UNSW's response to proposed changes to higher education policy and funding

Universities are about life and society - not only about work and careers

As I have reflected on the Federal Government’s announcement last week about higher education policy and funding, my thoughts kept turning to the purpose of our University.

Last year, as we celebrated our 70th anniversary, we took steps to update our UNSW motto.

Guided by student, staff and alumni feedback that our University is having an impact well beyond its technical, engineering, and science-based roots, our community agreed a simple change to emphasise our objective to make a “collective difference” to people’s lives and our society.

As covered in Inside UNSW earlier this year we have added the element of ‘Heart’ to better reflect our commitment to a holistic educational experience and a determination to embody the compassion and caring for others that is the cornerstone of a generational push to see more diversity, equity and inclusion. The UNSW Council endorsed the proposal to evolve our motto from “Scientia manu et mente” or Knowledge by Hand and Mind to “Scientia corde mente et manu” or Knowledge by Heart, Mind and Hand. This is more than just a slogan of renewed values and aspirations. It captures the fact that true educational excellence includes a quest for meaning; a higher purpose for the individual and society. We strive to educate our community for life – and that includes but is not limited to the workplace.

Endeavours of brilliant practical know-how, and research will almost always fall short of their potential if they fail to incorporate reflective thinking, empathy, and an open-minded appreciation for our differences of opinion; the “heart” that lies at the core of our mission.

The impact on our students

It is in this context that I have tried to absorb the planned overhaul of university funding arrangements. The proposals include an escalation of fees for those who wish to undertake studies in the humanities, management, commerce, economics, communications, creative arts and law. It is important to note that these proposed changes will not affect current students. But the impact on future students is significant.

Amid other concerns, I lament the stress that the prospect of extra fees will place on the already burdened shoulders of Year 12 students, whose efforts in tackling the Higher School Certificate have been derailed in so many ways because of the COVID-19 restrictions. Many students in Years 11 and 12 have selected HSC subjects with a prospective degree in mind; courses whose prices may now be inflated. This same dilemma is true for Year 12 students who have made their preference choices - only to now be thrust into a different educational environment.

The fee for students in management, commerce, law and economics will rise by 27.7%; in creative arts by 13% * and in communications and humanities by an astonishing 113.1% (to $14,500). I worry that these increases will deter talented students who would otherwise study these subjects, particularly those from more challenging socio-economic backgrounds.

Why place higher fees on these subjects? The Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, argues it is to encourage students to choose a pathway to more certain employment fields, based on labour market forecasts and projections up until 2024. Much available evidence challenges this rationale. Over the last few days, a lot has been written about the high employment rates for humanities students and the huge impact they have on society - building on, but not directly related to their degrees.

The World Economic Forum recently cited “creativity” as one of the top three skills for Jobs of the Future. Our society needs people educated in the arts, social sciences, management, commerce, law and the humanities to guide us through the challenges of 21st century life; and to design and apply new innovations - not to mention the other qualities they bring as part of a talented, balanced workforce.

UNSW takes pride in teaching these subjects and has succeeded beyond the expectations of our founders. The list of eminent Australians who have studied at UNSW in topics subject to a fee increase is long. Just a few examples: Markus Zusak, Lynette Wallworth, Rebel Wilson, Shemara Wikramanayake, Marise Payne, our newly appointed Council member, Jennifer Westacott and of course, our Chancellor David Gonski.

Public funding of universities

There is another explanation for the extra burden of fees on our students. It is that the government is juggling twin pressures. One is, of course, the economic impact of COVID-19 and a concern not to burden the public purse any further during a recession. The other is that the demand for university places from domestic students - which was going to rise anyway for demographic reasons - will now be even greater because of the high unemployment rates flowing from the virus-induced recession. Mr Tehan’s challenge is to increase the number of university places for domestic students without affecting the budget bottom line. This has translated into students in some subjects being asked to pay more – so that the government doesn’t have to increase their own funding.

Mr Tehan correctly notes that government funding - at $18 billion - is at “record levels”; but that simply reflects the growth in university education through the demand-driven system which was capped in 2017. It does not allow for the increase in demand since the cap was introduced, rising population pressures or the pursuit of ever-better educational and research outcomes.

The struggle to increase public funding for a larger proportion of school leavers accessing university education is real, but so is the reality that government funding - as an overall proportion of university budgets - has fallen under governments of both political colours from 95% in the 1970s to something like 35% today.

Our universities - already highly efficient, with some of the highest student: staff ratios in OECD countries - will need to teach even more students for the same funding. This is an inconvenient truth that needs to be addressed. The gradual decrease in public funding has led Australian universities to seek worthwhile ways to manage the funding gap. Our universities have been extremely successful in that endeavour, (making Australia the world leader per capita as a destination for international students), and have used that funding well to raise the quality and impact of our sector (0.3% of the global population but 8% of the world’s top 200 universities!). Educating international students is a proud feature of UNSW’s culture; our global outlook. For more than 40 years, UNSW has attracted a diverse cohort of students and researchers from all parts of the world, deepening our international relationships and enriching our perspectives.

If the funding per student decreases at the same time as government funding for research is constrained, the quality of university education and research in Australia will be at risk.

We need a broad-ranging review of our sector that asks simply what Australia wants from its universities - and how that vision can be funded through a sensible balance of public finances and other funding streams.

Other aspects of the plan

Having noted all of that, there are some welcome aspects of the government’s reform proposals.

I am interested in the plan to commit funds to an ‘Industry Linkage Fund’ to support greater interaction in research and education between universities and business/industry. I look forward to hearing more and hope that it is a step towards the type of Australian Translational Research Fund to drive the application and commercialisation of our research that UNSW has been advocating for the last two years. I welcome the commitment to place a CPI indexation on annual funding arrangements.

I applaud the uncapping of places for Indigenous students, and the funding support for those from disadvantaged communities. Like other universities, UNSW also supports incentives for study in science, engineering and maths - and equally, the boost for teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages. And I am relieved that there is a transitional funding pot, which will mean that our domestic student income is protected at 2020 levels plus CPI through to 2023. That means we can manage the financial gap in 2021 and 2022 without adding this to our current woes.

There is however, much devil in the detail. For example, for science and engineering degrees, both the government and student contributions are decreased - leaving a burden of about $5000 per student per year for universities to absorb. For a university like UNSW, that amounts to an impost that will run into the tens of millions of dollars each year. So supporting the government’s laudable objective to train more scientists and engineers will cost universities more – creating a perverse financial incentive for some universities to decrease training in science and engineering, where the overall fee is reduced, and train more in the humanities, law, economics, management and commerce, where the overall fees are increased through the student contribution. These perverse incentives may be even greater because the proportion of the fee in humanities contributed by the government will be so low at 7.1% ($1,100 vs student contribution $14,500) that some universities will simply recruit as many of these students as they can outside the government cap and forego the $1,100 CGS component.

The power of a holistic education

Like me, many of you will have read commentary in the media over the weekend on the government’s proposals. Concerns have been raised from a range of perspectives; and not always in the usual places. As the Herald editorial put it on Saturday, “There is value in all education….it should not be a case of either/or. The Federal Government should be investing more in all forms of education and training… This could be part of the intergenerational bargain from our success in fighting the coronavirus. It is younger people who are making the sacrifices personal and financial so that the old and the vulnerable will live. Investing in education is one way to repay them.”

I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments.

There is still a chance to build on and improve these proposals. There is an opportunity to put education at the forefront of federal and state governments’ post COVID-19 recovery plans - and, as a $40 billion industry supporting 250,000 jobs, to supercharge our way out of this health crisis. Just as the government has started talks with the union movement in an attempt to reach a consensus with business on conditions to promote job growth and security, so too would the university sector - indeed the entire tertiary education industry - welcome the opportunity to have similar talks. At a time of heightened national unity and common purpose, it would be a powerful step to construct a compact with government, industry, and key community groups to drive Australia’s future; to accelerate our next generation of employment opportunities…and to strive together for a smarter, more inquiring, and caring cohort of job-ready graduates.

At UNSW, our community does not agree on everything and rightly has robust debate on many issues. But we share a commitment to utilising our expertise and resources to improve lives in Australia and globally through applying our mantra of “Heart, Mind and Hand”. That includes a commitment to ensuring that our students and communities benefit from the full spectrum of educational experience from medicine, science and engineering, through to business, law, architecture, arts, social sciences and design.

With all of that in mind I was intrigued to read yesterday of a drive by universities and the Arts Council in the UK to promote SHAPE (social sciences, humanities & the arts for people & the economy). The intent is: to balance STEM; to encourage schoolchildren and undergraduates to view these subjects as positive steps towards a high-status career; and to represent these disciplines as a cluster, so as to gain greater public status and challenge a harmful narrative.

Perhaps an idea for us to consider?

Best wishes to all.

Professor Ian Jacobs
President and Vice-Chancellor



* An earlier version of this article included that the student contribution for creative arts would increase by 66.1%. This figure was sourced from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. Information since published by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment indicates that there will be a 13% increase in the student contribution for creative arts.