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Higher Education Reforms – Help or Hindrance?

There has been a vociferous backlash by the academic community against the higher education reforms announced by education minister, Dan Tehan, on Friday. Humanities academics are horrified that arts degrees will now cost students $90,000. They say that this will lead to massive job cuts from arts faculties and will impact negatively on socially disadvantaged students.

In his speech Mr. Tehan said:

“Projections prepared before the COVID-19 pandemic showed that over the five years to 2024 it is expected that the overwhelming majority of new jobs will require tertiary qualifications – and almost half of all new jobs will go to someone with a bachelor or higher qualification.”

Young people appear to have got this message with demand for university places surging. The Government appears to be engaging in social engineering by dropping the cost of degrees whose graduates are likely to be in demand and increasing the cost of degrees they believe are surplus to requirements.

Under the new plan, students doing teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English, and languages will pay 46% less for their degree from next year.

Students in agriculture and maths will pay 62% less, while those studying science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT, and engineering will be 20% better off.

But the student contribution to the humanities will go up by 113%, and the costs for law and commerce will jump by 28%.

Minister Tehan said health care is projected to make the largest contributions to employment growth, followed by science and technology, education, and construction.

He said these industries are projected to provide 62% of total employment growth over the next five years.

With a forecasted rise in unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government is expecting more young people to go to university, and others to return to re-skill.

National figures show about 93% of graduates who are available for work are employed three years after completing their bachelor's degree.

In his speech the education minister said:

“We know that people turn to education during economic downturns and we also know the Costello Baby Boom generation will begin to finish school from 2023.”

In 2017 the Government imposed a cap on subsidized university places. Under this new policy, they have allowed universities to increase the number of places to be offered to domestic students but it hasn’t provided any extra funding. Instead, it has provided financial support for short courses aimed at reskilling people who are not currently working.

Before COVID-19 hit, the number of year 12 students wanting to attend university was only projected to go up by around 1-2% in the next few years – meaning minimal demand for extra university places. However, due to COVID-19, there already has been a reported doubling of year 12 students in NSW applying for a university course compared to the same time last year.

The government believes 39,000 extra university places will be created by 2023 because of these changes. But this number is not specifically designed to meet a projected increase in demand because of the coronavirus. Therefore, it is unclear (without the government lifting the cap) whether there will be enough funded university places for school leavers whose plans have been displaced by the pandemic.

The problem is that the university sector keeps demanding a blank cheque, which the Government is not going to give them. It needs to come back with a proposal for extra funding that works within the minister’s parameters. On the other side, the Government cannot afford to be seen to be ideological, there are too many people likely to be adversely affected.

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