Students Volunteer to Reduce HECS Fees? – VA Responds
Monday, 16th February 2009 at 2:52 pm
Volunteering Australia wants more public discussion around the Federal Government’s interest in a “Youth Corp” program that would allow students to reduce their HECS fee obligations through their volunteering.
The peak body, in a submission to the Government says the scheme outlined as a ‘top idea’ at last year’s 2020 Summit does not fall within the accepted definition and principals of formal volunteering.
The topic resurfaced as a hot issue more recently as the Government announced it was considering the idea.
Volunteering Australia says offsetting or reducing student debt through volunteering could be construed as financial payment for volunteering, which is also not consistent with the definition of volunteering.
VA says it supports an initiative of encouragement and choice, without compulsion and with the benefits to individual participants not being likened to payments.
However, Volunteering Australia believes that the initiative could be more successfully reframed as a “community investment” scheme – the Higher Education Community Investment Scheme (HECIS) – the reallocation of (student) debt to the Not for Profit sector in the form of time, commitment, skills and expertise.
In developing the HECIS scheme of “community investment” Volunteering Australia recognises that it would benefit volunteering in general, as research suggests exposure to active community participation in youth and through family involvement increases participation in adult life.
VA says any proposed scheme should consider potential additional burden on students’ time. It is reported by students that the constraints of time due to study requirements and the financial necessity of working often leaves little time for other areas of their life.
Another consideration relates to the costs of volunteering. It is often overlooked that volunteers incur costs relating to the volunteer roles they choose.
Volunteering Australia research into the costs of volunteering found that almost all volunteers incur expenses that are not reimbursed and these costs are not insignificant over the course of a year, dependent upon intensity and frequency of volunteering ($600 per annum averaged across all volunteers, but can be as high as $1200 in sectors such as sport and recreation and emergency services).
Volunteering Australia says that a proposed scheme of community investment should not commence until after students have completed their study and have commenced repayment of their debt, as is current practice under HECS.
The peak body says there is need to consider the practical implementation of such a scheme and the impact on under- resourced community organisations.
Any proposed scheme, it says, would require the acknowledgement of the costs associated with, and additional funding for, not for profit organisations engaging and managing participants of a “community corps”.
Importantly, recognition by Government that the existing national, state and regional structure of volunteer organisations is well placed to advise and support a scheme of “community investment”.
It says the establishment of a parallel infrastructure to manage a community investment scheme would be seen by the voluntary sector as a duplication of resources and a potential drain on funding.
Volunteering Australia therefore recommends that Government investigates the benefits of boosting support to the existing volunteer infrastructure to manage the administration of such a scheme.
Beyond HECS Volunteering Australia says there could be a situation where other participants in post secondary education might seek an opportunity to reduce costs and potential debt associated with study, for example in the TAFE sector. In designing such a scheme of community service to reduce debt, consideration must be given to the flow on to other sectors and how narrowly or broadly a scheme should be applied.
In summary Volunteering Australia offers the following recommendations to Government:
– Encourage participation in the scheme at the conclusion of study to avoid additional burden on students during their study time;
– Clarify whether a proposed scheme would include existing contribution being made by many students as eligible HECS reduction given the current high participation rate in volunteering by people aged 18-24;
– Address the issue of costs incurred by individuals participating in community service;
– Ensure that community activities offered as community service are mutually beneficial – to community organisations and students – and not simply a means to pay off HECS debt;
– Address sector infrastructure costs and needs to avoid additional burden on under resourced community organisations;
– Support and enhance existing volunteering infrastructure of national, state and regional organisations thus avoiding duplication of resources in the creation of parallel infrastructure;
– Define the scope to ensure equity across other areas of post-secondary study where costs and debt may be prohibitive.
The full report can be downloaded at: http://www.volunteeringaustralia.org/files/W566K5BKBC/HECS_and_volunteering.pdf