The hidden consequences of university fee changes
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 125 No 6, 14 August 2020, page no.8
In June, the federal government announced significant changes to university course fees, which would see the cost of studying humanities at university double, but “job-relevant” course fees reduced.
According to the government, there would also be an increase of 39,000 university places (by 2023). These changes come in the context of an expected surge in domestic university enrolments in 2021, caused by rising unemployment and the likelihood that students who would usually defer university to take a gap year will not do so due to travel restrictions and the poor jobs market.
A surge in domestic enrolments is desperately needed by universities, which have suffered a massive loss of revenue from international students during the COVID-19 crisis and not received any substantial additional assistance from the government. Universities were excluded from the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme.
The purported rationale of the changes is to direct students into areas where “there is expected growth in job opportunities” and thus increase the graduate employment rate. Teaching, along with agriculture, IT, nursing and maths, are examples of areas which will see fee reductions. Fees for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science will stay the same. Law and commerce course fees will increase, but it is the humanities that will be most severely affected, increasing by 113 per cent. The fee increases will not apply to students who are already enrolled in courses.
So, what should be made of the changes?
Of course, a reduction of course fees for teacher education is welcome, but needs to be considered in the context of the fee change package as a whole.
First, it can be noted that the reforms represent another step in a policy journey pursued by successive governments in Australia, which has seen an ever-increasing emphasis on the individual economic benefits of higher education and a diminishing focus on its wider public benefits. As Marginson wrote in Higher Education and the Common Good (Melbourne University Press, 2016), the policy narrative constructs higher education as “essentially preparation for work and careers … that nothing else about it is as important”.
Flowing from this characterisation of higher education is the conclusion that the greater proportion of its costs should be borne by its consumers (i.e. students). Ignored is the role that additional government investment can play in the long-term economic, social and cultural growth of the nation.
This latest intervention is based on fond hopes rather than any economic evidence. As Marginson has pointed out, economics has thus far proven itself incapable of explaining the interaction between higher education and earnings, rates of employment and occupational status. It is a policy intervention rife with the possibility of failing to deliver its stated intentions and resulting in unintended consequences.
In an open letter to the Minister for Education (https://theconversation.com/an-open-letter-to-australias-education-minister-dan-tehan-signed-by-73-senior-professors-142989), 73 senior academics from across Australia wrote that the reform “is likely to have the unintentional effect of amplifying inequities in higher education, and will work against the very economic goals it is trying to achieve”. The letter states that the tuition reform is based on “untenable assumptions about future growth in demand for training in particular backgrounds”, noting that both STEM and humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) courses advance our understanding of the world and provide “critical thinking skills needed to acquire that understanding”. The evidence is that employers highly value the skills provided by HASS courses.
Further, “it is unhealthy for a democratic and inclusive society to make some fields the province of those who can pay more for them”.
As Peetz has observed (https://theconversation.com/can-government-actually-predict-the-jobs-of-the-future-141275), given the lack of evidence to support the government’s “marketable skills” rationale for the reform, that argument is likely “just a cover for another agenda” - an agenda that includes the avoidance of an increase in public funding for universities in real terms, the further entrenchment of educational inequality, and the firing of a few more gratuitous shots at “trendy, left-wing, feminist, identity-based” humanities and social science courses in the culture war.