Australian subject funding reforms struggling to deliver results

Long-standing cost pressures exacerbated by the pandemic swamping Canberra’s efforts to mould university efforts to economic needs

December 18, 2020
Mick Fanning of Australia (R) helps teammate Matt Wilkinson with his broken board during the qualifiers for the final of the WSL Founders' Cup of Surfing
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Choppy waters: incentives for some courses have failed to increase enrolment

Australian universities are closing courses set to be incentivised by the federal government’s tuition fee reductions as student applications betray few signs of extra appetite for these disciplines.

Canberra’s policy initiatives are making little difference to the subjects offered by universities or chosen by students. At least three universities propose to stop teaching foreign languages, including the key regional tongue of Indonesian, despite the government’s move to quarantine languages from fee hikes to humanities subjects.

The discussion paper for the Job-ready Graduates (JRG) reforms, which were approved by parliament in October, nominates foreign languages – along with mathematics and agriculture – as fields that are important to “broader” national priorities.

While the JRG reforms more than doubled the cost of most humanities subjects to A$14,500 (£8,218) a year, fees for languages have been almost halved to A$3,700. Education minister Dan Tehan said arts students facing hefty loan debts could minimise their liabilities by incorporating subjects that boosted their employability.

Nevertheless, Swinburne University of Technology proposes to cease all teaching of Chinese, Italian and Japanese because “they are not considered to be strategically aligned to our future”. Students determined to continue language majors will need to do so at other institutions.

The University of the Sunshine Coast is not enrolling any more students on its Indonesian programme and will stop teaching existing students late next year. Western Sydney University reportedly proposes to axe Indonesian classes but had not confirmed these reports.

La Trobe University has pledged to continue teaching modern Greek for three more years and has deferred decisions on the future of Indonesian and Hindi, after proposals to scrap all three subjects sparked a backlash from students, academics and ethnic communities. The Victorian institution, which is one of just two Australian universities to teach Hindi and has been offering Greek and Indonesian for more than three decades, says enrolments have been languishing for years.

Murdoch University has also backtracked from a proposal to “teach out” its Indonesian degree by next August following “feedback and consultation”. But prospects for the subject beyond 2021 will depend on enrolments and revenue.

Twelve other universities say they will maintain Indonesian classes next year, but some are keeping a nervous eye on enrolments and investigating ways to cut costs.

Monash University vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner said universities faced tough choices as they weighed delivery costs against student interest. She said language classes in Australia had long relied on “cooperative arrangements” between universities that could not attract enough students individually.

“Sometimes it’s just the informal arrangement that says, ‘You’ll do this, and we’ll do that,’” she said. “The difficulty comes as funding gets tighter. Some languages have particularly small cohorts.”

Liam Prince, director of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies, said universities facing declining language enrolments should give the JRG fee changes a chance. He said an arts student facing a A$40,000-plus debt could save more than A$10,000 by majoring in a language. “[We must] do what we can to [convince] students that there is a new set of financial reasons for studying languages,” he said.

But cuts to science programmes, also cheaper under the changes, reinforce doubts that such “price signals” have much impact. The Australian National University’s College of Science will shoulder the brunt of the university’s cost-cutting efforts, attracting almost one-third of a net staffing reduction of up to 322 positions – far more than any of the other 13 colleges and portfolios.

Swinburne has recommenced consultation on job cuts in its Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology as part of a programme to make between 125 and 150 positions redundant – a goal partly necessitated by subsidy cuts to STEM courses as part of the JRG changes. “Despite these courses [being] likely to see significant employment growth in the coming years, there will be less total funding per student,” vice-chancellor Pascale Quester told staff.

Murdoch says the JRG was one factor behind its move to scrap majors in maths, physics and chemistry. Provost Romy Lawson said other factors had included insufficient demand, a Covid-induced review of all operations and a decision to embed STEM units in all degrees.

Comprehensive figures on student applications for 2021 courses are not yet available. However, the latest data from the Sydney-based Universities Admissions Centre do not suggest a surge in areas favoured by tuition fee reductions.

While applications for courses in the natural and physical sciences have risen by 5 per cent compared with the same stage last year, the vastly more expensive humanities have experienced an increase of a similar magnitude. Spikes of 6 per cent in information technology and 3 per cent in engineering also lag the overall 7 per cent increase across all fields, which most observers attribute to the Covid-induced recession.

The big surge – 13 per cent – has been in health courses, reflecting nursing’s image as a safe bet during labour market downturns.

But the Department of Education, Skills and Employment said health courses would be cheaper under the JRG changes. So would programmes in agriculture, the environment, architecture and building, which have seen 8 per cent increases in applications.

A spokesperson said many applications had preceded finalisation of the JRG reforms. “It is likely that changes in enrolment patterns will emerge over time in both the range of courses and subjects that students select.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Funding reforms yet to stir interest in priority subjects

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