Finance - Foreign workers must fork out

25th October 2013 at 01:00
Visa holders forced to pay for education in Australian state

Western Australia's recent mining boom has been hailed as the southern hemisphere's biggest economic success story for a decade. Because of this, thousands of temporary workers have flocked to the isolated state from around the world, lured by the promise of high wages.

But new plans to make immigrant workers pay towards their children's education could make working there a far less attractive option, critics say. They also claim that the plans to charge such families A$4,000 (pound;2,385) a year to send their children to state school could lead to those living in the most deprived rural communities being driven out of education altogether.

The state government, which generated tax revenues of more than A$8 billion last year, warned that it could not afford to cover the spiralling costs of teaching the thousands of extra students who have arrived at its schools.

But Martin Aldridge, a member of the state parliament for Western Australia's agricultural region and an outspoken opponent of the policy, said the plans could have catastrophic consequences for the children of the lowest-paid workers.

"It is my concern that people who have come to Australia on a [four-year temporary skilled worker] visa and have decided to reside in regional areas may now have little choice but to withdraw their children from local schools and return them to their home country," he said. "This could have a devastating effect on small towns, where these people have become contributing and respected members of the community."

Under the original proposal, people holding temporary working visas were to be charged a flat fee for the education of all their children, amounting to more than 8,000 students in total.

But after widespread opposition, the policy has been slightly watered down. The new system will not be implemented until 2015, and the A$4,000 fee will apply only to the first child in each family, with the cost of schooling subsequent children dropping to A$2,000 each. As a result, the scheme is now expected to generate just half of the A$120 million it was originally designed to bring in over four years.

Charging temporary workers to send their children to school is not unheard of in Australia: the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales have already introduced such fees. But it is by no means the norm, and other areas - the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria - have not introduced similar charges.

Experts have warned that, given Western Australia's reliance on skilled migrants from overseas, the state could become less attractive to the workers it is looking to attract, particularly those in less well-paid jobs.

The state's premier, Colin Barnett, has insisted that there would be provisions for hardship to take into account exceptional circumstances. Parents would be able to pay the fees, equating to A$1,000 per term, in instalments, he said.

"On average, it costs more than A$15,000 to educate a child in a Western Australian state government school and. we have concluded the government has to introduce this measure to try to recoup some of the cost of educating these children from overseas," he said.

"This decision reflects the pressure on the state's budget and the reality that Western Australia taxpayers contribute to the cost of services such as education over a lifetime of paying taxes, rather than just four years."

Last month, teachers in three unions - the State School Teachers' Union of Western Australia and the CPSUCSA and United Voice public sector unions - went on strike across the state, closing more than 60 schools.

They were protesting against cost-cutting plans by the state to axe 500 education jobs, implement a freeze on teacher numbers and reduce funding for specialist programmes to improve literacy, numeracy, attendance and behaviour.

State of affairs

A$0 - Sum paid for children's education by temporary skilled workers in Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria

A$4,000 - Sum paid annually by temporary workers in Western Australia for their first child from 2015. They will pay A$2,000 for each subsequent child

A$9,320 - Sum paid annually in Australian Capital Territory for children in kindergarten and primary school. Workers pay A$12,500 for those in high school years 7-10 and A$13,900 for years 11-12

A$4,500 - Sum paid annually in New South Wales for children in kindergarten, primary and junior high school. Workers pay A$5,500 for those in senior high school.

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