Death of the art student: how the “Job Ready Graduates” reform will reshape Australia’s cultural landscape

When I tell people what I’m studying at university, the slight pause that follows is usually complemented by something along the lines of a “Oh yeah…”; as a creative writing student, this is the sort of awkward dialogue I live for. Artistical-minded people will usually inquire on what sort of writing I’m interested in next, but the vast majority will ask something along the lines of “What kind of job can you get with that?” The scary reality is that if you are someone who sees university as an institution to help you expand knowledge on what you love doing, and decide to chase your passion by undertaking, for instance, a humanities degree in Australia, things got a lot more complicated – and expensive.

This “Job Ready Graduates” reform brings about, according to former Education Minister Dan Tehan in 2020, a choice for students, where “their degree will be cheaper if they choose to study in areas where there is expected growth in job opportunities.” Several decreases in course fees such as nursing, engineering, IT and science should in fact help stimulate the economy. But for the all-important (and soon even more damned) humanities and communications students of Australia, a 113% increase in course fees should represent a significant blow to their creative endeavours and, consequently, forever reshape the cultural landscape of this country. To give you an example, a full year of a humanities degree in 2020 would have costed an average of $6684; since the beginning of 2021, this fee imploded to around $14,500 a year, according to the DESE website. If you were thinking about chasing your dreams in the area of communications, for instance, you might reconsider taking up that maths degree after all – you won’t even need to graduate to figure out this will save you somewhere around $10,000 a year in course fees.

 “The future belongs to those who create it”, BHP’s campaign titled ‘The future of STEM education is clear’ states. Written by creatives, ironically enough, it speaks to the endless economic benefits of STEM professionals (i.e., science, technology, engineering and maths), hinting at the future endless possibilities of competing on a global scale with a skills-based economy. In an effort to increase academic interest in these subjects, BHP has committed over $55 million to Australian programs. And when alluring to the bright future the company prides itself in advertising, their call to action is simple: “For these students and for all of us, the future is clear if we continue to think big.” For anyone with a passion for any of these areas of knowledge, the future does seem clear indeed. But what will the cultural facet of our country look like once students start smothering their creative urges in lieu of a (much) cheaper university degree? The full consequences of these hypothetical questions should only bear answers in the future when it will be too late to act. This idea of subtracting and summing up Australia’s students as mere numbers, relevant only in economic terms, helps reinforce the idea of the importance of creative pioneers to see beyond this daunting numerical worldview.

Take Aimee’s situation as an example. Once she completed high school, Aimee enrolled into a nursing degree. After two years in the emotional rollercoaster that the course proved to be, she decided it wasn’t for her and changed to a humanities degree. Fair enough, right? Universities are institutions designed with the idyllic model of equal opportunity and choice for all, allowing students to grow and figure out who they want to become. Because Aimee was already a student when she decided to make her all-important change, she won’t be charged the extra 113% in fees per semester. But if she were a humanities student who suddenly decided to change to, for instance, an engineering degree, she would benefit from the cheaper course rates. Perhaps my own enrolment in the faculty of humanities creates a bias I am all too-aware of, but this simply doesn’t read like equal opportunity to me. If a student enrolled this year with a life-long passion for law, for instance, they can’t be blamed when switching their ambitions into the world of farming. A 59% fee reduction for an agriculture degree is like an EOFY sale, too good to pass on, and enough to make you think twice about what you would really like to do, or better even, what you should do for the common good of the economy.

I can consider myself lucky to be raised by parents who always advised me to study something I was passionate about, and not something that would get me passionately remunerated. Compare this with Dan Tehan’s idea of a choice for students, and the fundamentals of equal opportunity for everyone start losing shape altogether. I guess the big question I would like to ask for all the disadvantaged students of the future is this: shouldn’t humanities and communications students’ lower chance of securing meaningful employment see their tertiary education bills decreased instead of more than doubled? I guess this is a question I will leave for the STEM-students of the future to decide.

(Written for Writing Feature Articles unit)

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