Australia’s government recently announced some bad news for prospective university students planning to take subjects in the humanities, social sciences or law. To enrol in courses like history and philosophy, they’d have to pay more than their peers studying the sciences, maths or healthcare. In the case of history, for example, the government proposed that course fees would rise by 113%. The cost of many science-related courses would fall by 20%, with the biggest drop visible in mathematics and agriculture – where fees would drop by 62%.

The announcement came as part of a higher education reform package entitled “Job-Ready Graduates”, which contains complex changes to funding structures and still needs to be passed by parliament. The element that has stirred debate is the plan to reduce student tuition costs in fields expected to produce the most job growth and increase them for courses seen as less vital to the economy.

A cheaper degree in an area where there’s a job is a win-win for students – Dan Tehan

In a speech to the National Press Club, Education Minister Dan Tehan said the government wanted to “incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices”. The next wave of graduates would have to power the post-Covid economic recovery, he stressed. “A cheaper degree in an area where there’s a job is a win-win for students.”

More places?

Tehan’s plans, with a proposed start in 2021, generated a wave of headlines. Many in the higher education sector wondered whether the change would really lead to more places in “job-ready” courses, whether it was the latest battle in a continuing attack against the humanities and whether it would exacerbate existing inequalities within higher education.

Luke Sheehy, the executive editor of Australian Technology Network of Universities, describes Tehan’s announcement as “a very complicated reshuffling” of government university funding. According to Sheehy, rather than investing more money to encourage prospective students into Stem fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), the government is trying to shift more of the overall funding burden onto students and simultaneously send them a “price signal”.

In general, fees in Australia are lower than in the US and UK; under the proposed changes, the most expensive courses would cost AU$14,500 (£8,135, $10,334) per year. The government subsidises places for domestic students; different subjects receive different levels of subsidy. The reforms redistribute these subsidies and changes the amount of funding that different subjects receive. For subjects like law and the humanities, the increase in student fees exceeds the decrease in government subsidies, meaning universities end up with higher fees overall. This is not the case in “job-ready subjects”, where universities are forced to absorb a shortfall since the government subsidies do not offset the drop in student fees.

This, higher education professionals argue, means lower per-capita student funding that will not give universities the resources they need to produce more ‘job-ready’ graduates – and could even back-fire. Ian Jacobs, president and vice-chancellor of The University of New South Wales, said in a statement that training more scientists and engineers would cost universities more, creating “a perverse financial incentive” to reduce Stem-related courses and train more people in subjects commanding higher student fees.

Misha Schubert, CEO of Science and Technology Australia, says that while the sector welcomes the strong emphasis on Stem skills in terms of job creation and economic growth, it’s too early to tell whether that will “translate into more places being created at universities for Stem degrees”.

Will price drive selection?

It’s also not clear how much impact the fee changes will have on how students choose their courses.

“What we’ve seen in the last few decades is that students are price-insensitive to courses. Where there have been changes to fees in the past, it hasn’t had much of an impact,” says Jason Brown, a lecturer in careers and employability learning at La Trobe university in Melbourne. Sheehy agrees, saying: “I don’t think we’re going to see a change in enrolment behaviour.”

I think the idea that you can persuade the student who is interested in philosophy to go and become an engineer is just not how this is going to work – Joel Barnes

That’s supported by a survey conducted by The University of Melbourne investigating the experiences of first-year students between 1994 and 2014. When students were asked their main reason for enrolling, intrinsic interest in their subject consistently ranked highest, ahead of improving job prospects. In 1994, 94% considered interest in their field as an important reason to study, a figure that went up to 96% in 2014.

“I think the idea that you can persuade the student who is interested in philosophy to go and become an engineer is just not how this is going to work,” says Joel Barnes, a public history researcher at University of Technology Sydney. Then there are also reasons beyond interest and job prospects that go into a student’s choice to pick a field of study. For example, those with learning disabilities may face additional challenges if they were forced to pick courses that don’t correspond with how they learn best, or isn’t taught in a way that is conducive to their learning.

Sheehy points out that prior education reforms in Australia made law degrees more expensive, yet universities continue to see a consistent increase in law graduates. Conrad Liveris, a labour market economist, told ABC News that while the change may prompt more students to at least think about studying job-ready courses, “whether they continue with that is another thing”.

Both Brown and Barnes acknowledge, however, that students from low-income backgrounds could end up factoring price into their decision-making. Barnes fears that the “demographic character” of humanities will change to include fewer people from working-class or less privileged backgrounds, something he says would be a great shame. “If humanities do become something that’s just for the privileged, it will become less diverse, less critical and less interesting.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Tiana Sixsmith, a third-year anthropology and human rights student at Monash University in Melbourne. “What we feel like we’ll see is that those who don’t need to worry about the fees aren’t going to worry about it,” says Sixsmith. But she’s aware that the fee increases are already making those from low socio-economic groups reconsider studying particular subjects, based on the conversations she’s had with activist student groups and discussions on a Facebook group opposing the fee change.

Culture war or common sense?

Sixsmith also raises a question that has stirred passionate debate in the Australian higher education community – whether the change is an “ideological jab at the arts” or a solid plan that will “actually support students and universities post-pandemic”. Barnes, in a recent article, described the changes as the latest battle in a “decades-old” culture war against the humanities driven by those who perceive them “as generally antagonistic to political interests”.

“It’s useful for society to have a well-educated citizenry who understands how politics function, who understands the history of a given nation, and how that fits into broader culture,” he says. He also challenges the idea that humanities graduates are somehow less job-ready, pointing out that government data “shows that arts and humanities graduates have comparable or slightly better employment outcomes”.

The debate has also highlighted tensions around the role of universities; should they be a place of learning or of vocational training. Australian universities, since their founding, have always involved a negotiation between vocational training and liberal education, says Barnes. “I think what we’re seeing now is a government who is thinking about the purpose of universities in almost entirely vocational terms… and I think that’s new.”

In his speech, Tehan described the changes as “common sense”. “If Australia needs more educators, more health professionals and more engineers, then we should incentivise students to pursue those careers,” he said. He also pointed out that the student-loan scheme meant no-one would be denied a place to study their chosen subject because they could not pay.

And despite criticism of the policy, when ABC News surveyed its readers about the changes, several said cheaper courses would be a factor in their decision to study – a view that seemed more common among those who had already completed one degree but were considering going back to complete a vocational course for a career pivot.

‘We need both’

Time will tell whether the changes – if they become law – will achieve the government’s desired impact. But one thing many seem to agree on is that an economically thriving and well-functioning society requires citizens that are Stem-literate and citizens versed in humanities. Schubert, Sheehy and Brown all reject the idea that a university has to choose between vocational training or liberal education, or that investing in Stem education should come at the expense of humanities and social sciences.

We are encouraging students to embrace diversity and not think about their education as a siloed degree – Dan Tehan

Schubert points out that current technological innovation, for example, is bringing up multiple ethical and legal issues. It’s vital to understand how new products interact in human application and to have people thinking about such issues in the design phase. To do that, Schubert says, we need people with a cross-disciplinary perspective.

In fact, this is exactly the kind of arrangement that the government says it wants to encourage. “We are encouraging students to embrace diversity and not think about their education as a siloed degree,” said Tehan in his speech to the National Press Club. “So if you want to study history, also think about studying teaching. If you want to study philosophy, also think about studying a language. If you want to study law, also think about studying IT.”

Barnes says it’s vital to avoid thinking about higher education as a contest between rival disciplines. “We need both; a lot of the very best work [takes place] at the intersection of both of those. I think both humanists and scientists can fall into the trap like it’s a competition. I think it’s best for everyone in the higher education sector if we can resist that discourse, and instead be in dialogue with one another.”

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