Well-known Bowen mango grower Ben Martin welcomed a proposal for university students to work on farms to reduce their HECS debt. Picture: Supplied
Well-known Bowen mango grower Ben Martin welcomed a proposal for university students to work on farms to reduce their HECS debt. Picture: Supplied

Uni students with debts to pay could help Bowen farms

UNIVERSITY students with a HECS debt could soon flood to Bowen farms in a scheme backed by a peak farming body and a federal parliamentary committee.

The Joint Standing Committee on Migration made the recommendation on Tuesday that university students and recent graduates should be given a HECS debt discount to encourage them to pick crops in regional Australia.

The scheme aims to help bolster industry shortages after it was revealed the number of available overseas workers had plunged from 140,000 to 70,000 due to COVID-19.

The National Farmers Federation backed the proposal for HECS debt relief, saying incentivising picking programs would help farmers in desperate need.

Bowen mango farmer Ben Martin, from Marto's Mangoes, welcomed the idea, saying he already hired several university students at the end of the school year.

 

Ben Martin of Marto's Mangos said the government should be looking at developing programs in schools to secure the future of the agricultural industry. Picture: File
Ben Martin of Marto's Mangos said the government should be looking at developing programs in schools to secure the future of the agricultural industry. Picture: File

He said another solution could be putting the graduate workforce in a lower tax bracket so a percentage of what they would have previously been taxed could go towards their HECS debt.

While Mr Martin said the incentive would help farmers through what he predicted would be a difficult few years, he believed the government should focus more on long-term programs.

"I honestly think we need to take a step back," he said.

"We're not going to fix this problem this year or next year, I believe we need to go back to the education system and look at trying to entice kids in Year 8, 9 and 10 to take that pathway into horticulture.

"If you're trying to get school leavers and uni students to get a job in horticulture, you've missed the boat.

"I think the horticultural and agricultural industry needs to work with the education department more and try and look at how we can implement good agricultural models and subjects in classrooms."

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Mr Martin said there was often a stigma around farm work and what is involved in farming.

However, he argued that if there were strong educational pathways and opportunities for students, the industry could be strengthened in the future.

Several other ideas to boost the picking workforce have been floated over the past few weeks, including employing troubled youth and extending visas for backpackers.

The Bowen Gumlu Growers Association is also working on a program targeted at school leavers whose travel or university plans have been put on hold as a result of the pandemic.


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