New policy denies refugees TAFE loans

Emmanuel Bakenga working at Green Connect. Photo: Green Connect.

Under NSW government changes to TAFE called Smart and Skilled, many refugees are finding it difficult to study. While people with a permanent resident visa are allowed to study at TAFE, they are not eligible for VET-FEE HELP — the federal government loan that offers access to cover the cost of rising fees.

Emmanuel Bakenga, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, lives in Wollongong and works part time for Green Connect, a social enterprise that employs resettled refugees to grow vegetables, keep waste out of landfill and turn food waste into compost.

Bakenga trains and mentors other refugees at Green Connect. He is also studying a Diploma in Community Services to improve the support he can provide other refugees.

Bakenga said: “This year, the government made some changes and the visa that I have as a refugee is not eligible for a government loan or government support for study. I was asked to pay $4380 if I want to continue studying.

“Unfortunately I cannot afford that money and I just have six months left to finish this course.”

Because he could not pay the fees upfront, Bakenga felt he had no choice but to drop out of his course.

Fortunately, Green Connect stepped in and has organised a crowdfunding campaign to raise enough money to pay the TAFE fees for him and five other Green Connect workers, as well as mobilise efforts to change the government’s policy.

So far it has raised almost half of its $20,000 goal.

According to a Department of Immigration and Citizenship report in 2011, only 31% of refugees have a job five years after resettlement. Green Connect currently employs 112 refugees and aims to help them access education, training and support.

It is not only refugees who have been hit hard by these changes.

Figures show enrolment across Illawarra TAFE campuses has fallen about 8% this year, as thousands of students have been forced to leave the TAFE system altogether due to the fee rise.

The Illawarra Mercury reported in March that under the NSW government’s “Smart and Skilled” program, some TAFE courses have seen a 7000% rise in fees this year.

In 2011, a Diploma of Youth Work cost $104, today it costs $4380 — a 4000% rise.

The changes by federal and state government means that those who need training the most are finding it hardest to access.

Bakenga is keen to see the policy changed so that everyone can afford TAFE. “I just hope that someday there will be some changes in the government whereby these refugees who [come] here will have some support [to study].”

[Help Emmanuel Bakenga finish TAFE by making a donation. The crowdfunding campaign finishes on July 14.]

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