It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed our everyday lives. Young people in particular have been hit the hardest. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, per The Australian Institute, “in April, there were 713,400 unemployed people in Australia, which was an unemployment rate of 5.8 percent. The unemployment rate for young people aged 15-24 years was more than twice as high at 12.9 percent.” And, again, that was April. Things haven’t been all bright and peachy and going up since then, we’ve merely fallen into a real recession. The government expects things to get even worse before they get good, and according to Junkee, we’re sitting at an unemployment rate of 18 percent in early October.
This period of economic decline is unlike anything we’ve ever lived through, and has put the federal government in $1,000,000,000 in debt. But, it’s also completely fucked over Australian universities and the future of our uni life. From subject cuts to hefty fees, this is the future of Australian universities in a post-COVID-19 world.
Australian universities live and breathe off international student fees. According to a report by The Conversation, international student fees make up on average 51 percent of externally sourced research income. That research is also what boosts the ranking of our eight research-intensive universities, keeps them afloat and brings in more international student interest. For context, they are: The University of Sydney, The University of Melbourne, The University of New South Wales, Monash University, The University of Queensland, Australian National University, The University of Western Australia and Adelaide University. These eight make up 70 percent of our universities’ research funding, and are followed by the University of Technology, Sydney, Deakin University, Macquarie University, The Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University, which collectively make up 18 percent.
So, when the pandemic hit our shores and Prime Minister Scott Morrison told anyone who wasn’t from Australia to go back home during this period, it meant that half of the university’s stable income was slashed. Sure, people could study online but the reason people come to study here isn’t just for the degree, it’s for the lived experience of being in another country. Student rates per course were dropping, and courses and casual teachers were being hit as a result. Those international students that did decide to stay are given no financial support from the government—not fun fact: international students aren’t applicable for JobSeeker and JobKeeper. All in all, it’s become a really shitty situation for everyone involved, but hit young people the hardest.
Then, back in June, in the midst of COVID-19 angst and in an attempt to cover universities suffering from the several billion dollar loss from international student fees, education minister Dan Tehan proposed an overhaul of university fees. The proposed plan sought to decrease the fees of degrees the government considered “essential” industries that needed job growth during this forthcoming recession—agriculture, architecture, maths, health, science, teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, etc—leaving students in these fields to pay between $3,700 to $7,700 per year.
But, there was a catch in all this: while decreasing the cost of some of those other higher-earning and more needed industries, they also increased ones they didn’t think were “essential” for reigniting the economy, specifically, boosting the rate of humanity degrees by 113 percent. This meant that a Bachelor of Arts, Media or Politics student would cost the same as a law and commerce degree—roughly $14,500 per year—which, as a Media alumni, lemme just say: they don’t pay the same. Humanities staff soon grew worried about their job security, as a $45,000 arts degree would likely be the deciding factor that would defer students from doing their courses.
And, in horrifying news for universities and young people alike, this bill was passed this week, per ABC. Despite the Labour Party, Greens Party and independents like Jacqui Lambie trying to stop it, the plan went ahead, via support from the Libs (ofc), One Nation (yikes) and the crucial vote from Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff that secured the decision.
“I want everyone to get a chance at being what they want to be,” Lambie said at voting of the uni bill in the Senate, via a press release shared on Twitter. “This bill makes university life harder for poor kids and poor parents. And not only does it not have the same impact on wealthy families, it even gives them sweetheart little discounts.”
“The part of the bill that effectively kicks out kids who fail half their subjects in their first year is completely at odds with the idea of helping people get a leg up,” she continued. “It’s also favourable to rich kids. More than half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander students fail at least one subject in their first year. That’s 50 percent higher than non-ATSI students.”
“The ones who are least likely to fail a subject? They’re studying full-time. They’ve got really high marks at school. They’re studying at a physical campus, living away from home. The only ones who are able to afford that sort of student life are the wealthy ones. They’re doing great out of this.”
The new law comes as The Guardian reports that at least ten percent of Australian university jobs have been cut during COVID. As Macquarie University cuts entire degrees in maths and science and more than half of the current offered majors in the arts. As Monash University cuts at least 103 subjects, and, as ANU is forced to say goodbye to 465 staff.
In the 2020-2021 budget, treasurer Josh Frydenberg proposed $1bn to university research in attempt to save the university sector. But, according to NSW Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, “it will barely cover the uni funding cuts the government is ramming through right now and won’t come near the loss from international students and projects on hold.” And, what about university students? In an attempt to get more people into the workforce—specifically, those industries the government wants to grow—the federal government is also funding 50,000 online short courses in teaching, health, science, information technology and agriculture. But, what about the arts? What happens to the future of journalism, critical thinking and creative industries when the opportunity to learn them at universities is made more difficult and inaccessible? Especially, when the live entertainment industry reported a $340m loss in May, and more than 645,000 people affected, per NME.
As much as I’d like to wrap this story up in a nice pink frilly bow and say it’ll all be okay, in the current state of things, it’s too hard to make that call. As The Conversation report summarises, to survive and go back to some form of normalcy, Australian universities need to restore, as quickly as possible, existing international student markets or build new ones in other countries. As soon as the borders reopen, the government needs to fast-track student visas. But, when it comes to the many subjects left on the cutting room floor and arts degrees, sadly, it isss what it isss—unless you’re rich or willing to carry a hefty chunk of university debt for the next *checks notes* ten years.
Header image source: kokkai via Getty Images.