the Australian Education Union, Pat Forward, has labelled the proposals “Orwellian”.
“The decision to scrap payments for [VET] students is absolutely social engineering,” she said.
Students can study arts and other types of courses that are restricted under the new VET system at university without the same constraints, but Pat said that’s unfair.
“It’s impacting on a certain group of students, those who are for whatever reason better suited or choose a vocational education over higher education qualifications,” she said.
The Government worked out the list of approved courses based on areas of skills shortages. So if there are jobs going in construction, then courses that cover that are given a tick.
But Rod Camm from the Australian Council of Private Education and Training said it’s “impossible” for governments to guess what jobs young people will have in the future.
“Young people today should expect 15 to 20 jobs in their career. We can train for today, we know the jobs of today, but ultimately you want adaptability,” he said.
Will it actually save $$$?
John Henningham has run JSchool, which teaches journalism skills in Brisbane, for more than 20 years. The cost of his one year diploma is around $19,000 – roughly the same amount that journalism graduates would expect to pay for a three year uni course.
The difference is that the Government subsidises the cost of your degree, but doesn’t subsidise the cost of diplomas for institutions like John’s.
“Many think that their HECS is the cost of their degree, but of course that’s only 50 per cent or less of the cost, and the Government makes up the difference,” he said.
“This policy is very discriminatory because many of the courses students can do at university they’re now not able to do in a vocational framework,” he said.
Rodd Camm agrees.
While it’s too early to tell if people are leaving the VET sector in favour of universities, Rod says there’s definitely been a massive slump in the number of students enrolling in the sector since the Government announced its course eligibility criteria.
“At the diploma and advanced diploma level it’s almost unprecedented how much they [enrolments] have reduced.”
At the height of the VET FEE system in 2015, the Government forked out $2.9 billion for student loans. The first half of this year, they only spent $78 million.
The Government reckons it won’t get all of that back, either. It estimates about $1.2 billion in VET student loans will never be recovered.
Hack asked Social Services Minister Christian Porter, Education Minister Simon Birmingham and Assistant Minister for Vocational Education Karen Andrews for comment on this story, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.