Humanities, Degrees, and Uni Fees

Want to study Humanities but not sure after the Government’s announcement? Leanne Elliot looks at the proposed uni fee changes and the value of Humanities degrees.

The recent proposed legislation by Education Minister, Dan Tehan, which includes plans to restructure university fees, has been met with a mixed reception by industry leaders within the Humanities sectors. Labor’s educational spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, went so far as to describe the changes as “a dog’s breakfast”.

The changes to Humanities fees sparked the most controversy, however, it was not all negative, with the promise of extra student places and the boost to Indigenous and regional assistance gaining widespread approval.

In their recent article, in The Conversation, Professor John Fischetti and Catharine Coleborne state the proposed legislation will see “English and languages […] fall by 46%; agriculture and maths by 62%; and science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering by 20%,” and, “[…] student contributions for law and commerce will increase by 28%, while for the humanities, they will more than double (up by 113%)”.

While packages affecting university fees have been knocked back in the past, Tehan maintains the Coalitions proposed legislation is in line with expected market and industry growth, and job availability, specifically within education, healthcare, medicine, science, technology and engineering industries. Though, many are openly questioning if this is true.

“With this revenue stream suddenly threatened, the education experience of domestic students will suffer. Universities will need to make deep cuts to staff and courses without further assistance.” – Peter Hurley, The Conversation

In a recent Guardian article, Daniel Hurst states, “humanities, culture and social sciences graduates have similar job outcomes to science and mathematics graduates”. Hurst also underlines various concerns surrounding the changes to university fees, highlighting how these changes will result in an overall decrease to government university funding, and, noting these changes do not guarantee universities will increase the number of STEM positions, but instead may result in universities looking to increase the number of Humanities students, thus increasing the student revenue generated by Humanities degrees.

Another aspect being considered is the different outcome in wages. Should Tehan’s proposed legislation go ahead we will see people in the social sciences paying more than $40,000 for a degree to enter a field with inherently lower wages than their science and engineering counterparts. Also, ironically, this proposed legislation comes at a time when frontline workers, such as teaching and healthcare staff, are being threatened with wage cuts, and, industry predictions show expected job losses in a number of Tehan’s target industries, such as research, energy and science, and engineering.

It is clear, Australian Universities are in a world of hurt right now, and, both they and the Australian government are scrambling to find a solution. How much are universities hurting? According to John Ross, Times Higher Education, some Australian universities are asking academic staff to consider “payroll deductions, one-off donations, relinquished leave or leave loadings, reduced working hours and leave without pay” to cover current and predicted university budget shortfalls, estimated to be $19 billion over 3 years.

Why do Humanities Matter?

Humanities subjects involve learning about matters which better enable us to understand ourselves, the world, and the people around us. It has contributed to the creation of masterful classics, entertainment for the masses and a world of thriving and diverse creative cultures.

“If we agree the purpose of universities is to disseminate knowledge and advance society, we cannot allow a political agenda to diminish academic freedom and equitable student choice.” – Professor John Fischetti and Catharine Coleborne, The Conversation.

Moreover, these fields encourage and enable us to preserve, appreciate and learn from history, to think critically and creatively, to develop self-awareness, and to expand our emotional and social intelligence. Not to mention, the study of Humanities has contributed to the development of related universal guidelines, such as human rights, ethical standards, and the morality of everyday life.

There is growing opinion which supports the need for Humanities in a modern, rapidly changing world [1, 2, 3], and which suggest Humanities studies work to complement Tehan’s targeted fields, such as education, healthcare, medicine, science, technology and engineering subjects.

“STEM professionals must not only be able to apply their STEM knowledge in the laboratory but must also have the foundational skills that the Humanities provide in order to address real-world issues”, says Christine Reiter in her senior thesis.

Similarly, in his book You Can Do Anything, George Anders suggests, “The more we automate the routine stuff, the more we create a constant low-level hum of digital connectivity, the more we get tangled up in the vastness and blind spots of big data, the more essential it is to bring human judgment into the junctions of our digital lives”.

“Through the study of history, philosophy, the arts, religion, and more, preeminent and emerging scholars come together to look back and press forward. This is what humanities study is. And undertaking this essential work is how we discover who we have been and imagine the possibilities of who we might become.” – Stanford Humanities Center.

And, when you think about it…we live in a time where there is so much uncertainty. If anything, Humanities professionals provide valuable perspectives on important, and sometimes controversial issues, such as human genetic modification, designer babies, climate engineering, advanced weaponry, game-changing technology like AI and robotics, digital security, surveillance and privacy, global pandemics, and food, water and energy security. They also provide equally important perspectives on everyday things, such as cultural and historical, and human relationships.

So, What Now?

If you were planning to study Humanities, do not panic just yet. It is now a waiting game. Crossbenchers have to vote on the proposed legislation, and with some Crossbenchers already voicing concern about the objectivity of the legislation, Tehan has his work cut out for him in gaining approval.

But, while we are waiting, there are other central questions which deserve our consideration. Such as, if the legislation passes, will it impact the migration rate of skilled workers entering Australia? Should universities be less reliant on revenue generated by international students? If students cannot afford to study the degree of their choice, will they still enrol? Will constraining the public’s ability to choose Humanities as a field of study have long-term, social and cultural effects? What would the world look like without equitable access to Humanities studies?

And to those of you who plan to study Humanities irrespective of how the Crossbenchers vote, kudos to you!


Feature Image: Madelyn Gardiner, Yak Media Designer


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