Australian universities, left reeling due to the loss of international students, now face a controversial fee overhaul that will steer students towards courses like architecture and mathematics, and away from those seen as having fewer prospects, such as the humanities.
As the Covid-19 pandemic causes a surge in unemployment, the federal government has announced a shake-up of university fees to try to encourage students to take courses that it says are in fields where employment will grow.
These include agriculture, psychology, foreign languages, architecture and maths, which will have fees cut by 46 per cent to 62 per cent to A$3,700 (S$3,500) a year.
But courses such as law and commerce will increase by 28 per cent to A$14,000 a year. The largest increase is for arts degrees, which will more than double to A$14,000.
Minister for Education Dan Tehan has said that the fee changes were designed to steer Australian students towards “where the jobs of the future are going to be”.
“We’ll put more in where we know the jobs will be, and we’ll put less in where we think there is already enough demand in those jobs,” he told ABC News. “If we’re to grow our economy out of this economic shock… our focus has to be on jobs.”
The fee overhaul has been widely condemned, with critics saying the ruling conservative coalition is unfairly attacking the humanities.
Mr Peter Hurley, an expert on education policy from Victoria University, said the changes were based on “a very simplistic view of the connection between education and the workplace”.
“There has been a push for science, technology, engineering and maths graduates because of a perception they will be needed in greater quantities in the future,” he told The Straits Times.
“But we learn in many different ways, continue to learn after we finish our courses and, indeed, we acquire a lot of the vocationally relevant skills in the workplace.”
Data compiled by Mr Hurley showed 91 per cent of arts graduates in Australia are employed three years after completing their degrees, a higher percentage than science and maths graduates, though lower than law graduates and business graduates, about 96 per cent of whom have jobs.
As for wages, doctors have the highest average annual salaries three years after graduating – A$100,000 – followed by dentists (A$97,400) and engineers (A$82,000). Humanities graduates earn an average of A$70,300. Salaries for graduates of science, maths, architecture and veterinary degrees are A$65,200 to A$68,900.
Mr Hurley said humanities graduates can sometimes have an advantage in the job market because they have broader degrees which enable them to work in different areas.
“With humanities graduates, perhaps there is a broad-based set of skills – such as critical thinking, writing – that they can demonstrate, which employers find attractive,” he said.
Political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane from Sydney University said the coalition’s changes were a radical attempt to undermine the foundations of a modern liberal arts education. Students of the humanities, he said, are trained to be critical and curious and are “taught to ask questions about power and democracy”.
“Conservatives have come to think of universities as incubators of progressive thinking and so-called political correctness,” he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. “We must see education not as an extended exercise in economics, but essentially as an exercise in civilising the mind.”
The government also plans to provide another 39,000 university places for domestic students by 2023. Domestic demand is expected to soar as the job market tightens. In addition, Covid-19 travel curbs will mean many students who would typically take a gap year after school will head straight to university.
But universities have said the fee changes and extra places are unlikely to make up for the funding crisis caused by a drop in the numbers of foreign students, who have been unable to fly to Australia due to the travel curbs.