It’s been a tough few months for the university sector and some experts argue the situation may be about to get worse with the controversial Job-ready Graduates Package scheduled for debate in parliament tomorrow.
Officially known as the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, the Job-ready Graduates Package is a proposed amendment to the 2003 Higher Education Support Act.
The Coalition government has been attempting to pass amendments to the Higher Education Act since 2014, but with higher numbers in their favour in the Senate this time around, the vote over the Job-ready Graduates Package is predicted to be close.
The Package has been causing upset in the university sector since it was first announced by federal education minister Dan Tehan on June 19.
In an address to the National Press Club in June, Mr Tehan said the Job-ready Graduates Package was designed to increase the number of graduates studying in areas of anticipated employment growth, by lowering student contributions in those fields.
“We want our students to receive an education that sets them up for future success – because if graduates succeed, they will power an economic recovery that benefits all Australians,” he said.
The education minister supported the Bill again in a statement in August, which touted its benefits.
“The Job-ready Graduates Package will provide more university places for Australian students, make it cheaper to study in areas of expected job growth and provide more funding and support to regional students and universities,” Mr Tehan said in the statement.
The Bill will ultimately change how much the Commonwealth contributes to university degrees, meaning some degrees will require more financial contribution from students while others will require less.
Under the proposed legislation students are expected to contribute 46 per cent less in teaching, nursing, and clinical psychology, 62 per cent less in agriculture and maths, and 20 per cent less to study health, IT and engineering.
Degrees deemed to have low employment turnouts, including humanities degrees in areas such as law, communications and economics, are set to cost students upwards of 113 per cent more if the Bill is passed.
Under the Package, students who enrol in a university degree course before January 1, 2021, will contribute the same amounts as they would have done prior to the implementation of the policy.
Consultation on the draft legislation closed on August 17, having received 3791 submissions. The Bill was introduced to the House of Representatives on August 26 and passed by the House on September 1.
From there it was introduced to the Senate for a first time reading on September 2, with a second reading moved on the same day.
Then, following opposition from Labor and The Greens, it was referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee on September 3 for what some have called a hastily put together inquiry.
The inquiry into the Bill finished on September 25, with the report from the Committee recommending that the legislation be passed but reviewed after two years, despite many opponents speaking out against the Bill.
Both Labor and the Greens are opposed to the Bill, while One Nation has declared its support for the legislation, which means passing it will come down to the votes of only a few senators.
Senator Jackie Lambie, who had been one of the few remaining senators who was undecided on her position on the Job-ready Graduates Package, announced on September 30 that she would oppose the Bill.
“I’ll be dammed if I’m going to be the vote that tells the country that poor people don’t get dream jobs,” Senator Lambie said in the statement.
She also alluded to a lack of evidence that the proposed legislation would actually create more university places.
“Seriously, if the number one reason you’re making these cuts is to pay for more places, and you can’t even show that the cuts are going to produce more places, you’ve got a date with a drawing board,” she said.
Senator Lambie’s announcement not to support the Bill means that currently only one vote will decide whether the Job-ready Graduates Package will come into effect.
Pauline Hanson, who held another potential vote against the Bill, has already said One Nation senators will back the legislation in return for the Coalition agreeing to change the definition of “academic freedom” and provide a 10 per cent fee discount to students who choose to pay their fees upfront.
The National Union of Students’ Facebook page has encouraged opponents of the Bill to contact any remaining undecided senators, specifically South Australia’s Centre Alliance members Rebekha Sharkie and Stirling Griff, who have yet to announce their position on the Bill.
Many academics have also spoken out against the proposed legislation.
Honorary Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at Melbourne University, Mark Warburton, was one of the industry spokespeople to argue against the Bill at the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee’s inquiry.
Mr Warburton said he told the Committee the policy was “incredibly flawed”.
“In fact, the position I put to the committee is that the Bill shouldn’t be supported,” he said.
“I also said I thought that the Bill was too complex to be able to be amended on the floor of the senate.
“I basically think that the Bill would do more harm than good, that there’s too much about it that we don’t know, and that the impacts on particular groups of students likely to be detrimental.”
Mr Warburton also said it was inaccurate to say humanities degrees were not preparing students for employment or success.
“The graduate outcomes from humanity study is at least as good as those from the study of science,” he said.
“So, in the short term, that is within about three months of completing, you end up with around 73 per cent of all students employed full time.”
“And by the time you get to three years out, that’s 90 per cent.”
In a statement in June, the president of The Australian Academy of the Humanities, Professor Joy Damousi, expressed deep concern about the proposed changes to the Higher Education Support Act.
“This is potentially the greatest hit to Australia’s humanities sector in a century,” Professor Damousi said.
“Nothing we have heard from the government today justifies their decision,” she said.
“Evidence shows that the skills and knowledge from humanities and social sciences training – including critical thinking, communication skills and understanding the impact of change on humanity – are highly valued by employers and in the workforce.”
Professor Damousi is not alone in her concerns.
Griffith University economics lecturer Dr Parvinder Kler suggested the decision did not follow economic logic as the government’s announcement implied.
“Quite frankly I think it’s a political or ideological goal, rather than an economic one,” Dr Kler said.
“You cannot suddenly have all of this policy on tertiary education that has arisen just out of COVID-19… I strongly believe this was an ideological position the government had and they’ve used COVID-19 as an opportunity to push it through.”
“I don’t believe there’s any economic rationale for this,” he said.
Dr Kler said the use of economic forecasting to estimate which jobs would be beneficial for the economy in the future could not be so easily applied to today’s economy.
“The problem with it is the economy is changing in so many fascinating ways,” he said.
“The idea that you can funnel people to study courses ‘x, y and z’ to help the economy in the future made more sense when there was more [economic] certainty.”
“So, I would argue that is problematic in itself.”
According to Mr Warburton there is already a lot of concern in the university sector over any reduction in funding, especially considering the financial impact on the sector since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen a significant decrease in international students and therefore in funding, as well as staff cuts at many universities.
“It has massive implications for their revenue; we’re talking billions of dollars,” he said.
Modelling by Universities Australia in June claimed universities would lose up to $16 billion by 2023 due to the impact of COVID-19 and the loss of international student fee revenue, which included a drop of 20 per cent in international student enrolments in 2020 alone.
According to a report in The Conversation in June, international student fees make up as much as 36 per cent of the total revenue for some Australian universities, such as RMIT University in Melbourne, with universities around the country facing varying levels of financial insecurity depending on how great their usual international student enrolment numbers are.
National Union of Students (NUS) welfare officer Ali Amin said the union had been hoping for more support for universities and students in light of the pandemic, and said the Job-ready Graduates Package had come as a huge shock.
“The approach of cutting students from HECS if they fail will affect students with a disability, who aren’t receiving the support they should be receiving,” Mr Amin said.
“It will affect regional students, who as I said, come here with no support network, no financial support per say, when they do move to a big city to study, and they tend to fail at a much higher rate,” he said.
Mr Amin said the modelling showed students who did decide to study a humanities degree could be paying off their debt for 20 years if the Bill passed the Senate.
He said since the announcement of the Job-ready Graduates Package, the NUS had seen a surge in student support, with Facebook posts about the topic reaching an unprecedented figure of more than one million people.
“But the purpose of our university system, the modern one as designed, was to allow anyone, whether they be a carer with children, whether they be a 60-year-old retiree that may be wanting to retrain, to be able to go to university for the purposes of higher learning,” he said.
“Everyone should have the right to higher education and pursuing knowledge.”
Dr Kler said there was also the possibility that a reliance on price signals to alter student behaviour might not work as intended.
“In Australia, because of HECS, [students] don’t actually face the financial burden up front,” Dr Kler said.
He said school leavers were not overly concerned with the debt level they had to repay so price signalling was not very strong in Australia.
“[Providing financial incentives] assumes people are indifferent between the choices and they are simply moving towards the price incentive,” Dr Kler said.
“We know for a fact that’s not the case; we all have our preferences,” he said.
“If you really want to do humanities, then you’re still going to do humanities.”
University of New of England student Gemma Elsom is studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in sociology and said while the potential fee increase did not affect her current degree, it affected her decision to switch to a double degree.
“I’ve settled on doing a diploma [in computer science] instead of doing a full double degree,” she said.
“Obviously a double degree is more valuable, but if I don’t continue with the degree I’m doing now, I have to re-enrol and then I’d either have to pay more or give up what I’m passionate about.”
“It’s much more complicated,” she said.
Ms Elsom said returning to study as an adult had made the financial burden of the fee increases more impactful than it would have when she first left high school.
“I’m not a uni student who’s fresh out of school doing first time study,” she said.
“I have decided to step away from my full-time career to up-skill myself, but I am paying a huge cost to do that.”
“Now that I’m an adult and have been paying off my HECS for a few years, it doesn’t just feel like a distant number in the sky,” she said.
“It’s a debt that I have and I’m actively paying off.”
Even in light of this potentially looming debt, Ms Elsom said the price incentives had not driven her away from studying in an area that followed her passion.
“It won’t stop me from pursuing the humanities, it will just make my path there a lot more difficult,” she said.