University funding overhaul – which courses and disciplines will be hardest hit?

Education Minister, Dan Tehan, said that the changes set out in the Higher Education Bill would make it cheaper for students to study in areas of expected job growth and would increase university places and the number of job-ready graduates. The four industries expected to account for 62% of employment growth in the next five years include healthcare, science and technology, education and construction.

Minister Tehan and the Morrison Government promoted the funding overhaul as an incentive for students to move away from humanities courses and towards those deemed more likely to result in a job at the end of their studies including teaching, nursing, maths, science and engineering.

The funding overhaul was intended to make 'job-ready' qualifications like nursing and engineering cheaper while the cost of humanities courses was expected to rise.

So what's the reality?
The lower house signed off on the amendments to the Higher Education Bill on 8 October allowing passage of the Bill with the support of One Nation and Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff. The Coalition has effectively doubled university fees for some future arts students and also raised fees for commerce and law to fund an expansion of 39,000 places and cheaper degrees for those who study courses such as teaching, nursing, maths, science and engineering.

Overall, estimates suggest the Bill reduces the Government contribution to degrees from 58% to 52%, with student contributions lifting from 42% to 48% to pay for more places without extra government funding. The reality is that while cuts were greater in some areas than others, overall the commonwealth contribution was also cut from $24,446 to $16,500 per year – meaning that the Government will fund each degree less.

What's the story so far on the areas hardest hit?
  • At Monash, business, economics, religious studies, some engineering subjects and some management subjects are slated for cuts and redundancies.
  • At Macquarie Uni, the bachelor of mathematical sciences will not be taught in 2021, as well as the bachelor of advanced science, bachelor of advanced information technology, and masters in mechanical engineering.
  • In total, 31 degrees or combined degrees in the faculty of science and engineering at Macquarie will potentially be cut, while in the faculty of arts, 30 out of the current 56 offered majors could also be removed.
  • Macquarie's gender studies major, which was first established in 1984, is now set to be abolished.
  • Environmental science degrees have been hit with funding cuts of nearly 30% with experts warning that the cuts will affect Australia’s capacity to cope with drought, bushfires, mass extinction, coral bleaching and the effects of global heating. Prof Dianne Gleeson, the president of the Australian Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (ACEDD), said the cuts to environmental science was “one of the largest funding cuts to any university course”. She says those studying environmental science will receive $9,944 less in funding per student per year under the government’s higher education changes, the equivalent of a 29% funding cut to the subject. ACEDD said this would lead to a lower quality of degree as staff, teaching resources and expensive technology were cut from courses creating a “perverse” outcome where the Coalition’s job-ready graduate package would mean future students would actually be less prepared for jobs.

What's the big picture?
Along with many other higher education unions and professional bodies, Professionals Australia is concerned that while the Government is saying it is encouraging students to study STEM courses by lowering the fees the students pay, they are also massively cutting funding to the universities to provide the education and courses needed to grow our STEM skills base.

Commentators suggest that the billion-dollar research fund allocation made in the 6 October Budget will not plug the $7 billion hole in university budgets caused by the coronavirus pandemic with the massive decline in the number of international student enrolments.

In the longer term, there remains uncertainty for universities where there should be policy and funding certainty, and a serious lack of a long-term funding plan for universities.

There remains a serious issue with universities being asked to teach more students with less Government support at a time when they are facing an estimated $2 billion revenue downgrade in 2020 and potentially an even tighter 2021.