An Orwellian future: are STEM the only valuable graduates in Australia?
Illustration credit: Naomi Worth

On the 18th of June, I woke up to an ABC news notification, something I usually quickly acknowledge before starting my day. But at this said notification I gasped. Then cried. 

The university course I wanted to study became 113% more expensive overnight. 

The course which I have dreamt of for years became prey to the coronavirus. The notion of studying economics at university, which was perhaps my one constant in life, is now no longer. 

In an attempt to produce more “job-ready” graduates, Dan Tehan, the federal minister of education, announced some unexpected reforms to the Australian university fee system. This included a slashing of annual fees for STEM courses, while humanities courses incurred an exponential increase in fees. The proposed reform splits disciplines into four bands with different annual fees.  

Band 1: Teaching, Clinical Psychology, English, Mathematics, Nursing, Languages, and Agriculture – annual fee of $3,700. 

Band 2: Allied Health, Other Health, Architecture, IT, Creative Arts, Engineering, Environmental Studies, and Science – annual fee of $7,000. 

Band 3: Medical, Dental, and Veterinary Science – annual fee of $11,300. 

Band 4: Law, Economics, Management & Commerce, Society & Culture, Humanities, Communications and Behavioral Science – annual fee of $14,500. 

Undeniably, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed an unprecedented strain on the Australian economy. The unemployment rate is at 7.1%, the highest it has been in over 15 years. The need for more “job-ready” graduates to mitigate the economic damage caused by the coronavirus is understandable, however these reforms show a clear disregard from the government for any non-STEM degrees. 

These reforms carve out a future where mathematicians, engineers and scientists are prioritized. A future in which lawyers, economists, writers, philosophers and historians are subordinate to the STEM narrative. Perhaps Australia has an eerily Orwellian future ahead. 

I can only imagine what today would be like if these reforms were implemented when the Global Financial Crisis struck in 2008. We would not have enough economists to help navigate and rebuild a stable Australian economy. We would not have many historians to teach the dark history and brutal atrocities committed against aboriginal Australians. There would also be a lack of competent diplomats and policymakers who try to maintain peace in an ever-tumultuous world. 

The truth is the future is unpredictable, something we know all too well. Future Australia will need all types of graduates, people with all different types of degrees to prepare for the endless possibilities the future has installed.

These reforms insinuate that universities are simply job factories, against their fundamental nature. Universities are a place of academic pursuit, a place to gain knowledge of the world, a place to explore one’s passions. Not a mere vessel to gain entry into a specific job, as the  Australian government clearly perceives. A report by The Foundation of Young Australians suggests “It’s more likely that a 15-year-old today will experience a portfolio career, potentially having 17 different jobs over five careers in their lifetime”. It is unlikely that the courses an individual studied at university will lead them directly into that field of work. 

Perhaps investing in Technical and Further Education (TAFE) would be of greater benefit to the workforce as people learn a skill or trade that directly correlates with a specific job. New Zealand, Australia’s trans-tasman friend, is facing a similar shortage of STEM graduates, however, have adopted a less myopic approach to mitigate future economic decline. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, has made apprenticeships (TAFE courses) corresponding to industries in dire need of workers free, until December 2022. Additionally, the government of New Zealand has made the first year of university free, for all disciplines. This approach, while temporary, elevates economic pressure by emphasising the need of certain disciplines but not at the expense of another. It appears that the Australian Coalition has a vendetta against the humanities sector, an anti-intellectual sentiment for which future graduates will pay.

Furthermore, the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching shows arts students are more likely to get jobs than mathematics and science graduates. It was found that humanities students are employed at a rate of 91.1% three years after finishing their degree, whereas science and mathematics graduates are employed at 90.1%. Although this is only a slight increase, it is tangible evidence which clearly shows that studying STEM will not lead to a more certain and profitable future.  So why is the government pursuing this line of reasoning? 

In my opinion, these reforms are lackluster; a half-hearted attempt to mend the economy while perpetuating the current government’s anti-intellectual sentiment. There are better ways to safeguard Australia’s economic future without dissuading a generation of humanitarian and critical thinkers. But what would I know? I’m just a humanities student.