The Federal Government’s announced changes to university fee structures have been rightly met with shock, anger and dismay.
The change is purported to encourage people into maths and science degrees, which the government claims are more likely to result in employment than studying humanities. However, for the huge numbers of people who have built varied and interesting careers on the foundation of a degree in humanities, it’s hard to see the logic of this argument.
Given the potential economic impact of this decision on universities, it’s also hard to understand the timing of the decision. It seems strange to be picking on a sector reeling from the impact of COVID-19 and the loss of up to a third of their student revenue overnight due to the loss of enrolments from international students. Pursuing international students has been a central part of the sector’s business model for some time and has been fuelled in part by neo-liberal policies that have been promoted by conservative governments. For years we have seen a significant reduction in public funding of universities and the corporatisation of the sector.
It’s also pretty extraordinary given this sector has been one of the big losers of recent government support, with most university staff specifically excluded from income support such as JobKeeper. This bodes particularly poorly for a city such as Canberra which boasts a number of major university campuses and welcomes this sector as a central part of our economic activity.
It’s a devastating blow to the many young people planning to attend university in the next few years.
These are the young people who have taken to the streets to protest inaction on climate change, who are well aware that they are all but priced out of the housing market and are in the midst of the most difficult high school year in generations. Like young people before them, they have been thinking long and hard about what they want to study. Now they have to decide if they are willing to accrue a $50,000 Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP) loan in order to pursue knowledge and equip themself with the critical thinking skills this government seems too scared of.
Some people will try to soothe young people by saying that due to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) fees are deferred until they enter the workforce, so they shouldn’t worry about it.
However, it is a deception to suggest that a debt of tens of thousands of dollars will be quickly cleared once today’s students enter the workforce. It seems particularly cruel to ask this generation to face this sort of debt given the likelihood they will be facing huge housing debts, and likely to be the generation having to pay the cost of climate inaction.
At its core, it’s an announcement that seems to go against our aspirations to remain a well-educated country able to deal with the complex challenges that we will face in the future. Surely we should be removing all financial barriers and offering free tertiary education to everyone who wants it rather than asking them to face yet another debt that earlier generations have not had to deal with.
I think we need to support our young people to study the subjects they love without facing years of indebtedness. What do you think?
Rebecca Vassarotti is an ACT Greens Candidate for Kurrajong in the upcoming ACT Territory Election.