There’s many reasons to be angry. But now that I’ve cooled off a little and looked closer at what exactly has been proposed, here’s eight reasons you should be opposed to these changes to university funding.
Scott Morrison would not have chosen to major in agriculture because of a move like this when he was an undergraduate (not that he had to contend with thousands of dollars worth of student debt at all). So why would the government think a change to the fee structure might actually bring about the outcomes in student choice that they are claiming? Either they haven’t thought this through (unlikely) or there’s another purpose here. Once you look past the headlines of “humanities degrees twice as expensive” and examine the overall changes to all courses, there’s some hints of what that purpose is. For example, mathematics students stand to pay nearly $6 000 per annum less than they currently do, which seems like a good thing - if you’re a student. But the government funding for mathematics only increases by a little under $2 500, leaving reduced total funds to the university of $3 500/annum per student. The figures differ for different subject areas, with some of the increases in student contributions leading to higher overall funds, but on the whole, there’s a pattern: reduction in university funds. More areas lose total funds than gain them - including teaching, nursing, science and engineering - and the average loss is almost double the average gain (data from Department of Education, Skills & Employment and collated into a helpful table here). An already-struggling sector will need to find other ways to cover its costs, and while the government will pay less for most humanities students, universities will earn more in total from history, philosophy, law, economics and creative arts enrolments than they do now - thanks to the increased student contributions. Note that these are also courses that are cheaper to run than those requiring specialist equipment and laboratories. In other words, these students become effectively the closest thing we have to full fee paying domestic students, and universities will be forced to rely on them the way they’ve been relying on international students for years.
Inaccurate assumptions about jobs
In short, the argument is that the government wants more employable graduates and thinks the way to do this is to encourage people into degrees that lead directly to jobs. But as the data shows, humanities graduates have a higher post-university employment rate than maths or science graduates, and earn slightly more on average. So however reasonable the rationale may seem, the rationale is irrelevant if it’s based on a faulty premise.
It implies that the purpose of education is industry-specific knowledge, rather than skills
Do you know why teachers (in schools or tertiary education) make their students do group work? It’s not because they like marking it or managing a classroom of small groups - they don’t. It’s because the process of being frustrated by your group members, delegating tasks, communicating about it, coordinating the workload and putting it all together is a process that requires so-called “soft skills”, applicable to many industries and careers. We talk about moving into an economy with increased automation and artificial intelligence, but we also know AI is only as good as the person programming it - it’s why kids are taught to code in primary school. The jobs we will always need humans for are those that require problem solving, creativity, articulation of ideas, critical thinking, communication, empathy, engaging with issues and “thinking outside the box”. Humanities majors don’t learn specific, detailed content relevant to one career, they learn skills that are needed in all kinds of careers, including the jobs that we don’t know about yet.
When I was eighteen, I got to the end of my first year of uni and realised I was in the wrong degree. I remember working up the courage to admit as much to my Dad.
“Okay,” he said. “So what do you want to study? Philosophy?”
“Yes,” I replied, “But what job can you do with a major in Philosophy?”
“There’s such a thing as knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” Dad told me.
There’s a certain amount of privilege in such a statement, I know. But my father is a clinical biochemist with specialties in genetic medicine, raised in a working class household in the north of England. This was not a man who loved reading Kant himself or had too many fluffy, idealistic views about the world. What he wanted me to understand was that an education is valuable for much more than the job at the end of it. This proposal - or rather, the stated rationale for it - suggests that the only things worth learning are those we can predict in advance exactly when and where we will use them. But life isn’t predictable like that. Eighteen-year-old me couldn’t see when I might be able to earn money from something I learned in a philosophy classroom, but ten years after graduation I can recognise many times I have. Then of course there’s the times those ideas and critical thought processes have been relevant to my life outside the workforce. Even the Early Childhood subjects I took in that first year before I transferred degrees have made me a better teacher, mother, and writer. When we suggest that some majors are more worthy than others, we ignore the value of education itself and the myriad of unexpected ways new knowledge improves our lives.
It impacts subjects, not degrees
The degree I transferred into was a Bachelor of Arts with Diploma of Education, and I double-majored in English and Philosophy. While the Education subjects and practical placements were essential for a job in a high school classroom, I wouldn’t have been a qualified teacher without a teachable major (in my case, English). I remember looking at my HECS statement one semester and noticing that the education subjects were far cheaper to take than the literature subjects. This is because the structure of government funding has long been one that prioritises some subjects over others. The proposed changes aren’t “new” in that sense, what’s new is which subjects get prioritised and how much the government pays overall (see point 1).
But as I noted above, you can’t become a qualified teacher by only taking education subjects. You need a major. The media talks about it being “cheaper” to study teaching and “more expensive” to study arts, but that’s not actually how it works. Under this proposal, a history, art, commerce or music teacher will pay significantly more for their degree than a maths, agriculture or computing teacher, only to go into a field with the same pay scale, same career progression model and same employers. They can be hired at the same school to live and work in the same town and it will take one twice as long to pay off their HECS debt (see next point).
It punishes people for having the “wrong” skills and interests.
Let’s be clear - people don’t choose their university courses based on the differences in fees. We don’t really think a seventeen year old interested in law will choose to go into nursing instead because the HECS debt is smaller, do we? No, people who are in a position to go to university will continue to choose courses based on what they’re interested in learning more about, what they can imagine themselves doing day after day, and what industries the degree will open the door into. In fact, that’s what the government advises students to do in its own FAQ about the proposed changes. In part, these decisions are already taking job prospects into account. But they’re made based on interests, talents and strengths, and the people whose interests are in the humanities or creative arts are unlikely to change based on this proposal. All that will happen is they will have a higher HECS debt at the end of it.
Why does this matter, if it will be paid off eventually when they get a job? For the purposes of this illustration, take two high school teachers, one teaching geography, commerce & economics and one teaching IT and software design. The geography teacher starts with a much bigger HECS debt (see above), but both teachers enter the workforce at the same pay rate, both paying off their debt at the same pace. A few years in, the computing teacher has no HECS remaining and has an extra bit of money coming in each fortnight, which they put into the high-interest savings account they’ve been using to save for a house deposit. After a while, both teachers approach a mortgage broker about buying their own home. The geography teacher still has a HECS debt, which, although much lower-interest than a bank loan and not affecting their credit rating, does reduce their income and ability to make mortgage repayments, reducing their overall borrowing capacity. The computing teacher does not have this debt, and has also been able to save a bigger deposit. So the computing teacher buys their house, while the geography teacher continues to pay rent (and HECS) and add a small amount to their savings. By the time the geography teacher has saved up as much as the computing teacher did, housing prices in their area have risen. So they have to keep saving. Both teachers move up the pay scale and now the geography teacher is able to get the bank loan they need. But the houses cost more, so their deposit covers less and the loan is bigger overall. Meanwhile, the computing teacher has been building equity as they’ve paid more off their (smaller) mortgage, not having to pay rent or HECS for the past few years. A decade after graduation, both teachers are living in the same neighbourhood, doing the same job, earning the same income, with houses of similar market value - but the geography teacher’s mortgage is $200K higher than the computing teacher’s.
A decision that gives some people a higher HECS debt than others, not based on the number of subjects they took or years they spent studying, or even the costs associated with running their courses, but based on how the government values what they chose to study, is a punishment for those people. And any decision that punishes people financially at the start of their career has the potential to be a lifelong punishment.
It perpetuates sexism, racism and prejudice
Think that’s a big claim to make? Too leftist? In an analysis of enrolments across Australian universities, Professor Frank Larkin notes:
There are more domestic undergraduate female students than males in 7 of designated 10 fields of education. The concentration is in three fields, society and culture, health, management and commerce. Males are dominant in only two fields, information technology, engineering and related technologies at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
Which fields are seeing a fee increase for students under this proposal, and which are seeing a reduction? The degrees women choose at higher rates are the ones that will become more expensive, a particularly noticeable decision when you take into account the “motherhood tax” and likelihood that these are the students who may interrupt their careers to have children a few years in. If you make it harder for them to pay off their HECS prior to that career interruption, they will carry that debt for much longer (on average) than men.
But aside from punishing women financially more than men and increasing the gender pay gap, this decision makes subject areas like Gender Studies, Anthropology, Political Science and History more expensive for students. People can’t enact social and political change without awareness of the need for that change and the things that have worked or failed in the past. They can’t fight against the systems of oppression if they don’t know how those systems are operating. And as I outlined above, it’s not just people majoring in those areas who might take one of those classes. In fact, the decision is much more likely to affect student choices when it comes to electives than majors, something Education Minister Dan Tehan specifically encouraged in his speech. Someone studying Japanese may choose to take a single Cultural Studies class one semester because it seems relevant and interesting, but if they’re told it will be cheaper to pick Business English, that might be one more adult who doesn’t learn to challenge their cultural biases.
One area that sees reduced government funding and reduced student fees, with a total loss to universities of almost $10K per full-time student per year, is environmental studies. This is a disincentive not to the students themselves choosing the subject, but to the universities. It encourages universities to limit enrolments in those courses, or not run them at all. Call me a conspiracy theorist if you like, but at a time when young voters are marching in the streets about the climate crisis, I don’t see that as a coincidence.