The new uni-fees schedule rates a ‘C’ for economics and equity

Aug 4, 2020 by

Burj Al Arab

Dan Tehan’s new uni-fees arrangements are (a) increasingly onerous for students (b) inconsistent in government contributions (c) shallow in economic rationales and (d) not serious about equity issues.

Consider Minister Tehan’s 2021 “Job-ready Graduates Package”. Another riff on the Scott Morrison “Jobs R Us” approach to most everything.

This package tabulates current and proposed, government and student, contributions, for 22 large and small fields of tertiary study.

In most fields, government contributes $13,500 or $16,500 a year. Four outliers go onto $1,100, four onto $27,000. Students sling $7,700, $11,300, or a brand-new high of $14,500. But seven outlying fields go to a brand-new low, of $3,700. Supposedly based on “private returns & national priorities”.

The Minister and Department offer alibis for their contributions mash-up: Student fees are still reasonable. Combined course contributions better match course costs. Degrees in higher “growth” areas deserve lower fees. The package includes disadvantage measures.

Actually, the student fees are onerous

Loftily, the Minister offers (local) students lower fees than in “similar” countries like the US and UK. Why compare us with those infected and inegalitarian nations?

The border closures expose his Coalition’s repetitively optimistic forecasts. With GDP “growth” having been radically reliant on high immigration and population growth.

The COVID recession with high unemployment is no time to saddle local youth with up to $23,100-43,500 for a three-year degree, $30,800-58,000 for four years. Did Tehan miss the Treasury memo, on the employment and earnings scars they face?


It’s not how mildly egalitarian European nations would do it. For locals, even internationals in some cases, they still offer low-fee or free degrees.

Quaintly, they perceive education as something of a human right, or equality marker. Rather than a private investment, or market commodity.

Glossing the economic situation, the Minister claims 60% of students will pay the same or less. While eligible students access the “world-leading” income-contingent loan scheme.

Yet also, it appears, students will now cover even more of overall course costs.

The government’s course contributions are highly uneven

The second alibi is, total (government plus student) funding will better match “contemporary” delivery costs, in each field. Great news, for bean-counters.

In most fields, government picks up more of the total costs. Even then, the student usually faces $7,700 or $11,300 a year, not the $3,700.

In a few cases, the student carries the bigger load. Says Tehan: “The student contribution for Law and Commerce will increase by 28 per cent, for the Humanities it will be 113 per cent.”

But those domains aren’t comparable. Only the first two are well-trodden avenues, to higher “private returns”.

Why hoist Humanities (or Communications) to $14,500 student contribution, with only $1,100 government topup? While English and Languages plummet to $3,700, with $13,500 and $16,500 respectively from government. Surely the last two aren’t vastly dearer to deliver. Or crucially larger “national priorities”.

Perhaps Tehan doesn’t want students to miss language study. As he once did. The predictable outrage over the big hit to Humanities is a bonus.

Rationales for high-low student contributions are shallow

Tehan’s key alibi, is to reduce student contributions, in predicted areas of employment “growth”. He settles on Health, Science and Technology, Education, and Construction.

This early into COVID, why base policy detail, on what 73 profs call untenable assumptions about future industry growth?

Nevertheless, courses in Tehan growth-areas go “cheaper”. Purportedly, “government wants the best outcomes for the broader public”.

As the profs retort, increasingly differentiated student contributions teem with “unintended consequences”. In paraphrase, unis shorn of colossal overseas-student revenues will game the system more than usual.

A flat student fee, if moderate, would be more rational than the chaotic price signals of Tehan’s clumsy social engineering.

The Department keeps spinning: “Teachers, nurses, engineers, scientists-these are the workers our economy needs-will see significantly lower student contributions.”

Indeed, Nursing nearly halves, to $3,700 annually. Different story, elsewhere in Health.

“Allied Health” and “Other Health” are still $7,700. The prized Medical, Dental and Vet Science drop $55, to $11,300. Enough for a few ales at the uni bar.

These days, medicine is more open. Entitled kids still have the inside run.

Science (also Environmental Studies) and Engineering student contributions are still sizable, at $7,700. And government is cutting its contributions to all three. Will that give us the “workers” we need?

As we’re “looking over there” at Nursing, Tehan also discounts Teaching, Agriculture, Mathematics, and Clinical Psychology. To $3,700.

These disciplines, I’m guessing, also train necessary “workers”. But why position the last three science-related, on half the student contributions of six other science-related?

The package shirks social mobility and private reward issues

Tehan promises a “Regional Education Commissioner” with “$500 million a year to universities to support Indigenous, regional and low SES students”. On less than 5% of federal uni funding, the Commissioner won’t jolt inequalities of learning opportunity. He’s a band-aid over our schooling disparities.

Compare us with socially-mobile Finland. Unaccountably reluctant, to emulate our divisive and discriminatory school system. As with other Finnish degrees, teaching aspirants don’t face fees. Entry is keenly sought, though other professions earn more.

Personable Gonski Institute import Pasi Sahlberg told ABC he couldn’t get a Finnish teaching guernsey, in his younger days.

In aspirational Australia, plush parents won’t hurry heirs, into the $3,700 disciplines. They know the best loot’s elsewhere.

Here’s where the package might eat further, into our floundering social mobility. As the profs couch it, “different pricing of subjects works against social equity”.

In equity terms, graduate starting salaries reveal little. More telling are (private sector) occupational earnings. Three years after graduation, medicine, dentistry, engineering, and law, have already jumped ahead.

Really lucrative careers cluster in law, business and finance, medicine and engineering. For all Malcolm Turnbull’s cautions, lucky graduates can glom eye-watering loot.

Unsurprisingly, students heft big contributions, for these types of degrees. Law & Economics, Management & Commerce, go onto $14,500 annually. At $11,300 and $7,700, Medicine/Dentistry and Engineering are still substantial.

Chump change, in well-heeled households. Tougher ask, for ordinary families and students.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Two-fifths of school-leavers already do uni. Those “world-leading” loans, so they say, neutralise the big tickets on desirable degrees. Debates about elite students, they also say, are “stale”. After all, nobody likes the “politics of envy”.

Or maybe, it does matter. With easy access to the vastly better resources of private (church) schools, children of managers and professionals are much more likely to reach uni than working-class kids. They can be groomed for prestige unis and lucrative degrees that generally require higher ATAR scores.

When Morrison says “too many” kids do uni, more should “aspire” to trades, that wouldn’t resonate, in Double Bay or Toorak. Parents there are better advised, to send their scions through economics or law. Whereby they can reproduce the social order.

Meanwhile, Australian women (especially private school alumnae) keep on acing uni entry. Then, as graduates, earn much less than the men. You guessed, a lot of them do nursing and teaching. Tehan’s discount courses.

Quite likely, that traditionally lucrative degrees will still offer solid earnings premiums. Other COVID-era graduates-Tehan dubs them the “Costello Baby Boom” generation-might be in hock for a while. They’re supposed to be grateful, for no $100,000 degrees. Not just yet.

Quite unlikely, that Tehan will “shelve” (the profs again) legislation for the package. That might happen, in the art-house movie version.

If this unfolds like the usual B-movie (e) the package goes through (f) key officials are promoted (g) student “customers” wear the pain (h) later comes the “independent” review.

Source: The new uni-fees schedule rates a ‘C’ for economics and equity – On Line Opinion – 5/8/2020

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