Getting real on university funding shortfalls.

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The cost of Humanities/Arts degrees is set to double at Australian universities, while halving for STEM and medical courses.

Apparently, this is due to a huge increase in enrolments following the COVID shutdowns. Dan Tehan has claimed that changes will encourage new students into more ‘work ready’ degrees, in STEM and healthcare, in particular.

The rationale is to curb spiralling enrolments, especially in courses that don’t lead directly to a job. There’s a difference however, between reality and what we might charitably deem bullshit.

Sure, sending a price signal sounds like a good way to contain costs, and price signals are baked in to government policy. It simply assumes that rising the price will curb the demand. What the government is not saying is that the demand also reflects potential students’ opportunity costs of NOT enrolling in a degree.

In the current COVID recession, if you’re a young person with a fairly average high school education, your choices are either university or casual work/dole.

Let’s be clear, despite the focus on school leavers’ choices in the media, the main increase in enrolments will come from young people who’re over 25. These are people who’ve been casually employed, often underemployed, and are now unemployed.

Over 25s are eligible for Austudy, and, compared the alternatives, this looks like a good option. The dole, on the other hand, comes with social stigma and punitive conditions. Yes, students will pay for their degrees with a HECS debt but the repayment threshold is 45k. For many young people, earning this much money, in a casualised underemployment market, is so far away it’s almost irrelevant.

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It’s worth mentioning the silliness of the debate around humanities degrees too: I giggled at Julia Baird stating that most Arts/Humanities student do in fact get a job. That’s nice, but Baird makes no comment as to whether this is related to their degree. Without that, her statement is meaningless. Most Australian adults will get a job, whether they attend university or not. Youth unemployment is high, so perhaps what we should be asking is; do Arts/Humanities students get jobs when they leave university simply because they’re three or four years older than they started? This is a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Now, back to the COVID recession. If you’re under 35 and newly unemployed, university study looks good. Sure you could go to TAFE, if you can find one that’s open and offers something sensible, but TAFE is now non-existent for many young people – it’s so hollowed out, and many of the courses so irrelevant that only the most essential, regulated and dictatorial courses remain viable (for instance, nursing, which can also be done at university).

Many young people will, therefore, enrol at university. And without a good high school education, the humanities, nursing or social work are basically the only doors open to them.

Let’s be clear about one thing, there has been a huge increase in university enrolments but it’s not a new thing. In 1989, 7.9% of Australians held an undergraduate degree. By 2018, that proportion had increased to 27.3%.

As you can see though, most of this increase comes from medicine and nursing.

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Enrolment in the humanities has steadily declined, as a proportion of all fields, since 1989. So has everything else, at the ‘expense’ of medicine and nursing (which is in part due to nursing becoming a degree).

So, I would expect that there will, in fact, be an increase in enrolments in the humanities, as it will pick up newly unemployed students who otherwise would not have gone to university and who are not be eligible for other courses. However, the increase will be small, as the popularity of these courses is generally declining.

So, the government’s intimation that university enrolments are spiralling upwards and we’re in danger of being overrun with Gender Studies grads is, therefore, bullshit. The plan to double the cost of humanities degrees is not justified on these grounds. And, as Mr Tehan well knows, doubling the price will will not curb enrolments.

Perhaps the only real economic justification for cracking down on humanities courses is that they’re predominantly taken by women, who take longer to reach the HECS repayment threshold of 45k.

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You can see here though that the difference is not huge.

Which brings us to the real reason they’re knocking the humanities – the culture wars. Tehan and his ilk have simply been watching too much crappy television. They’re convinced we’re on the cusp of a ‘cultural Maxist’ tea party. Or something. I can never really keep up with their paranoid, garbled ramblings about this stuff.

I should say that increasing the number of humanities students is not an intrinsically good or bad thing, in my view.  After all, I’d rather live in a society with degree educated people than not. Many of the civil liberties we enjoy today are the direct result of social and political awareness and advocacy, gleaned from and through a university education. I personally think university should be free. Certainly there’s a good economic case for it, as well as a ‘Australia is a nice place to live’ case.

Obviously, though, no government wants to pay people to ably criticise it.


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