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Centrelink and Medicare officeA number of universities have been offering scholarships to people seeking asylum and refugees on TPVs and SHEVs. While this move is very welcome, there are a number of important implications which people must consider if they are on a TPV or SHEV visa.

In brief, unfortunately, there will be no form of Commonwealth income payment available to people on a TPV or SHEV studying full-time at university, once they start university. However, people can continue to receive income support if they study part time, provided they continue to meet other requirements (e.g. looking for work).

Unfortunately these restrictions are within legislation, and would need to be changed through parliament.

Legal and policy context

Special Benefits is available to people on temporary protection visas (including the Temporary Protection Visa, the Temporary (Humanitarian Concern), the Safe Haven Enterprise, Humanitarian Stay (Temporary),issued specifically for the purpose of assisting in the administration of criminal justice in relation to an offence of trafficking in persons, slavery or slavery‑like practices, Bridging F, and Bridging (Removal Pending). This is a discretionary payment.

The main criteria for Special Benefits is that the person cannot receive any other form of social security payment and is in financial hardship and unable to obtain or earn a sufficient livelihood for themselves and any dependants.

However, if they are adults (18 and over) and are of workforce age (and wouldn’t qualify for the disability support pension if they were Australian), these people are required to meet ‘mutual obligations requirements’ (meaning they must be actively searching and willing to work).

TPV and SHEV holders studying at university and receiving income support

People who are on a TPV or SHEV are entitled to study at university, but in general must pay international student fees (see our report on this issue). For this group of people, if they wish to pursue university:

  • they can study part-time without approval from their job services provider, as long as they continue to meet their mutual obligations (ie continue looking for work).
  • but they can only study full-time (that is, 20 hours per week or more or if classified as full-time by the institution) if:
    • this is approved by their job services provider
    • the course cannot be more than 12 months, and
    • the course must be vocational or clearly enhance their immediate employment.

In general, full-time tertiary studies will not meet this criteria. The main qualification is if the person receiving Special Benefit has been unsuccessful in gaining employment and only has a semester (or 6 months full-time equivalent) remaining to complete the degree and the degree would greatly improve their employment prospects (which obviously would not apply to people starting a degree).

Otherwise, the legislation states that any full-time student is disqualified from receiving Special Benefit as soon as they start their course. People on a TPV or SHEV can continue to study, but will have no income support, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible to continue their studies without additional support.

Implications for universities

Universities will need to consider how this will impact their offer of scholarships to TPV and SHEV holders. Students will either need:

  • to study part-time and support themselves financially by working part-time, without any form of Commonwealth income support
  • to study part-time and continue to meet their mutual obligations requirements, in which case they will continue to receive Special Benefits (although, see below, there may be reductions in the rate depending on their circumstances).

Alternatively, students will need a living allowance or bursary to make this viable (although see point 6 below).

‘Full-time’ is defined as 20 hours per week or more or if classified as full-time by the institution. Otherwise, the study is considered part-time.

Universities will need to be aware of these implications so that students are aware when they accept the scholarships. Prospective students will need to notify the government of a change in circumstances (and if they do not, data matching means that their benefits will be cut off in any event).

Other provisions of support which may affect income

Even if a person still qualifies for Special Benefits (for example, studies part-time at university), the rate of Special Benefit may be reduced by support they are provided.

Scholarships

Scholarships that waive or pay university fees do not reduce the rate, provided they do not provide any choice to students over how the scholarship can be used.

Board or lodging

However, if students on a scholarship ‘receive regular in kind support, including free board and lodging’, the value of the in-kind support is deducted from the rate of Special Benefit. Under current policy, if free board and lodging are offered under a scholarship, the Special Benefit rate is reduced by two-thirds. If free lodging (but no board) is provided, the Special Benefit rate is reduced by one-third. However, if the board or lodging is temporary (as a guide, less than 6 weeks) this does not affect the rate. (Note: this only applies where board or lodging is provided free. It does not apply if board or lodging is offered at a reduced or nominal rate).

Other in kind support

If the person receives in kind support on a regular basis, the amount of the support is deducted from the rate payable AFTER the income test is applied. In kind support includes:

  • payments of bills,
  • spousal maintenance, and
  • provision of food, clothing and/or pharmaceutical items.

Other reductions

Any income that is received by the person receiving Special Benefits (for example, from casual work) would also directly be deducted from the rate of Special Benefit. If the person lives with his or her parents, a parental means test is also applied. If the person has a partner, there is an income free area for the partner, after which any income is deducted from the rate.

Sources

Social Security Act 1991 (Cth), Part 2.15, esp ss 729(2A) (qualification for special benefit), Subdivision AA (mutual obligations requirements), s 737 (disqualification of full-time students).

Guide to Social Security Law, 3.7.1 (Special Benefit – Qualification and Playability), esp 3.7.5.70 (Study for SpB recipients), 3.7.1.80 (Determining the Rate of SpB)