Release type: Transcript


Minister for Education Dan Tehan interview with Tom Tilley and Annika Smethurst, The Briefing podcast


The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education

SUBJECTS: Job-ready graduates, Regional reforms

Tom Tilley: The cost of an arts degree or a humanities degree could be about to double. So, is that fair? Last week, the Government announced they want to make some uni degrees cheaper and others a lot more expensive.


Dan Tehan: From next year, students will have a choice. Their degree will be cheaper if they choose to study in areas where there is expected growth in job opportunities.

Tanya Plibersek: It’s one more accounting trick. They want to be seen to be doing something with universities, but they’re not going to fund any extra student places.

Unidentified speaker: The Government is trying to strong arm universities into deregulating fees.

[End of excerpt]

Tilley: As you can hear there, some vocal critics who are not happy, Dan. And, when I say Dan, I’m talking about Dan Tehan the Education Minister, who we’re going to interview in just a moment. Annika Smethurst is here to help explain the proposed changes. G’day Annika. How’s this going to work?

Annika Smethurst: Well, when we sign up for a HECS debt, you might not actually realise how much it is. People often just go in and do what they want to do. But, the way it works at the moment, is that the courses are loosely put into three groups, and that’s based on your earning potential. So, traditionally, we’ve seen students studying law or medicine have paid a lot more than students paying arts and humanities, and, in part, that’s because of your ability to pay it off at the end. And, also, a little bit on the cost of actually teaching some of these more lengthy courses. But, that’s all about to change. As you say, Tom, from the next academic year, the Government’s going to dramatically slash the prices of some courses. So, if you want to do agriculture or maths, it’s going to be 62 per cent cheaper. Some of the other ones that they’re going to offer discounts on are teaching and nursing and English, which will be down about 40 per cent. A little bit of a less discount, but still a discount, for IT and engineering and environmental science. But, law and arts degrees, they’re going to go up. In fact, some humanities degrees could go up by more than 100 per cent, and, of course, this has some people really worried, especially those kids that are in Year 12 this year.

Tilley: Yeah. So, lots of questions for the Education Minister. Before we get to him, I want you to meet Ronan. He’s a Year 12 student who was planning to study humanities. How do you feel about these changes?

Ronan: I think, when I first sort of saw this announcement, my first reaction was, oh, you’re kidding. And, then, as I sort of read a little bit more, it sort of set in, because we’ve sort of made our subject selections three years ago. So, it’s been since Year 9 in the running. Obviously, Year 12s are in our final year, starting unit four. So, pretty much my reaction was like, oh, that is not the news I needed. But, yeah, I’m also considering studying overseas. I was before, but it’s sort of just a little bit more enticing now.

Tilley: That was Ronan there, who’s not happy, Dan.

Smethurst: Heath George has an arts degree, and he’s gone on to start Clockwork Films, which employs eight full time staff, but, also, lots more for when they put on shows. Heath, what do you make of this policy, and the value it puts on arts and humanities degrees?

Heath George: Yeah, the idea that a humanities stereotype is this sort of frivolous pursuit, and we’re all sort of studying French philosophers, I mean, it’s a bit of a nonsense. I mean, the average BA humanities salary, according to pay scales sites, is 68,000 a year. You know, BA fine arts is similar. Most common roles for a humanities grad is, you know, marketing manager, graphic designer, project managers, business development managers, administrators. You know, people I deal with in my role, in my businesses. You know, gender breakdown’s 70 per cent women, 29.9 per cent men. So, you know, the policy is going to disproportionately affect women. You know, it’ll probably surprise people to realise the top five Australian employers of BA graduates are Westpac, Bauer Media, News Corp, Ernst & Young and Telstra. I mean, only two of these are media companies. I think that stereotype that they’re not, that they’re frivolous degrees, is unfounded.

Tilley: That was Heath. Let’s see how Dan Tehan, the Education Minister, responds to those criticisms. Minister, thanks for joining us. We just heard from a Year 12 student called Ronan. He was shocked by this announcement. He said he’d started planning towards his humanities degree, that he hopes to do, as far back as Year 9, where he started choosing his subjects in Year 10, 11, 12. And, only now, he’s found out that the uni course he wants to do could double in price, and it’s too late for him to change to agriculture or nursing. What do you say to someone like Ronan?

Tehan: What we’ve done through these changes is that we’ve aligned the cost of a degree with the contribution that the Government makes and the student makes. And, what we’ve done is, we’ve looked at projections as to where the jobs of the future are going to be. And, we’ve said, okay, what the Government will do is, we’ll put more in where we know the jobs will be, and we’ll put less in where we think there is already enough demand in those jobs. So, you can still do your humanities degree. It will still be cheaper than a humanities degree in the US or the UK. You’ll have access to the world’s best HELP loan scheme. And, think about, as you’re choosing your humanity units, units which will help your job prospects. And, if you do that, and for instance do a maths or an English or a language, your humanities degree will be cheaper.

Tilley: Julie Bishop, your former colleague, has had some pretty strong words about this. We spoke to her yesterday. She is now the Chancellor of the ANU, our top ranking university. Here’s what she had to say.


Julie Bishop: I’m deeply concerned, because I think it will have a perverse effect. I think you’ll find that the universities will, of course, take students who provide the greatest funding outcome for the university, and that will still be the humanities. So, I think, also, when I was the Education Minister, I tried this idea of reducing the HECS fees for science, engineering, maths, to attract more students, and it doesn’t work. And, teaching, students don’t go into teaching because they’ve got low HECS fees, they go in because they want a career in teaching.

[End of excerpt]

Tilley: So, you’ve got a former Education Minister there saying that lowering course prices doesn’t necessarily change people’s minds. What evidence do you have that lowering the cost of a course will actually redirect people into careers that aren’t appealing to them?

Tehan: Well, we’ve got the evidence from when the Labor Party reduced the costs of maths and science degrees. It actually did lead to extra demand into those areas. So, they did that in 2009, and it’s interesting, because, there was a lot of publicity around those changes, and that actually led to demand going into those areas. Then, when they increased the prices by 78 per cent for maths and science in 2013, that was all done in the lead up to the election, and there wasn’t much publicity around it, and we didn’t see much impact. So, one of the things we’re very keen to do is, to be a lot clearer around the cost to a student of undertaking a degree. And, Tom, these are very different circumstances. If we’re to grow our economy out of this economic shock, the biggest economic shock since the Great Depression, our focus has to be on jobs, and that’s what the Government is doing.

Tilley: Dan Tehan, it comes down, partly, to how you value an arts and humanities subjects. You know, you keep talking about getting people into jobs, but a lot of people who do these degrees end up in a whole range of jobs, and working for a whole range of different sectors – tech companies, they work in business, politics. And, the so-called jobs of the future change very quickly, and sometimes you need those broad style approaches to work in those spaces and add value. Are you underestimating the value of arts and humanities subjects?

Tehan: No, not at all. And, I go back to the original point that I made, Tom. What we’ve done is align the cost of a degree with the contribution that both the Commonwealth and the student have made, or will make. You have to remember, in terms of the payment, the payment is a cap. So, what you might find is that some universities who want to specialise in a particular area, will actually teach under the cost of what the cap is. So, they will use that to encourage particular students into a particular area, and they might be able to teach more efficiently and effectively in that area. They might be able to combine with industry to be able to say to students, well, you come here. Not only is it cheaper, but we’ll give you a placement. Industry or business might work with the university to make sure that you get the job placements. Plus, there’s a cheaper offer, so, it’s below the cap. And, that will then encourage students to go into a particular university to do that area of study, and it can grow in its expertise in that area of studies.

Tilley: Minister, I imagine some people listening would agree with you, in principle, that we could do with a slight redirecting of priorities towards areas that definitely will land people jobs. What they might not agree with you on, though, is the magnitude, to double the cost of an arts and humanities subject. How did you come up with those numbers? Like, 111 per cent increase. Why not a 50 per cent increase, or a smaller magnitude of increase or redirection of these priorities?

Tehan: Well, one of the things that we had to work around was, in 2013, the costs of science and maths went up by 78 per cent. So, what you’ve really seen in the maths and sciences was that, a very steep increase in 2013. So, in realigning and putting our costs and those contributions, so that they now are in line, it was actually the humanities, in bringing that up, to what had really occurred in the maths and science area in 2013, with that 78 per cent increase.

Smethurst: Now, Dan Tehan, you represent a regional electorate. Both Tom and I grew up in the country. There’s already a lot of barriers for country kids that are going to, often, universities in the city, although there are some great regional unis. So, they’re already moving there. And, now, if you want to study arts instead of nursing or agriculture, you’re going to have to pay a bit more. What is your Government doing to make sure country kids get an education?

Tehan: So, we’re putting in place a Tertiary Access Payment, a $5,000 Tertiary Access Payment. So, country students, when they get straight out of school, if they want to go to university, will get access to this $5,000 Tertiary Access Payment. One of the important parts of this package is designed to lift those attainment rates in regional and rural areas, and, if we can do that, we will see not only a benefit in the social cohesion of the nation, but importantly, also, it will help those regional and rural economies to the tune of about $30 billion by 2050.

Tilley: Minister, speaking of social cohesion. The Black Lives Matter protests have revived an important debate around diversity in the media and in politics. The concern is that the more expensive you make arts, media, humanities, law degrees, the more you concentrate cultural capital, you know, the chance of getting those sort of cultural gatekeeper jobs in arts, humanities, the more likely it’s going to be wealthier white kids who can afford to do the degrees, that will land you in one of those positions. Does that concern you?

Tehan: Well, one of the things we’re doing, also, through these reforms, Tom, is putting more money into the attainment rates of low socio-economic, rural, remote students, Indigenous students. So, we’re actually increasing the funding into the fund which is called HEPPP, which is all about lifting equity, and is all designed around those low socio-economic students. It’s money we provide to universities, so that they can make sure that we get that, get that diversity and …

Tilley: … But, will that make up for doubling their course fees?

Tehan: Well, as I’ve said, what we’ve done is align the cost of a teach, to the university of teaching a degree, to the contribution that the Commonwealth and the student has made. And, once again, depending on how a student mix and matches the unit that it puts together. But, these, this lifting these, in this HEPPP fund, is specifically designed to help those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Tilley: That was Dan Tehan, the Education Minister. Now, this all has to get through the upper house. Parliament actually has to vote this through. So, it’s not a given that it will happen, Annika. What chances do you give this legislation of getting through the Senate?

Smethurst: Traditionally, these sort of education reforms have not gone through. We saw the last, then under the Abbott Government, they tried to get through deregulation. University fees were going to be incredibly expensive, and it was something the Senate blocked. They blocked a lot of Abbott reforms. But, I would think this one’s a little bit closer to getting through. It’s not as, sort of, great leap forward. Having said that, not having the numbers there mean everything is so tight, and it can come down to one or two people. Those people are the Pauline Hanson’s and Jacqui Lambie’s of the world, and, traditionally, they’re very unpredictable.

Tilley: Alright. Well, thanks Annika. Always great to get your inside knowledge on how these things will actually go down in the Parliament.

Smethurst: From one arts student to another.

Tilley: I did commerce.