Undoubtedly, many university students across the country have mixed feelings towards the Morrison government’s recent decision to shift $480 million of existing subsidies towards degrees in which a significant skills shortage has been identified. As a result, changes to university fees will vary from a 113 per cent price increase for humanities courses to a 62 per cent decrease in areas such as agriculture and mathematics.
Of course, these announcements have not been made on a whim. Instead, they are based on skills shortages that have vital industries such as engineering, teaching and nursing lacking the required number of quality graduates. Students looking to enter these areas of the workforce are set to receive an array of benefits in the form of cheaper degrees; something that the media seems to shy their attention away from.
As expected, the recent coronavirus pandemic has seen a sharp increase in the number of high-school students wanting to enter university after their studies. More than ever, young Australians are desperate to enter the workforce after a jump in youth unemployment to 16.1 per cent in May 2020.
Valid concerns have been raised as to what the potential impact on future students might be. Understandably, there are worries that an increase in price may disincentivise young people from wanting to study humanities; an undoubtedly valued and important academic discipline.
However, a recent government-funded study has shown that humanities graduates ($70,300) earn slightly more than those who study science and maths ($68,900). These figures are based on median full-time salaries for university graduates about three years after finishing their course.
Evidently, school leavers may not only choose to study in these fields based on future earning capacities, but also possess a greater capacity to pay off student contributions when able to do so. This situation is especially the case in areas such as business and law, where graduates find themselves with a higher earning propensity off the back of a more expensive degree.
In the face of a looming recession, a wide range of students will likely choose to undertake studies which will place them into stable and rewarding careers. Given this reality, the next generation of university students has been gifted with a set of circumstances allowing for a maximum ‘return on investment’ for their studies.
At the same time, there is nothing stopping students from taking up courses which sit on the bottom end of the pay scale. The same study found that humanities graduates are employed at a rate of 91.1 per cent, which lies above the figure for science and maths.
In fact, courses for which the government has increased student contributions return a higher rate of employment, with law graduates (95.8 per cent) and business graduates (95.5 per cent) entering the workforce above the average rate.
While organisations such as the National Union of Students have come out and labelled the reforms as a “debt sentence” for young Australians, it’s important to consider how the HECS system instead provides an opportunity for graduates to get ahead before repayments must be made.
At present, the compulsory repayment threshold for the 2020-21 income year is $46,620. In the scheme of things, a more expensive degree should not deter someone from following their passions and striving to work in a particular field, especially if there is a considerable advantage once they graduate.
There is no dispute to the importance of a well-rounded and educated society boosted by an enriching curriculum in humanities and the arts. Yet the focus must be on ensuring that our workforce is balanced and that fundamental shortages in certain sectors of the economy are addressed.
Together, all this means there is nothing “unfair” about reassessing how our university courses are priced moving forward.
Jeremy Mann is a humanities student at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Melbourne University Liberal Club.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.