Government and governance, Education | Australia

19 August 2020

Higher education funding needs change, but the government’s Job-Ready Graduates Package will discourage students from taking up the humanities at the moment they are most desperately needed, Catherine Frieman and James Flexner write.

As archaeologists working in two of Australia’s leading universities, we have serious concerns about the government’s proposed Job-ready Graduates Package. In principle, we are encouraged by some of the proposals in the package, particularly its stated aim to expand opportunities for students of Indigenous backgrounds, as well as those from rural, regional, and remote areas of Australia. However, the proposal as it is written is unlikely to achieve these laudable goals.

Archaeology is a multidisciplinary field that engages with a range of concepts and techniques across the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. It seeks to understand the diversity of human experiences from the Pleistocene era (the last Ice Age) through to the present.

It is also one of the humanities and social sciences (HASS) fields that has a clear pathway from classroom to employment through the fields of consulting archaeology, state and local heritage offices, museums, and academic research. Further, many of its students take the critical and analytical skills they learn in archaeology and apply them in a variety of other fields in government as well as industry.

Archaeologists provide exactly the kind of ‘Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services’ that the Job-ready Graduate Package claims to want to prioritise. However, being typically located in HASS colleges or faculties, we expect to be negatively impacted by the government’s proposed fee increases in this area.

This is a clear example of a perverse outcome of the Job-ready Graduate Package which, as currently designed, mistakenly assumes that HASS disciplines uniformly lack direct streams to employment and raises fees.

More on this: Are our universities failing us?

Of particular concern to us is the way the proposed reforms pit Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and HASS disciplines against each other.

Coming, as we do, from a uniquely hybrid discipline and having both been trained in the United States where tertiary education is still strongly influenced by liberal arts models, we find it hard to imagine an education of any quality that does not encompass both arts and sciences.

It is no accident that HASS degrees, as well as Law and Commerce, tend to lead to leadership positions in industry, in the professional sphere, and in politics. Creativity, empathy, and well developed interpersonal and communication skills all lead to success.

For students to develop the complex interpersonal, transferable, and technical skills they need to succeed in the deeply unpredictable future they need a grounding in both STEM and HASS. The proposed legislation works against this.

Moreover, it creates administrative and financial roadblocks for universities seeking to transition to more future-focused, skills-based teaching and learning activities.

More on this: Does Australia offer international students a product it can’t deliver?

As unemployment and economic uncertainty grow, the Australian public as well as overseas students will seek new qualifications to adapt to the changing demands of the labour market.

The ability to communicate clearly, understand cultural differences, and critically think about self and society, all hallmarks of HASS degrees, will be more important than ever for the challenges facing Australia in the 21st century.

Rather than punishing students financially for choosing certain areas of study, the Australian Government should seize this moment to make a remarkable contribution to its younger generations and the future of the country.

The current economic downturn, large-scale unemployment, and high demand for university qualifications could be an opportunity to bolster the university sector.

Rather than indebting Australian students, the government has the means but still requires the will to fund universities commensurate with the world-class education and world-leading research they provide.

Making HASS degrees more expensive for students will drive diversity away from these areas at precisely the time when they need to be made more inclusive.

Australian archaeology, for instance, would benefit immensely if we had more qualified Indigenous consulting archaeologists and academics, something that has been demonstrated by our neighbours in New Zealand and the Pacific. Pricing first generation and non-traditional students out of fields like archaeology will leave some professions open only to people from privileged backgrounds.

Funding universities in a way that allows students to pursue degrees for no or nearly no cost would create opportunities for rural and regional, low-SES, and Indigenous students by giving them the autonomy to follow their interests and develop their talents.

We sincerely hope the government takes this opportunity to rethink its approach to higher education. Instead of austerity, chaos, and uncertainty, this is precisely the moment when Australia can return to the legacy established by Robert Menzies over 50 years ago, and ring in a new era of support and expansion of its university system.

A strong and well-supported higher education sector is essential to the creation of a vibrant, dynamic, and internationally competitive economy for Australia.

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