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The federal government plans to jack up the price of some university degrees. Here's what it could mean for the sector.

Jack Derwin
  • The federal government has unveiled some major university reforms, which include increasing course fees for students based on "expected growth in job opportunities".
  • The move would hit arts and social science degrees particularly hard, more than doubling student course fees overnight.
  • Business Insider Australia spoke to academics to gauge what these sweeping changes could mean.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia's homepage for more stories.

The federal government's raft of education proposals have stirred up Australia's university sector.

On Friday, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced sweeping changes, including large increases in course fees to be paid by future students, especially those enrolled in arts and social science courses.

"Students will have a choice. Their degree will be cheaper if they choose to study in areas where there is expected growth in job opportunities," Tehan told the National Press Club.

However, while the federal government says the decision to adjust the funding model is based on the labour market, it does present one obvious problem, being the rapid transformation of work.

"This decision assumes that the same professions will continue to depend on the same types of education," Flinders University dean of education Debra Bateman told Business Insider Australia.

"That's the risk for areas like the humanities, and arts and social sciences, that perhaps this generation is going to turn those areas of studies into whole new kinds of industry and innovation the likes of which we haven't imagined previously."

Alan Reid, emeritus professor at the University of South Australia, agrees the consequences of the government's changes are wide-reaching.

"This policy assumes the main purpose of Universities to be one of meeting the demands of the labour market. It is ironic that the policy cannot even adequately achieve that emaciated end," he said, arguing the fourth industrial revolution would demand the kind of thinking fostered in the faculties the policy harms.

"Making it more difficult for students to afford to study disciplines such as history and philosophy will not only impoverish our society and democracy more broadly but so too will it fail to meet the future demands of the labour market [as a result]."

So too could it have broader implications for our future ability to deal with crises.UTS senior social and political sciences lecturer Tamson Pietsch said it raises some big questions about the predicament young people are being placed in.

"Are [these changes] attuned to the kinds of jobs Australia will need as we face the twin challenges of climate and COVID-19?" she said.

"The costs of meeting the social and economic challenges Australia faces are to be borne by individuals. Specifically, they will be borne by individuals who have either been put out of work by COVID-19 or who – as young people – are already going to bear the costs of environmental degradation, housing unaffordability and fragmented work."

The changes, on the whole, appear to largely bring Australia in line with moves made in the UK years ago, according to Gwilym Croucher, Melbourne University senior lecturer in Higher Education Policy and Management.

"While it will disadvantage some students, it will obviously advantage others, because there are some fee reductions. However, overall, from the detail that I've seen students will be, on average, probably paying more now," Croucher told Business Insider Australia, although he cautioned the fees cited were only projected.

As part of the overhaul, more Commonwealth-supported places will be allocated to regional universities, which Croucher says should help ease some financial pressure.

But while arts and social science students will be asked to foot a larger bill, it doesn't necessarily mean fewer enrolments, with students not typically paying back – or necessarily even considering – their student debts for a matter of years.

"While it's possible it will affect enrolments in those courses, evidence suggests that because of the HELP system, students aren't quite as price sensitive to fee changes as you might expect," Croucher said. "That said these are substantial increases for humanities students so we can't rule out less students wanting to go into arts degrees."

So too might it affect the kinds of students who can afford to enter those faculties and pursue those career paths.

"[I'm] reluctant to predict the future, but it seems likely this would leave arts degrees – and teaching of history, English, economics, geography, drama in schools – to the children of middle-class progressives with the confidence to pay more," Australian Catholic University senior lecturer in history Hannah Forsyth said.

"That seems retrograde from every perspective, including equality but also to the interests of retaining a diversity of political views among school teachers."

With universities already pushed to "the brink of staff cuts", Forsyth sees the move as a political one.

"It is wholly implausible that Dan Tehan wants to incentivise people to become teachers while pushing them away from the Arts degree," she said.

"Mr Tehan’s announcement looks to me like a signal to Vice-Chancellors to get rid of humanities scholars first, as part of a petty culture war."

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