Jun 25, 2020







For all Australians, 2020 has been a year they will never forget. But spare a thought for the class of 2020.


The young Australians completing Year 12 this year have faced incredible disruption in what will be one of the most important years of their lives.


The year started with bushfires. Students in affected areas watched the flames devastate their communities while, across large parts of the nation, those not directly affected suffered under skies blackened by smoke.


The fires also shut down large parts of the tourism industry in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, denying young people the chance to rest up with their friends and families ahead of a busy year.


Then came coronavirus.


Then school was cancelled.


Teachers rushed to create online learning systems but, understandably, the set-up time led to delays. Precious weeks passed.


Students could not even meet up with friends to discuss their shared anxieties.


Parents lost jobs, adding family financial pressure for people already anxious about how they would finish Year 12 and how the pandemic would affect their transition to work or university.


In such circumstances, it is hard to comprehend why the Morrison government wants to pile more disruption and pressure on young people and their families with its radical shake-up of the cost of university degrees.


Reforms proposed last week by the Morrison government would see a reduction in the cost of degrees in areas such as science, maths and engineering.


The government argues, correctly, that science and engineering professionals will be critical to the post-pandemic economy.


However, the problem is that government is not proposing to provide a dollar of additional funding to universities to underwrite the shift.


Instead, Education Minister Dan Tehan proposes to more than double the cost of degrees in the humanities. This makes no sense.


Reducing the cost of tertiary education is a worthy aim, particularly from a government that in 2017 cut university investment by $2.2bn — effectively reducing the number of university places by 200,000. Education is a public good.


Its benefit extends beyond the individual to the entire nation. However, requiring some students to pay more so other students can pay less is unfair, even discriminatory.


Tehan is saying to young people that their right to pursue their academic passions should be linked to his opinion about what kind of study is worthy of government support.


But it is worse than that.


As The Australian revealed on Monday, despite arts graduate Tehan saying he wanted to encourage young people to study science and engineering, he also proposed to cut government funding for universities for their degrees.


This newspaper revealed that, under the old system, the government would contribute $19,260 towards the cost of an engineering or science degree.


But after the government’s proposed changes, this figure would drop by 16 per cent to $16,500. One reason put forward by the government to justify its proposed change is a claim that arts degrees do not lead people to jobs.


But this is not correct. According to surveys by the federally funded Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching, three years after graduation, humanities graduates are employed at a rate of 91.1 per cent, above both science and maths, which have a 90.1 per cent rate of overall employment.


So what is really going on?


Australians are entitled to wonder whether the shift away from the humanities and towards more practical degrees is linked to the Coalition’s anti-intellectual streak and its culture wars over what universities teach, particularly in areas such as history.


Governments should work with industry to anticipate what skills will be needed for the jobs of the future. That’s why Labor has proposed the creation of Jobs and Skills Australia.


They should also ensure that universities and TAFE colleges receive enough funding to be able to deliver the skills and knowledge required for those jobs.


But a decision to penalise someone who wants to be an artist, a teacher, or a journalist, by making their degree more expensive, is too arbitrary.


Which brings us back to the class of 2020.


High school students who will graduate this year and want to go to university decided 18 months ago which subjects they would study to qualify for their degree of choice.


At that time, they also believed they knew what their degree of choice would cost.


Tehan now wants to change that.


At the stroke of a pen, someone who aspires to one day be the editor of a newspaper or a public defender will have to pay twice as much for a university degree.


Australians should not be pushed away from their passions simply because Tehan can’t convince his colleagues to reverse their funding cuts to universities.


The Australia of the future will need more scientists, mathematicians and engineers. We should do all we can to increase the study of these disciplines.


But the Australia of the future will also need English teachers, philosophers, historians, lawyers and journalists.


One future need should not come at the expense of another.


At this time of pressure on government budgets because of the cost of the pandemic, difficult decisions must be made about how to invest taxpayer dollars.


We must prioritise productivity.


Labor believes there are two ways to boost productivity.


We must invest in our nation and its infrastructure to boost capacity.


And above all we must invest in our most valuable resource — our people.


Anthony Albanese is the leader of the Australian Labor Party.


This opinion piece was first published on The Australian on Thursday, 25 June 2020.