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Under quota, underspent: SA loses youth jobs scholarship program

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A $24 million federal scholarship scheme dedicated to helping 1200 young South Australians get into the workforce has been redirected to a national program after meeting just over half its quota and with $11 million left unspent since 2017.

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A budget estimates committee last week heard that the Federal Government had been “underspending substantially” on a $24 million scholarships program originally intended to help 1200 South Australians enter the workforce.

Announcing the program in 2017, then Education Minister and South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham said the funding could only be accessed by South Australians seeking to study or train in “primary industries”, such as the defence, advanced manufacturing and health.

At the time, Birmingham said the Federal Government was “backing South Australians to get the skills they need to find work”, with the scholarships offering “practical support to take advantage of industries where there are growth opportunities and skills needed”.

But at last week’s budget estimates committee, it was revealed that since 2017, only 690 of the 1200 scholarships had been offered and accepted.

Department of Education apprentice and workforce skills division first assistant secretary George Thiveos said the government received 1936 applications, of which 1572 were deemed “eligible” and 1198 were shortlisted.

Only 806 scholarships were offered “based on advice from the provider”, with 690 accepted.

“We will be looking into a review as to why the uptake was lower than we had expected,” Thiveos said.

The department’s deputy secretary Nadine Williams said the government had been “underspending substantially” on the scholarships program because interest was “largely exhausted”.

She said as a result, the Government had decided to “redirect the funding to the broader national program”.

The 2021-22 Federal Budget redirected $2.9 million from the South Australian scholarships program to fund the broader national program.

A further $8.17 million was repurposed in the 2019-20 budget, meaning over $11 million has been taken out of the South Australian scholarships program and handed to the national program.

Thiveos said the national scholarships program targeted 10 regions across Australia, with Port Pirie the only place in South Australia where students are eligible to receive funding.

Asked by South Australian Labor Senator Marielle Smith whether the government would ensure that the $2.9 million taken from next year’s budget would be reserved for South Australia, Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker said she would have to take the question on notice.

“Ensuring that young people are able to get into employment is a high priority for this government,” Stoker said.

“It’s why we’ve been so pleased to see the unemployment rate get to the point now where it is better than pre-COVID levels and we are very keen to drive that even lower in South Australia and everywhere else.”

South Australia currently has the highest youth unemployment rate in Australia at 15.1 per cent.

Stoker said South Australia’s youth unemployment rate was a “concern” and it would be “front of mind in the new arrangements”.

“We are very keen to make sure that programs are reaching as many people that need them as possible,” she said.

Smith said young South Australians need more support from the Federal Government.

“These scholarships were meant to help young South Australians,” she said.

“Instead, only just over half of them were ever allocated, and now the remainder of the funds are being moved to another Commonwealth program.

“This is another example of the Liberal Government being all about the photo up and never about the follow up.”

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