17 August 2020
Dear Minister Tehan
I am pleased to make this submission on behalf of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne in response to the draft legislation for the Job-Ready Graduates Package.
I welcome a number of aspects of the proposed legislation, including the aim to lift the educational attainment of students in regional Australia, to better support Indigenous students and to strengthen links between universities and industry. In this submission, however, I focus on two related concerns: first, the financial strain that these funding changes will unduly impose on the future generation of young Australians, already dealing with uncertain times and excess anxiety; and secondly, the misplaced undervaluing of Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) disciplines underpinning the package. And finally, I address the centrality of HASS to Australia’s global reputation.
1. Financial strain on graduates Humanities and Social Sciences fields face the largest increases in student fee contributions.
The aim is to shift student preferences to other areas of study; the effect is likely to be muted by payment deferral and a propensity for students to follow their interests despite changes in the cost of study (Norton, 2020). It is essential to recognise that HASS fields tend to attract enrolments from substantially more women than men: at the University of Melbourne, for example, the Bachelor of Arts is approximately 71% female. It therefore follows that the greater burden of debt resulting from the package (approximately $800 million per year) will be borne disproportionately by women, potentially limiting their career and family transitions in a way Australia can ill afford.
While most students will continue to pursue their interests despite the increased costs, I am concerned that those who may be influenced by the fee changes will be students who are first in family and from lower SES backgrounds. For these students to shift away from what they want to study, and potentially to not attend university at all, will be a great loss to them and to the Australian community.
2. Undervaluing the Humanities and Social Sciences
There is little evidence to support deterring students from following their strengths and interests into HASS on the basis that they will be less ‘job-ready’ once they graduate. Data from the Government’s own Graduate Outcomes Survey (QILT 2019) shows that of those Humanities and Social Sciences undergraduates in Australia who left university upon graduating, 84% found employment immediately, ahead of their peers in Science, Mathematics and Computing and IT; and the median salary for those undergraduates who went into full-time employment upon graduation was $61,000, some way ahead of what their peers in Architecture, Business & Management, Science and Mathematics were earning.
Further, as the Government’s most recent analysis of trends in the Australian labour market demonstrates (Department of Jobs and Small Business 2019) the skills most in demand by Australian companies are precisely those that Humanities and Social Sciences graduates are well trained in: creativity, originality and initiative; analytical thinking and innovation; complex problem-solving; critical thinking and analysis; and emotional intelligence (World Economic Forum 2018; Korbel 2018). All data currently points to HASS graduates being prepared for careers of the future, in which people skills, cultural competencies and social understanding (which are difficult to automate) will become ever more important.
3. Australia’s global advantage
The Humanities and Social Sciences are vital to Australia’s global academic reputation, with five Australian universities – including the University of Melbourne – ranked in the latest Times Higher Education top 100 Universities on both the Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences subject area lists (Times Higher Education Rankings 2020). Instead of putting this reputation at risk, we should be ensuring those subjects remain accessible and investing to ensure the HASS disciplines maintain their global reputation among academics and potential students.
Beyond higher education, many of the areas in which Australia has a competitive advantage, and in which global opportunities and employment growth are likely in the future, involve the study of people, places and society. Services are an increasing part of the Australian economy (Adeney 2018) and the value of cultural and creative activity to the Australian economy is over $100 billion a year (Department of Communications and the Arts 2018).
Graduates from the Humanities and Social Sciences are prepared for active, engaged lives in Australia’s society and our interconnected world. They can do the things that machines cannot do. Alongside technological and data literacy, our graduates will thrive only if they have highly developed human literacy skills: understanding, empathy, cultural agility. The Humanities and Social Sciences are therefore key to Australia’s recovery and future success, and they remain at the heart of what it means to be human.
It seems to me, based on the draft package, that this legislation does not meet its aims. I therefore encourage the Government to engage in a proper process of consultation to reconstruct the legislation so that it is able to provide Australia and the coming generation of Australian students with the higher education they will need for the future. The aim must be to ensure we have the right people with the right skills and knowledge to build our future in a way that does not unduly burden students with excessive debts that they will carry throughout their lives.
Professor Russell Goulbourne
Dean, Faculty of Arts