Recently the Federal government announced a proposal to dramatically hike fees for Humanities as well as Law and Commerce degrees, with significant price increases of 113% and 28% respectively. The proposal has already provoked an extensive backlash from Arts graduates, current students and other members of the public, who argue these changes will have devastating impacts on diversity and representation in these sectors.
Interestingly, many of the politicians supporting this policy change not only possess Arts degrees but also benefited from free university education. In the space of only thirty to forty years, student fees have gone from zero to around $40,000. To make sense of this shocking transformation, we need to consider the increasing influence of neoliberalism, which is a set of encompassing processes such as privatization, deregulation, reduction of the welfare state, the strengthening of corporations, and the minimisation of worker-focused collectives. Neoliberalism first occurred in Australia in the 1980s under the Hawke/Keating government(s). Since then, it has become the defining political rhetoric, defining government policies as well as public attitudes to the social, political and economic structure of Australian society.
It was in the mid-1970s that the government decreased higher education funding. This continued into the 1980s, which saw the significant establishment of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECs) by the Hawke Labor government. At this point, students started having to pay for university, but not as much as today. The 1996-97 budgetary changes by the Howard government increased student fees by introducing a three-tier HECs system. This system made certain degrees more expensive than others, but researchers argue that this change additionally increased fees by as much as 40 per cent. In 2003 the government introduced Student Learning Entitlements (SLE), which limited citizens to seven years of Commonwealth-support, after which time the student would pay full fees. The second more disturbing part of these reforms lies in the launch of institutional price autonomy. This allowed universities to increase fees by up to 25% more than the 2005 standard fees.
While governments continued to decrease funding towards higher education, universities were forced to act more like commercial entities. This is because of the lack of funding pushed them to compete with both local and international universities in order to support their increasing unsustainable financial model. The recent policy proposal indicates that this neoliberal trajectory, which is noticeably making education unattainable for working-class and CALD Australians, appears to be expanding at an increasing pace.
Furthermore, in 2019 there was a lowering of the HECs repayment threshold from $51,957 to $45,881. While this change visibly hurt low-income earners, it also negatively impacted women in particular. Given that the ability to repay HECs loans depends on an individual’s income, it’s important to recognise the impact of the gender pay gap in Australia. From 2017 to 2018, the salary discrepancy between male and female graduates more than doubled from $1,100 to $3,000. Earning less than men means that women have to spend more time paying back their HECs loan, extending the anxiety and burden of debt.
While today Australia is recognised as one of the top providers of education, there are several barriers to education, particularly for women, low socioeconomic status (SES) individuals, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and Indigenous Australians, as well as people with disabilities.
With the policy leading to decreased diversity at university, we can expect the Humanities, Law and Commerce sectors to increasingly become the domain of white and/or financially privileged Australians. In an organizational context, this could occur through discriminatory work policies or racist and elitist practices within the workplace culture. Given that Humanities are often a stepping stone to public policy careers, Australian politics will swing further towards serving middle-class interests as well as neglecting the needs of diverse and disadvantaged populations. Due to their proximity to the production of capital, Humanities, Law and Commerce are pivotal sectors in the neoliberal system. The exclusion of these groups from these spheres will significantly hinder collective progress, and in the case of public policy decisions, possibly reduce the quality of life for vulnerable and underrepresented individuals.
The neoliberal rhetoric has shaped the way that governments act and how they distribute funding among institutions and certain populations in Australian society. Neoliberalism values deregulation and promotes freedom for corporations to maximise their profits with minimal interference from unions and arts collectives. It requires business-minded individuals, universities and governments to justify and normalise the drastic changes that have taken place. Higher education has historically been the cradle of diverse and revolutionary perspectives. Increasing the cost of Humanities, Law and Commerce degrees is not about creating ‘job-ready’ young people, but a cruel means of denying disadvantaged Australians access to legitimate power.
Australian Government. (2019). Graduate Employment. [online]. Qilt.Edu.Au. Available at:
Duffy, C., 2020. Humanities Degrees To Double In Cost As Government Funnels Students Into ‘Job-Relevant’ Uni Courses. [online] Abc.net.au. Available at: <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-19/university-fees-tertiary-education-overhaul-course-costs/12367742> [Accessed 28 June 2020].
Marginson, S. (2001). Trends in the Funding of Australian Higher Education. Australian Economic Review, 34(2), p. 205.
Stokes, A. and Wright, S. (2010) Are University Students Paying Too Much For Their Education in Australia? Journal Of Australian Political Economy, 65, pp. 5-8.
United Nations Development Programme. (2019). 2018 Statistical Update | Human Development Reports. [online]. Hdr.Undp.Org. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/2018-update.