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A budget for students?: Ombudsman, SSAF, HECS and paid placements among this year’s big reforms

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Student media from across the country have this week converged on Canberra to participate in the journo coming-of-age of budget lock-up–Farrago among them. Stowed away in a committee room in Parliament House, lock-up participants receive privileged access to budget documents six hours prior to their public release.

This year’s budget has in many ways been framed as a budget “for students”. Preceded by announcements of HECS relief and coming off the release of the Universities Accords Final Report, the Labor government is clearly keen to integrate higher education into its broader plans for domestic industrial policy and economic productivity.

It may be a welcome contrast to students’ slim pickings in previous budgets, but is it enough relief for the many young Australians struggling under the weight of poverty, exploitation and loneliness? 

Farrago is here to report.

 

Additional Payments for Students on Supervised Mandatory Placements

Announced before the budget’s official release, the federal government will provide $427.4 million to establish a payment of $319.5 per week (benchmarked to the single Austudy rate) from 1 July 2025 for students undertaking mandatory placements as part of their studies in nursing (including midwifery), teaching and social work. 

Despite calls from the Australian Medical Students Association, medical students undertaking clinical placements will not receive any further support under this budget out of an intention to target fields with national skills shortages. 

 

Debt Relief and Changes to HECS-HELP Indexation  

Announced around the same time as mandatory paid placements was the incoming HECS-HELP debt relief of $3 billion for students which will see their outstanding balance reduce depending on their studies and employment. The debt relief is expected to benefit over 3 million Australians, with the average student ($26,500 in debt) receiving $1200 off their HECS.

This debt relief coincides with changes to HECS-HELP indexation that will see debt indexed to the lowest of either the Consumer Price Index or Wage Price Index to ensure debt is not indexed higher than wage growth rates.

 

Possible Windfall for Student-led Organisations

The government will require higher education providers to direct a minimum of 40% of their Students Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) to student-led organisations from 1 January 2025. Currently, there exists no minimum requirements for SSAF, with universities having the authority to distribute it between student organisations and university service provision how they see fit.

While this newly announced SSAF minimum for student-led organisations does not have a direct impact on University of Melbourne student organisations, who already receive more than 40% overall, it could represent a serious lifeline for smaller, underfunded student organisations across Australia.

 

Uncertainty for International Student Enrolment Caps 

Following changes to the international students enrolment scheme, the government has linked any increase in international students’ enrolments with providing purpose-built student accommodation which will be available for both domestic and international studies. 

The changes to the international student enrolment scheme are aimed at reducing the net overseas migration numbers from 528,000 in 2022-2023 to 260,000 in 2024-2025. The Department of Home Affairs aims to maintain net overseas migration numbers at 235,000 from 2026-2027 onwards. 

 

Are students part of a Future Made in Australia?

A significant focus in the budget is building a Future Made in Australia that embraces net zero and renewable industries, as well as diversifying the economy amidst global uncertainty. Part of this is a $1.1 billion investment to increase tertiary completion to 80% of the working age population by 2050. 

To further aid students, the government has committed to needs-based funding of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, First Nations students, students with disabilities and students studying in regional campuses. 

Alongside this measure is an investment of $350.3 million over four years from 2024-25 to expand access to university-enabling and preparation programs through a new FEE-FREE scheme from 1 January 2025. 

 

New Oversight Bodies and Responses 

The government will establish a National Student Ombudsman as an extension of the Commonwealth Ombudsman from 1 February 2025. 

The National Student Ombudsmen will provide a streamlined mechanism across the country to appeal grievance and complaints processes related to the administrative actions of education providers. Also introduced was a National Higher Education Code to Provide and Respond to Gender-based Violence from 2025.

Another significant authority to be formed by the government is the Australian Tertiary Education Commission in 2025 to provide funding delivery and data collection. Details regarding participation and governance have not been provided. 

Briefly mentioned was a future inquiry into antisemitism, Islamophobia, and racism to “examine the prevalence and impact of racism in tertiary education” – details of which have not as of yet been provided.

 

Increase in Commonwealth Rent Assistance

Recipients of Commonwealth Rent Assistance will receive an increase of 10% from September as part of a $1.9 billion investment across five years. With many of Australia’s students renting amidst a housing crisis, such an increase offers some necessary but fairly limited relief for young renters.

 

New Digital Mental Health Service

A new free digital mental health service will be provided from 2026 for all Australians without the need for a referral. While details of what the service entails are yet to be released, the government has committed $588.5 million over eight years from 2024-25 and expect over 150,000 people will use the service upon commencement.

 

What was not in the budget?

Many of the policies for higher education that Labor brought to this year’s budget were a product of the Universities Accords process that was underway during 2023-24, with measures such as increased participation and debt reform among the key recommendations.

However, with the government responding to 29 of the Final Report’s 47 recommendations, there are some reforms left off the table this year, including the establishment of a National Regional University and more Commonwealth Supported Places for regional medical schools. It is likely that the government is addressing these recommendations in blocks based on the forward estimates of the budget cycle. 

Additionally, there has been little movement on the welfare reforms called for by student organisations such as the National Union of Students, including lowering the Centrelink Age of Independence from 22 to 18. While many students will benefit from an increased Commonwealth Rent Assistance, the government has targeted much of its cost-of-living relief via tax cuts, which can miss low-income students with no to minimal taxable income.

Overall, this budget represents a lot of small steps in directions that benefit higher education students in Australia. Yet, there remains that lingering question—is it enough? Farrago will leave that for you to decide.

 
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