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Proposed student loan threshold will ‘unfairly handicap’ nurse graduates

Prospective university students might be turned off a career in nursing under changes to university loan repayment thresholds, the Australian College of Nursing (ACN) has warned.

The college said the move might exacerbate anticipated workforce shortages – a dearth of 125,000 nurses by 2030 is predicted.

Debate around legislation to reduce the minimum repayment threshold from $55,000 to $45,000 at a one per cent repayment rate will continue when parliament returns from its six-week winter break. The dollar figure is up from the $42,000 proposed in last year’s budget.

Liberal senator James Paterson recently told parliament that HELP lending has grown rapidly with the expansion of the demand-driven system.

“The amount accessed for HELP loans has increased from just $3 billion in 2009 to $7 billion in 2016,” Paterson said.

“The fiscal challenge for the government is that HELP repayments have not kept pace with HELP lending growth. From 2010–11 to 2016–17, the level of new debt not expected to be repaid increased from 16 per cent to 25 per cent.”

Paterson said the measures in the bill are modest but fair and added that they will ensure the income-contingent loans program remains sustainable for future generations of students and taxpayers.

But Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward, chief executive of ACN, said pushing nurse graduates to repay their university loans before establishing permanent and secure employment is “unfairly handicapping graduates from realising their potential”.

It would also add to the pressures that students training to be nurses currently face, Ward said.

“People enter nursing because it is a vocation, not for financial gain, but we still have to ensure this vital workforce is able to live on their salary.”

Labor’s Murray Watt rose in the Senate to oppose the Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment (Student Loan Sustainability) Bill 2018.

Watt said: “Let’s remember that, by and large, the only students who are taking out loans to undertake higher education are those from lower and middle-income families.

“If you’re fortunate enough to come from a rich family, you’ve got parents who can pay … your HELP loans. But it’s working-class and middle-class kids who are being faced with the prospect of having to repay their loans at a much earlier stage of their career while they are also trying to save up for other things like a house or a family.”

During the debate, South Australian independent Tim Storer said the lower loan repayment threshold is preferable to other higher education cuts, so that future students entering tertiary education would have the same opportunities and quality of education as those already in the workforce.

Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young opposed the move, saying the government would prefer that nurses, teachers and early childhood educators “went off and did their university degrees, started paying back their loans and then shut up and weren’t heard from again”.

With women making up more than 90 per cent of the nursing workforce, ACN added that the move would, in the main, unfairly disadvantage working women.

“We must invest in nurses at all stages of their careers to ensure Australia has a sustainable nursing workforce,” Ward said.

“Education is an integral aspect of ensuring that Australia has the healthcare workforce that it needs to properly care for its community. Investing in our health services and workforce is investing in the health of our population.”

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