WORDS by Anna Glen
Higher education was a major political battleground of 2014. The attempt by the Abbott Government to deregulate the sector was met with wide opposition from students, with the notion of ‘$100,000 dollar degrees’ and an American two-tiered education system proving to be politically unpalatable.
What is rarely discussed, however, is how the current system functions. Why, for instance, does a degree in mathematics cost significantly more than a history one?
The answer to this question lies largely in reforms brought by the Howard Government back in 1997, which set course costs according to the expense of the degree, expected earnings, and ‘social worth’. During this time, student contribution increased between 35 and 125 percent.
This was the first time students paid different rates. When HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme) was first introduced by the Hawke Government in 1989, all students paid an equal rate of $1800 dollars per year. The rest was to be subsidised by the Government. Under the new differential system, three bands were created and disciplines were priced according to their categorisation into the respective band.
Band 1 is the least expensive and includes the Arts, Humanities, Visual and Performing Arts, and Social Studies. Presently, in 2015, these courses will cost on average $6152 dollars per year. The Department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations stated that the humanities ‘have narrower employment opportunities and less security and income expectation’ and should therefore have lower fees. They are also seen to have strong “social merit” and are the cheapest to convene, meaning the Government contribution is lower.
Band 2 consists of Mathematics, Statistics, Computing, Built Environment, Health Sciences (excluding medicine, medical science, and dentistry), Science, Engineering, Surveying, and Agriculture. All of the previously mentioned subjects will cost $8768 per year. In the past, Science and Mathematics – typically perceived as subjects of high social worth by the Australian Government – were placed in Band 1 by the Rudd Government to remedy failing enrolments in those areas. This adjustment is perhaps unsurprising given Kevin Rudd described climate change as the great ‘moral dilemma’ of our times and saw science as an integral part to any solution.
In 2013, however, science fees were raised and placed back in Band 2 by the Abbott Government. In the same year, the Science Minister was removed – a portfolio that had existed since 1931.
It can be seen that the shift in science fees was ideological, with the Rudd Government perceiving science as more socially worthy than the Abbott one. ‘Social worth’, therefore, is laden with value judgments, making it a poor pricing methodology that will change with the Government of the day.
That said, the differential fee system has had the greatest impact on those courses that fall in Band 3. At a grand total of $10266 per year, Band 3 includes degrees estimated to have highest expected earnings, including Law, Medicine, Dentistry, and Vetinary science.
The current 2015 fee for these courses represents a 470 percent increase from 1989 prices. This rise occurred despite the fact that when thinking in purely cost terms, some courses, like Law, for example, are the least expensive to run, meaning Law students contribute 83 percent to their degree. On the other end of the spectrum, Nursing courses in Band 1 are costly to run but fees remain low, with nurses paying just 31% of their degree because they are seen – justifiably – to be of high social worth.
At first glance, this system appears equitable. It seems reasonable that nursing students’ pay less given their important role in society and their relatively low expected incomes. However there are significant problems with pricing degrees on projected income rather than actual wealth.
Take a law student employed in the area of social justice. Their work surely signifies high ‘social worth’ and their salary is well below the expected income, yet they are still subject to the highest fees. An upshot of this situation is that many students will be deterred from seeking out such roles.
Margaret Thornton, who is a Professor of Law at the Australian National University, has argued that ‘if law students are faced with substantial debts, they will set out to maximise the return on their education investment by aiming to secure the best paying jobs, which are invariably found in private practice’.
Additionally, studies conducted in the UK have found that those from low socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to view their course as an investment and will be deterred by high cost degrees, perceiving them as large debts. This means that Band 3 degrees will often represent and appeal to students from the middle and upper class.
Greens Senator Dee Margetts echoed these concerns back in 1996 when the reforms were being introduced, saying she believed that ‘students of lower socioeconomic status should not have to choose their course on the basis of cost’.
In response to these claims, the Education Minister for the Liberal Government at the time, Amanda Vanstone, said ‘We see ourselves as introducing more equity by recognising the private benefit that students get’. The current Education Minister Christopher Pyne has made almost identical statements.
In May 2014, Pyne advised that deregulation ‘is fair and reasonable, because students gain enormous private benefit from their education, and it is reasonable that they pay a fair share of the cost’. These statements conceive tertiary education as personal advantage rather than a benefit to the community as a whole, which needs doctors, teachers, nurses, vets, and so on. Such individualistic worldviews make it easier to justify privatising the sector, which will inevitably drive up costs for students.
The initial move by the Howard Government to set up a differential fee system in 1997 gave this worldview more traction. With the removal of the egalitarian $1800 dollar flat rate, education was no longer equal. Governments were able to pass value judgments on courses and set fees according to ‘social worth’ and hypothetical incomes that claim that law students will be wealthy and arts students will not. While these reforms were introduced in the name of equity and fairness, they did no more than create a hierarchical degree system that is anything but egalitarian.