Rob Malicki, From: The Australian, February 25, 2013

I READ with interest John Ross’s article “Expanded OS-HELP ‘Remains Restricted’” (The Australian, Feb 16th).

OS-HELP is a fee-free, interest-free, HECS-based loan to university students provided in order to help them study overseas. Students can borrow over $6000 to fund their experience, which they later pay back as part of their HECS debt. For a huge number of students this is the difference between being able to study overseas for part of their degree, for example on student exchange or a short term program, or not.

The article discusses ACPET’s entirely reasonable submission to the federal government that the OS-HELP scheme should be expanded to VET-level students. However, what is omitted is a little history and a few key facts.

OS-HELP has been in place for a little shy of a decade and was the seemingly magical confluence of industry lobbying, willing politicians, creative bureaucrats, good timing and yes, even government-industry consultation. Since its implementation OS-HELP has doubtlessly enabled thousands, if not tens of thousands, of extra university-level outbound student movements – movements that deliver benefits like reduced attrition for universities, improved graduate outcomes for students, and a repudiation of Australia’s sometimes-reputation as a one-way international education provider.

The government’s move to loosen some of the restrictions on OS-HELP is a hugely significant and visionary piece of policy work. It will enable postgraduates and previously ineligible students to access the scheme and certainly encourage even more Australian university students to have international study experiences.

The announced changes to the scheme, I would contest, will have a far greater and lasting impact than even the announced $30 million AsiaBound scheme.

At a time when emphasising Australia’s success at sending its own students overseas is critical, a headline proclaiming that this central scheme ‘remains restricted’ is inaccurate and unhelpful. OS-HELP is a world-class enabler of student mobility.

Would expanding OS-HELP to VET students have an impact? Absolutely. And, as ACPET points out, this would be a great thing for Australia.

However, what is overlooked is that OS-HELP was the outcome of years of work by individuals, institutions and government with an expansive knowledge of outbound mobility and demonstrated commitment to, and a proven track record in, getting students offshore on study experiences. I would love to see an OS-HELP type scheme available to VET students in the future but one should not put the cart before the horse.

Excluding pockets of great practice and some exceptional institutions and individuals leading the charge, the VET sector does not yet have this level of commitment or experience. The VET sector as a whole has much to absorb from the experience of these exceptional institutions and individuals before OS-HELP-like support for VET students could have a deep, lasting impact.

Rob Malicki is director of Australian Institute for Mobility Overseas