university fee reforms will prevent students from realising their potential and succeeding in the workforce – here’s why

Jul 6, 2020

Author: Tina Tsironis

Recently, the federal government announced their plans to significantly increase the student contribution for numerous tertiary courses. To unpack the impact these reforms may have on the quality of life and career prospects of Australian students, I have drawn on the perspectives of a Year 12 student, an Arts student, and somebody situated somewhere in between: me; a postgraduate student currently working in my chosen field.

K, who wishes to remain anonymous, is concerned about what these reforms will mean for her when she transitions from Year 12 to university next year. “I am worried that the prices are being increased as a way of discouraging students from entering certain fields,” K, who is hoping to study Arts and Education, said. “This makes me feel nervous about whether an arts degree will help me in my career or if I will have to end up switching into a field with strong job prospects despite not being interested in it.”

While the student contribution for Arts degrees will go up, future students studying ‘job-ready’ courses, many of those in  STEM, will supposedly enjoy a reduction in their fees. But the government is not planning to make up for this reduction, nor for the 39,000 new places they have announced for these courses, with extra funding. Swinburne Senior Lecturer Dan Golding breaks this down on Twitter here.

While STEM degrees may be cheaper under these reforms, how can universities provide high quality education with less funding, and thousands upon thousands of new students? Students will inevitably experience a drop in their overall course quality. Academic who are already stretched thin will have to deliver their learning with less support, and significantly less resources. These job-ready graduates will be thrust into the ‘real world’ completely ill-equipped to succeed.

As students, we have experienced a drastically destabilised education following Swinburne’s shift to online class delivery over the last several months. In the wake of COVID-19, our usual classes have been thrust out of their usual contexts and wedged, often uncomfortably, into the online sphere. Without access to the physical resources or face-to-face learning environments that many courses demand, learning hasn’t been the same. Imagine having to experience this diminished quality of education for your entire degree? Unless we fight these reforms, our future peers and colleagues will have to live this reality for three to four years – or even more.

Media and Communications graduate and former SWINE editor Imogen Bailey told me that if she were heading to university now, the proposed fee reforms would likely impact her choice of degree. “If I’m honest, when I was starting my degree, I didn’t consider the cost of my course as I knew I would be taking out a HECS/HELP debt,” Bailey, who is now working as a journalist, explained. “Being asked this question though, it prompted me to look at how much I owe on my HECS/HELP debt and it’s more than I would’ve liked – about $21,000 following three years of indexation,” she added.

“If I were in the same position that I am now, living out of home, working full-time and paying for expenses and was looking to undertake a degree, the increased fees and associated debt would definitely make me second guess whether or not doing the degree would be worth it.”

While K said the Government’s plans will not impact her decision to study Arts/Education, as she has “been interested in this course for a long time,” she is now rethinking her other preferences. “I was also considering courses in social sciences, but due to the [proposed] fee increases, I have now started researching courses in health sciences.” she said.

“As I am really interested in social sciences and humanities, I think studying these areas will strongly add to my quality of life as it will allow me to work in a field that I am very passionate about, but I am fairly unsure about the job prospects in such fields.”

K’s uncertainty regarding her employability is not uncommon. After graduating from my BA/Honours in Media and Communications, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t worried about being stuck in a retail job that I didn’t enjoy for the rest of my life. How could I not be worried, when well-meaning but ridiculously irritating relatives tried to convince me that my degree was worth nothing in the real world, while the federal government itself, continued (continues, really) to display a blatant disregard for the creative arts and journalism sectors?

But my passion for writing and media; for curating stories that make people think or spur them to purchasing something or get out and vote or see some sort of niche issue in a new light, has provided me with nearly all the motivation I need to proceed throughout my Honours and Masters. Yet it is thanks to my wonderful tutors and lecturers, thorough course material, hugely relevant extracurricular activities and my incredibly rewarding and challenging tenure as SWINE editor, that I have been able to shape my creative skills and succeed this early on in my career.

COVID-19 has been tough, and often incredibly demotivating, for many of us – students and workers alike. But without the support, experience and insight that I have been exposed to throughout my tertiary education, I would have crumbled under the pressure in my work life. Instead, I have been able to do some of the best work I’ve ever done. I have been able to reshape content in a way that heightened the engagement levels of my clients, and develop fruitful and likely long-lasting creative relationships with SWINE contributors and department heads here at Swinburne.

Bailey, who graduated in 2017, echoes my sentiments. “As a journalist it’s imperative to have knowledge on media law, editing and sub-editing, research and interviewing, story structure, and, punctuation and grammar skills. While I undoubtedly learned new skills on the job, I wouldn’t have been able to improve on my skillset without a strong foundation. Having the degree is the theory and then getting the job is putting it into practice.”

Beyond these technical skills, the array of perspectives Bailey was exposed to as an Arts student proved invaluable in fleshing out her skillset – and her life. “I was also exposed to different ideas at university, which challenged my beliefs and helped me to gain a wider perspective on issues – sometimes reinforcing my ideas and other times helping me to change my mind,” she explained. 

“Encountering people of different races, religions, political opinions, physical abilities, experiences, sexualities and socio-economic status equipped me with the skills to communicate to people with empathy, openness and compassion – a vital skill in journalism and life.”

While Bailey acknowledged the importance of extra-curricular activities in strengthening one’s overall skillset, she finds it disappointing that Arts is often perceived as a “throwaway” degree. “I don’t see how anyone can lose out by being able to think critically about politics and ideas; being able to dissect media and detect persuasive language and messages, or knowing about cultural movements and thinking throughout history,” she said.

To all students reading this, current or otherwise: it is imperative that our peers have access to affordable, quality education – education that will deepen their thinking, advance their theoretical and practical knowledge of their chosen fields, and sharpen their ability to adapt in a business setting. Without this access, Australia will suffer. Let’s ensure that all students have the opportunity to realise their potential. Join us in calling on Minister for Education Dan Tehan to stop these reactionary, unnecessary fee reforms, by signing  the National Union of Students’ petition here.

Header image by Karen Martinez, courtesy of Unsplash.