A multitude of tertiary bodies have backpedalled on their fierce condemnation of the Coalition’s proposed Job-ready Graduates Package, announcing conditional support for the policy, in a number of submissions to the bill’s senate inquiry.
Conglomerates representing all of Australia’s regional and metropolitan Universities supplied submissions to the package inquiry, demanding revisions such as grant indexation and legislation for the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund (NPILF) be addressed if the government is to receive their approval.
The Job-ready Graduates Package aims to produce 39,000 extra university places by 2023 through funding restructuring, which will see the overall government contribution to university degrees reduce from 58 per cent to 52 per cent. The amendments will upheave fees for Humanities and Social Science (HASS) degrees by up to 113 per cent, while those in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields can expect their fees to reduce by between 20 and 62 per cent.
Support from the institutions may be a vital safeguard for the coalition, after a Greens motion to stop the policy received a 24-24 stalemate vote, forcing the bill into a snap senate inquiry.
Image: Group of Eight
GROUP OF EIGHT: UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE, MONASH UNIVERSITY, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY, UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA, UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE, UNSW SYDNEY
The Group of Eight, who represent eight of Australia’s top universities, including Victorian institutions the University of Melbourne and Monash University, have modified their stance on the bill, according to The Guardian.
Despite previous disapproval, The Group conceded its support for the package, provided the government agrees to limit the highest projected fee hikes. The organisation called for “more equitable student contribution amounts”, appealing for the maximum student repayment to remain at its current level of $11,355.
The body also called for legislation of relevant components that were not labelled in the bill, such as the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, a $900 million STEM-focussed fund to help students gain industry experience.
The contingent denounced the government’s prompt to revoke HECS-HELP for students who fail 50 per cent of their first eight subjects, suggesting the policy would put struggling students under “extreme pressure”.
REGIONAL UNIVERSITIES NETWORK: FEDERATION UNIVERSITY, CHARLES STURT UNIVERSITY, SOUTHERN CROSS UNIVERSITY, CQ UNIVERSITY, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN QUEENSLAND, UNIVERSITY OF THE SUNSHINE COAST, UNIVERSITY OF NEW ENGLAND
The Regional Universities Network, a conglomerate including Victoria’s own Federation University, endorsed the passage of the bill earlier this month after the coalition made amendments which will see degrees in social work and behavioural sciences exempted from exorbitant fee hikes.
RUN said they “particularly welcomed” demand-driven funding for Indigenous students and funding for growth in places in regional and outer metro areas, which includes a $49 million research fund for regional universities.
Minister Tehan also made amendments to the Tertiary Access Payment legislation, after the Network recommended a revised incentive “to encourage regional students (including Indigenous students) to study at regional or outer metro campuses”. According to the changes, regional, rural and remote students will now receive the one-off $5000 TAP payment “based on historical enrolment”, excluding those who move to metropolitan institutions outside of necessity.
In line with the Group of Eight, RUN said they “would not support reducing the autonomy of universities to determine their own student progression requirements”.
AUSTRALIAN TECHNOLOGY NETWORK: RMIT UNIVERSITY, UTS, CURTIN UNIVERSITY, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA
The Australian Technology Network, also supported by the University of Newcastle and Deakin University, submitted their endorsement for the bill “should several sensible amendments be made”.
The network said it “supports the policy aims and intents of the Job-ready Graduates Package” while listing six “suggested amendments which will strengthen the Government’s aims of increased participation and equity in Australia’s higher education system”.
These amendments include demand-driven access for all Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander people, commitment to a 12-month review of the policy, and ensured legislation for the NPILF and grant indexation.
Executive Director Luke Sheehy also expressed disapproval for the removal of HECS-HELP ineligibility for struggling students, noting “ students from low SES backgrounds, students from regional areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and first-in-family students can struggle to adapt to university in their first year. This measure will cut off the Commonwealth assistance for some of these students, preventing universities from being able to properly support these students”.
“Getting our national education and skills agenda right is critical to mitigate against the increasing equity gap and social disadvantage occurring because of the COVID-19 crisis,” he said.
Image: Universities Australia
Universities Australia broadly represents 39 of Australia’s 43 tertiary institutions, including RMIT. They said their support for the bill rested on ‘funding certainty’ and grant indexation, which adjusts HECS debt repayments by the cost of living. They did not specify any objection to the proposed fee increases, only requesting a review of the bill three-years from its commencement. The organisation detailed it is “concerned about future study prospects for students who fail more than the permitted proportion of units”, and recommended the removal of the subsection from the bill.
HOW WILL THIS AFFECT THE FUTURE OF HASS ACADEMIA
Although Australian Tertiary institutions have seemingly come around to the concept of fee restructuring, many academic bodies continue to denounce the passing of the legislation.
Executive Officer of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Meghan Bergamin, said the policy “makes it pretty clear that the Government sees most HASS degrees as of limited value to the future workforce”.
“The decision to implement a funding system in which most HASS students in Commonwealth Supported Places (CSPs) will personally cover nearly the full cost of their degrees sends a message to the public that most HASS degrees are in some way frivolous private endeavours that the tax-paying public should not be asked to support,” she said.
According to DASSH data, HASS courses made up for two-thirds of Australian jobs in 2016, with Ms Bergamin adding “a majority of Australian Federal politicians, from all parties, have a HASS degree on their CV”.
Regardless of the result of the inquiry, however, Ms Bergamin says she is optimistic about the future of HASS academia.
“There is no evidence that price signals will work in the Australian Higher Education sector – many have argued that HECS essentially negates the price considerations of most future students, and students who aren’t undertaking STEM subjects in Year 12 this year are hardly going to go and enrol in a degree in astrophysics next year.”
She said the main concern of DASHH does not lie in the uncertain future of HASS academia, but instead the financial impact on students.
“A lot of our members are concerned that HASS enrolments might remain at approximately their current levels, but there will be a generation of graduates faced with disproportionately and, in our opinion, unfairly high HECS debts.”
The Senate will report their inquiry findings by 25 September 2020.