Earlier this week, Croakey reported on concerns that delays in the introduction of the Federal Government’s new one-stop shop for health workforce scholarships would leave students and workers in nursing and allied health without much-needed funding for commencing studies in early 2017.
The Health Workforce Scholarship Program is an initiative of the 2015-16 federal budget, to deliver health workforce scholarships currently administered by a number of organisations through a single agency. It was conceived in response to a 2013 review that pointed to the need for streamlining, consistency and evaluation of value for investment.
A Department of Health webpage indicates that the program was planned to commence on July 1, 2016.
Croakey learned this week that, as a rural health workforce initiative, responsibility for the development of the Health Workforce Scholarship Program falls to the office of Assistant Minister for Rural Health, Dr David Gillespie, although it is unclear when this responsibility was devolved from Health Minister Sussan Ley’s office.
In an earlier email, a representative of Assistant Minister Gillespie assured Croakey that a new program was under design and existing scholarships would be honoured -but did not address the issue of timeliness for potential applicants seeking new scholarships for the beginning of next year.
We put the following questions to the Assistant Minister’s office.
Q: What is the timeframe for determining and implementing the most efficient model for the consolidated program?
A: The Department of Health have conducted extensive analysis and consultation with the sector to ensure that a new Health Workforce Scholarship program will be the most appropriate model that provides the greatest response to health workforce priorities.
The Department are aiming to have the design of the new scholarship program finalised by early 2017.
Q: Will there be any interim arrangements for nurses and allied health workers who wish to apply for scholarships for 1st semester 2017?
A: As of July 2016, the Australian College of Nursing provides 2,050 scholarships, the Services for Australian Rural and Remote Allied Health provide 343 and the National Rural Health Alliance provide 405 scholarships. All of these existing scholarship recipients will continue to receive their assistance.
The Department of Health have contacted scholarship administrators, such as SARRAH, to arrange a new contract to continue to deliver these existing scholarships.
The Indigenous Health Scholarship Scheme scholarships and the Peggy Hunter Memorial Scholarship Program will continue as with a new intake due for 2017.
Q: What is the minister’s position in terms of the overall number of scholarships (and total investment) across the sector, and what proportion of the scholarships/investment will be awarded to nurses and allied health professionals?
A: The Minister appreciates that scholarships can promote the growth of specific parts of the health workforce and the Minister also acknowledges the views put forward in the 2013 Review of Australian Government Health Workforce Programs.
This review made several observations in relation to the scholarships funded by the Department of Health, including that scholarships should align with the most recent evidence, including workforce projections and the efficiency of scholarships.
The structure and number of scholarships available will obviously be determined once the design of the new program has been finalised.
The Government believes that nursing and allied health professionals have a critical role to play in our health system and the National Health Workforce Data Survey for 2014 shows that most allied health professionals —in fact, 79 per cent—work in metropolitan areas, with the remainder in rural or remote areas.
This is why the Government will continue to introduce initiatives that will confront and improve this situation in Australia’s rural, regional and remote communities.
In a subsequent phone call following up these questions, a representative told Croakey that he was hopeful that the Scholarship Program would be up and running early in 2017, with the possibility that applicants could receive funding for courses they had already started.
A way forward
While it is reassuring that plans are underway, it is disappointing that students and health professionals planning study or CPD for next year will not be able to factor financial support from scholarships in or out, as those in similar situations have been able to do in previous years.
It’s also not ideal that, having found itself short of time to work through the complexities of developing a fair and efficient scholarship program, the government is content to see this stream of funding for new applicants cut off for however long it takes to make the new arrangements.
The Services for Rural and Remote Allied Health (SARRAH), suggested a way forward in their letter to the MPs this week: if the government makes funds available to their existing program (the Nursing and Allied Health Scholarship and Support Scheme) they could deliver a round of scholarships for semester 1 2017, to fill in the gap.
If we want the flow of support for training and upskilling of our rural nurses and allied health workers to be continuous, this would seem like a good option.
We don’t know the circumstances of these potential applicants but we do know that financial concerns are among the many barriers for rural and remote-living people considering health careers. Why would we run the risk that some individuals will defer study or head in another direction, when a viable alternative is available?