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Government defends university benefits scheme

The government will continue to fund a programme designed to attract more graduates to careers in science and maths, despite criticism and lack of interest, reports The Australian.

The HECS-HELP benefits scheme, announced in 2008 by the then education minister Julia Gillard, entitles eligible graduates to have university fee repayments cut by a maximum of AU$1,500 a year if they go on to work in certain fields, including biology, geology and high school maths and science teaching.

However, the scheme’s low take-up rate has prompted criticism and calls for a review.

Michael Gallagher, executive director of the Group of Eight research-intensive Australian universities, has reportedly labelled the programme and its measures “arbitrary and lacking supporting evidence”.

In the scheme’s first year, only 254 graduates applied for the benefit, of whom 64 were successful. For 2009-10, the number of applications was 405, of which 232 were approved.

Defending the scheme, tertiary education minister Chris Evans said in a statement on 30 December, “A substantial increase in the benefit’s take-up rate is expected over the next few years as the pool of eligible graduates grows.

“We also expect that awareness of the benefit will increase as students who commenced their course after the benefit was introduced flow through the system.”

The news came as an Australian Academy of Science report on secondary-school science was accused of misinterpreting statistics.

In its report, “The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools”, the Academy warned that year 12 science enrolment had dropped from near universal levels 20 years ago to just half last year.

But critics said the findings were based on incomplete and wrongly aggregated data.

They said the report did not take into account a break in the series between 2001 and 2002, which the Department of Education said it made the authors aware of when it provided the data.

“One can hypothesise on a whole range of things but you have to take the data – as we have – in good faith and work with it accordingly,” said Denis Goodrum, lead author of the report.