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Remedy  •  15 February 2021  •  Non-Fiction

Humanities Degree Fee Hikes Hurt us All. Here's Why.

By Ella Smith
Humanities Degree Fee Hikes Hurt us All. Here's Why.

"Why white people are shit."

This was the unofficial title given to the communications elective: Sex, Race and Empire, by the subject’s co-ordinator and phenomenal educator, Dr. Sarah Attfield. 

As a white woman myself, hearing another white, British woman say this, I was shocked. But then I remembered that this was a class about British colonialism in a communications degree; of course we were going to confront big topics.

By the end of the semester, despite battling through hybrid-Zoom-and-in-person classes, I had learnt more about the history of colonial expansion and the power relations which dominate our current global order, than ever before. My internalised biases and assumptions had been completely challenged and transformed. 

I was also among the last students to take this subject. It was cut at the end of 2020, without any reason given to Dr. Attfield. It’s subjects like these, and the discussions they instigate, that produce intelligent and empathetic graduates. 

When we entered 2020, ravaged by bushfires, we were blindly heading towards the greatest health crisis in living memory. We were also unaware of the continuous soc-ietal changes the year would bring us — economically, socially and even culturally. 

Global lockdowns and the knock-on financial effects led to widespread unemployment and extreme job uncert-ainty. This disproportionately impacted those in the arts industry. For many, the transient nature of their employment was the very reason they were ineligible for government support. 

Media outlets were devastated by plummeting advertising revenue, resulting in mass redundancies of the very peo-ple who were telling the stories we needed to know most.

Universities were also hit hard. Hastily planned voluntary redundancies occurred nation-wide. At UTS, approxima-tely 500 full-time staff were cut. And to top it all off, the federal government passed legislation which drastically changed the funding of university degrees, resulting in fee hikes of 113% for humanities and law degrees. 

My UTS Communications degree costs me just under $6,500 per full-time year. New students will be paying $14,500. 

The danger of this decision is evident in the very categor- isation of the degrees facing funding cuts: ‘Society and Culture.’ This broad brush covers journalism, political science, law, creative writing, and much more in between. These degrees produce graduates who will go on to directly shape society and influence our culture. While these courses might not necessarily train students for specific jobs, they foster critical thinking skills and nuanced contextual awareness, preparing students for an increasingly globalised and temporal job market. It’s estimated that millennials will have more than 12 jobs in their lifetime, therefore learning transferable skills should be valued now, more than ever. 

We undertake humanity degrees for reasons as diverse as the students who study them. Some want to learn job- specific skills. Many hope to figure out what they actually want to do career-wise by studying a broad degree. Some are simply passionate about ancient history or literature. Many employers simply won’t hire someone without a bachelor’s degree, regardless of what it is. I’ve identified with all of these reasons throughout my studies, and now in my final year, have also begun to appreciate the transferable skills it has equipped me with. 

The suggestion that arts and humanities degrees are less likely to lead to employment is so pervasive, yet so very wrong. In 2019, 83.9% of humanities graduates and 82.8% of communications graduates were employed. This can be compared to 82.4% of their science and mathematics counterparts1. Moreover, two-thirds of federal parliamentarians have degrees in humanities, as do two-thirds of chief executives of ASX200 listed companies2. There is an ingrained attitude that arts degrees are useless, however, these figures suggest otherwise. It is painfully ironic that one of the MPs whose support the Coalition required to pass this bill, Rebekha Sharkie, holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences, in international relations and public policy.

These fee hikes come with the awareness that my degree is now reserved for those with a certain amount of privilege. The suggestion of a minimum debt of nearly $44,000 (assuming no failed subjects or decisions to change majors) for a non-vocational degree, which will be used in a job market the government evidently fails to adequately support, is simply out of reach for many future students. The risk of being in the 16-17% of un-employed graduates is much greater than it has ever been, when there are substantially cheaper degrees in the STEM fields with reportedly booming job markets. 

However, data shows that these fee hikes haven’t nec-essarily impacted 2021 university applications. 22% of all early bird preferences were for so-called ‘society and culture’ degrees, for both this year and last year. Health degrees only saw a 2-point jump to 28% of all early first preferences for this year3.

So, as almost a quarter of students go on to study human- ities, we risk seeing a homogenisation of the cohort due to reduced resources and subjects. Those who study law are the graduates who will go on to interpret, and in some cases, write the law. Communication and arts graduates will tell and share our stories, shaping our country’s present, future and history. This can be dangerous. Fee increases impact accessibility. Will those who get to study humanities from now on truly represent Australia? Without diver-sity in our leadership and story-telling, we risk going backwards. We risk people in these positions having their opinions reinforced in echo chambers with little dissent, with poor appreciation of alternate voices and experiences. This is what we learn in arts degrees. We are challenged, informed and critiqued by the texts that we study, the people we sit next to, and those instructing us.

We are currently entering the unknown. The health and financial stability of the world is in a state of flux. Undoubtedly, we need medical professionals more than ever before, along with science and technology experts. But we also need people reporting what’s going on in the world, and helping others to make sense of it. We need people in positions of power to be educated about the diverse needs and experiences of different communities. We need them to have the capacity to put the population’s longevity before personal agendas or party lines.

We need to champion humanities degrees now, more than ever.

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