On Friday, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced increases to fees for certain degrees deemed saturated and non-essential in a post-COVID-19 Australia. The news headlines from the announcement focused mostly on the proposed huge cost increases to humanities and communications for students, 113% to be exact, and the 28% increase for law, business, and economics.
Under the proposal, the student contributions for a degree in philosophy or journalism are higher than that of a medical degree. That is massive news.
But what is probably just as inflammatory, and is only now getting talked about, days later, is that some other areas of study that would be cheaper for students, are getting funding cuts. At this point, it is clear the Liberals know that their attacks on education are extremely unpopular, so they are masking this one with a big attack on humanities, a prime piece of meat thrown to their base.
The Big Picture
I would link the government’s proposal document as a source, but it seems to have been removed from the website.
This table, and it is not a unique one, tells a confusing story. You see, the government’s messaging around these reforms is that of “incentivising” students to study certain things and adapting themselves to a job market that is going through the greatest recession since the great depression.
So, the government says prospective students should consider studying education, mathematics, or science units, for example, to compliment your other studies and to better prepare you for work in the future. That is not very controversial, and a lot of people study two different things for this reason already.
But to match that, you would assume the government is making sure the overall funding for these degrees is either staying the same or increasing, right? To match an uptick in enrolments and to prepare universities for more students, right?
Well, no. They’re not. They’re actually cutting funding for those areas.
These degrees I just mentioned are the ones that Tehan has been focussing on, because yes, they are going to be much cheaper for students. But the Liberal government is not filling that funding gap, and in some cases is also reducing their contributions.
This also completely contradicts the entire point, as it seems, for doing these reforms; incentivising students to choose different areas of study. Why would you want to decrease funding to degrees you want more students to choose? And on the other side of that coin, why would you increase funding to degrees you want less students to choose?
I was sceptical of the proposal, because why wouldn’t you be with this government, but their own proposal completely proves this isn’t about incentivising students to study certain things. This is just an attack on the education sector.
The Most Hard Hit Areas
High ranking academics and university staff around the country are worried about the impacts these changes could have on universities.
Professor Ian Jacobs, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of NSW, also pointed out the contradiction in the government’s messaging in a long statement on the university’s website. Professor Jacobs said that to support the intended rise in science and engineering students, which is costing the university “about $5000 per student per year,” the extended losses from the changes would run into the “tens of millions of dollars each year.”
Off the back of a global pandemic, which has publicly reported to cost some universities hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income, what the fuck is the government doing in making that wound deeper?
Professor Jacobs also noted that this severe cut to funding for areas like STEM, which, let’s remember, is a study area that requires complex and expensive equipment for practical assessment, may lead to universities over-filling the areas that are now overall getting more funding.
I’ve spoken to academics who have called this “cross-subsidisation,” which refers to using cash-cow degrees like humanities to help pay for the areas that are getting funding cuts. This is just a disaster for universities, which are already well-reported to be underfunded as is.
A journalist at Tehan’s Friday press conference said it perfectly. To paraphrase: As a young person looking to study journalism, studying nursing could have been a fraction of the price and I still wouldn’t have done it, because I didn’t want to be a nurse.