University shake-up highlights which future jobs are most important

Prospective maths students are among the big winners under the university changes. Picture: Shutterstock
Prospective maths students are among the big winners under the university changes. Picture: Shutterstock

The government has announced a radical shake-up of university education. It says it will fund an extra 39,000 university places in the next three years.

But it is also signalling which subjects of study it thinks will be important.

It is indicating its new priorities by changing the cost which students (or perhaps their parents) as opposed to the taxpayer will have to pay to take different courses.

What are the new priorities?

The government wants students to "make more job-relevant choices", as education minister Dan Tehan put it.

The new annual charges to students ("student contributions") would be:

  • Agriculture, clinical psychology, English and other modern languages, maths, nursing teaching ($3,700 a year).
  • Science, environmental studies, health, architecture, engineering, IT, creative arts ($7,700).
  • Dental, veterinary, medical ($11.300).
  • Management and commerce, society and culture, behavioural science, humanities, communication, law and economics ($14,500).

Which areas get more expensive and which get cheaper?

Under the plan to produce "job-ready graduates":

  • Those opting for agriculture and maths would have fees falling by 62 per cent.
  • For teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and other living languages, the fall would be 46 per cent.
  • Science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering degrees would have a 20 per cent decrease.
  • There would be no change in fees for medicine, dentistry and veterinary science degrees.
  • Law and commerce degrees would cost an extra 28 per cent compared with the existing fee structure.
  • And the cost of a humanities degrees would more than double - up by 113 per cent.

Some examples

Just as student fees for some subjects rise, the taxpayers' contribution for them falls.

A student who wants to study communications or behavioural science will have to find $14,500 annually from his or her own pocket (or that of parents or by borrowing) while the Commonwealth government will pay the minimum $1,100.

But education minister Dan Tehan said the changes would apply to courses rather than to the full degrees, so students might want to choose less expensive subjects within their overall degree - they could take the broad subject of their choice but then choose cheaper options within it.

Dan Tehan BA (Hons), University of Melbourne.

Dan Tehan BA (Hons), University of Melbourne.

He wants a more mix-and-match approach where degrees involve broader ranges of subjects to suit work possibilities (and the student's budget).

The changes might not tip people to switch subjects radically but perhaps to tailor the modules within a degree.

"We are encouraging students to embrace diversity," Mr Tehan said. "So if you want to study history (high student fee), also think about studying English (low fee)."

There's a recession forecast

Demand for university places - at least from Australian students - is expected to rise.

School-leavers might choose further education rather than unemployment.

There are signs this is already happening.

On one estimate, there are 20,000 Year 12 students who are less likely to take a gap year because international travel has been closed down.

Perhaps with that in mind, the government announced the funding of the extra 39,000 university places.

It wants those places filled with people with skills more directly related to the jobs market.

"Their degree will be cheaper if they choose to study in areas where there is expected growth in job opportunities," Mr Tehan said.

Will the changes shift demand?

Yes and no is the answer.

Price may not matter so much as the publicity surrounding the announcement.

Andrew Norton, the ANU's professor in the practice of higher education, said that students tend to enrol in courses in subjects which they like.

"Students go for their interests and are not that sensitive to price," he told this paper.

Their degree will be cheaper if they choose to study in areas where there is expected growth in job opportunities.

Education minister Dan Tehan

In other words, if you're good at maths and lousy at languages, price won't switch you to a course which makes you miserable and which, consequently, you might find harder to pass.

Professor Norton thinks the big factor in getting change may not be the price of a degree so much as the publicity surrounding the changes.

In 2009, he said, the government slashed the cost of taking a science course. Demand for science courses rose.

But in 2013, the government quietly increased the price of science courses - with no consequent drop in demand. Professor Norton infers the big factor was the publicity rather than the price change.

Are arts degrees bad for jobs?

Research done for Macquarie University concluded: "Humanities degrees involve many technical skills, including quantitative analysis skills, policy development, software use and foreign language skills.

"This report identifies over 30 technical skills that may be acquired in a humanities degree. Precisely because of their diversity, and not being common to all degrees, these skills can be difficult to neatly summarise but are nevertheless highly valued by employers."

Much will depend on which jobs are on offer. A growth in scientific industries will mean demand for people who can do maths.

But arts graduates may survive. After all, lots of politicians have arts degrees, including Dan Tehan BA (Hons), University of Melbourne.

This story University shake-up highlights which future jobs are most important first appeared on The Canberra Times.