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Universities should be more than job factories

Opinion

A Federal Government move to prioritise “job ready” university courses by cutting some course fees but dramatically increasing the cost of arts degrees will penalise students, narrow choice and impose an economy-first mindset on the spirit of higher education, argues Andrea Michaels.

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Universities are the new “job factories”.

Would-be arts, humanities, and social science students will have fewer choices (unless they are rich) and face the disheartening task of balancing passions with price tags.

It’s a dilemma that promotes deep inequity.

As South Australian universities welcome students back for face-to-face tutorials after the disruptions of COVID-19, it must be tough for those looking to join the ranks in 2021.

The federal government’s new policy of reducing university fees for students choosing STEM and health/education areas, while hiking up the costs of an arts degree has many thinking of skipping higher education all together.

This move will not make Australia a smarter nation, nor create more opportunities for graduates. Bashing humanities-based degrees (including law and economics) and ranking the importance (and price) of courses against a future job market is not only short-sighted, it is a flawed plan that will marginalise some of the most economically disadvantaged members of our community and stall our capacity for creative thinking and innovation.

None of this is good news for South Australia. Due to our smaller population, we already have some of the lowest levels of Commonwealth-supported university places, and this means less money going into our local institutions.

In addition to CPI indexation, funding of total grant money for bachelor degrees will also be dependent on where the campus is located. High-growth metro cities will get 2.5 per cent increases, but low-growth metro locations will only get 1 per cent.

Universities were never established to be job factories, catering for every new trend we think is around the corner. Education is much more than just the job you get at the end of it (and how much it pays).

Universities are big employers and contribute to the economic success of our state. With full fee-paying overseas students in short supply, our universities are likely to find themselves with another funding shortfall. Adding to that, enrolments may well drop on the domestic front.

The typical humanities degree under the PMs new plan is set to increase by a whopping 113 per cent – from $20,000 in fees to around $43,000. That’s a debt that will have to be paid back at some stage. Students (and parents) know this and it might cause some to stop and think.

Choosing to make ‘job priority’ courses cheaper and humanities study more expensive also promotes a culture of disadvantage, especially for women and those from lower socio-economic groups. In fact, there is quite a distinct gender bias operating here. Humanities are one of the most popular programs of study, especially for females.

According to recent figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women make up more than half of all university students in Australia and represent more than 60 per cent of those studying society, culture and creative arts courses (compared to only 16 per cent of female students studying male-dominated areas like engineering).

The latest analysis by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre also found that with the new ‘Job Ready Graduate’ changes, our young women can now expect to pay an extra $498 million each year towards their education, compared to young men who will pay an additional $339 million.

Given pay gaps are still significant across all industries, and women are often forced to take time off or to work part-time caring for children, an increased HECS burden will be following them into the future for a longer period of time.

On top of this many people from lower social economic backgrounds struggle to get to university at all, including for STEM degrees. Our own federal Department of Education, Skills and Employment highlights various reports showing that students from lower socio economic areas consistently fall behind in STEM education at school and are underrepresented in the STEM workforce. We need to address this fact and to spend money working with at-risk students at high school level so they can have the choice to study at university in a diverse range of subject areas.

The other point that needs addressing is why study of the arts is so maligned in the first place. While studying maths, science, teaching, nursing or engineering might be wonderful for some, it won’t be everyone’s first choice, or even a choice at all. A broad-based arts degree is actually very valuable. Many of our Prime Ministers started with one (including Scott Morrison who has a degree in ‘economic geography’).

Some of the world’s best universities base their undergraduate studies on a classic arts education, including Oxford and Cambridge. Things are changing so quickly and young people need to be both flexible and versatile. We don’t know the jobs that will be around in five to ten years, or how many careers we might have over a lifetime of working. An arts education promotes higher-end critical and creative thinking – traits that will be needed in the 21st century.

The federal government’s ‘job ready’ rhetoric is a dangerous road that may affect future directions in education across the board. It won’t be long before the anti-arts/humanities movement that has been thrust on universities will trickle down to high schools too. Soon principals will fear for their funding and decide the study of art and drama, as well as history and literature subjects, should be cut altogether.

In the new hierarchy of what subjects are the most valuable, more and more will be prioritising science, maths and technology at the expense of subjects that can actually help our young people develop an important understanding of society and ethics, thinking outside the box, and an appreciation of different cultures and points of view.

Universities were never established to be job factories, catering for every new trend we think is around the corner. Education is much more than just the job you get at the end of it (and how much it pays).

The ‘job factory’ approach confines and devalues higher education and will limit Australia’s potential. It will diminish our most cherished institutions and short-change an entire generation of talented and creative young Australians with a passion to pursue their own paths.

We need to trust that our students know what their strengths are and have the confidence to tackle whatever may be ahead in the future. Teach them those these skills at an earlier age and we will get better results from our education system.

Narrowing things down to dollars and cutting out choices is the wrong way to go. Instead, we should look to break down inequalities in education and to provide everyone with the same chances to succeed at – whatever they choose to pursue in life.

Andrea Michaels is the Labor MP for Enfield and the Managing Director of NDA Law.

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