The Northern Territory Farmers’ Association says it would like to see the Federal Government provide a HECS discount to university students who are willing to do seasonal work on farms.
In a year where labour shortages are looming for a number of agricultural industries, NT Farmers chief executive Paul Burke, said it was time to start thinking of innovative ways to address an issue that had plagued farmers for years.
“So similar to how backpackers can work in regional Australia for 88 days to extend their visas, we think there’s potential for uni students to get a wage and a discount off their HECS debt if they go and work in a region,” he said.
“Uni students get a reasonable amount of holidays each year, but we need an incentive to bring our best and brightest into the regions during times when we need people to help with picking, packing and processing.
“We feel that incentive could be in the form of a reduced HECS debt.”
The idea was raised in the Senate last week by NT Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, who passed a motion calling on the Morrison Government to “urgently act to come up with creative and innovative solutions to support farmers facing this seasonal worker crisis”.
“NT Farmers CEO Paul Burke’s suggestion of getting Year 12 students who go into gap year overseas, to now be encouraged to go on farms, is a good initiative,” she said.
Mr Burke said there was still a lot of work to be done, and the HECS idea was still in its infancy, but he felt its benefits could be wide-reaching.
“It would also give the agriculture industry some really good exposure to our future leaders and visa versa,” he said.
“It will give them [uni students] a better understanding of agriculture. They’ll have a better understanding of living regionally and the challenges and opportunities that presents.”
Government looking at ‘number of incentives’
While Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has not commented on the HECS discount idea, last week he said the Government was looking at “a number of different incentives” to lure students into regional work.
“We’re going to see a lot of Year 12 students finish in a couple of months and they’re not going to have the opportunity to go backpack around the world, there may be an opportunity to backpack around the country and make a quid while they’re doing it,” he said.
“Also there are university students who’ll finish in a couple of months. There is an opportunity for them to go and work in agriculture and make a quid over the summer holidays and then go back with some dollars in their pocket and have a better time when they go back to uni”.
In its roadmap to make Australian agriculture exceed $100 billion in farm gate output by 2030, the National Farmers Federation has also suggested establishing an “Ag Gap Year” program to get young Australians to try their hand at agriculture.
Paul Burke said the Ag Gap Year program would need to run in conjunction with other labour schemes, such as the seasonal worker program.
“It’s about getting all of the tools in the toolbox, so we have a mobile, motivated and willing workforce to work in our industry,” he said.