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From 1 January 2017 the NSW Government will reform its Smart and Skilled eligibility requirements to allow refugees and asylum seekers access to vocational education and training for free.

Smart and Skilled gives eligible students access to government-subsidised training for qualifications on the NSW skills list.

Previously, those seeking asylum and refugees on temporary protection visas were required to pay international student fees to attend TAFE and university

The change comes as part of a $27 million skills and training package for asylum seekers and refugees announced by the NSW Government.

All refugees who commence study from 2017, including those on bridging visas, temporary humanitarian concern visas, and temporary humanitarian stay visas, will be able to access fee-free training for qualifications up to Certificate IV level.

Last year the Abbott Government announced it would resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees on top of its existing intake. NSW was to receive half of this figure over two years and has so far resettled almost 3700.

Tim O’Conner, acting CEO of Refugee Council Australia, said the changes to Smart and Skilled were critical for the successful integration of refugees into Australian society.

“We applaud the announcement that the Baird government will allow free access to education for refugees and people seeking asylum.

“We know from our many conversations with people who are new to Australia that access to education is the key to employment. It’s also the key to making new networks and friends, and ultimately to successful integration.

“This is an important step to help people rebuild their lives and contribute to their new homes, which will ultimately be of benefit to all of us in the Australian community,” he said.

Ruth Cohen from the Sydney Alliance, a key advocate for NSW tertiary concessions for refugees, described the announcement as “the most marvelous win-win situation”.

“When we talk to people they tend to express two main things. Firstly, they are very keen on education. Secondly, they want to be self-sufficient

“These changes are a real opportunity for them to be able to achieve both, and to be able to participate in society. It will give people an enormous boost to their own personal focus,” she said

Ciantial Bigornia, an asylum seeker organising assistant from the Sydney Alliance, also noted that giving newcomers opportunities to educate themselves would “do wonders for their mental health”.

“A lot of people seeking asylum have come to Australia with qualifications that aren’t recognised here. Now they will have the opportunity to study alongside other Australians, as well as the opportunity to give back to society.”

“There are roughly 8000 refugees and asylum seekers living in NSW, that’s potentially another 8000 who can contribute to the economy, and learn skills to help other Australians,” she said.

The State Government is expected to resettle the remaining 2300 Syrian refugees in NSW by mid-2017.