The devil is in the detail: university fee reform a recipe for inequality

While the Government's announced plan to change the structure of university funding looks like a win for the engineering profession, digging deeper has uncovered some unintended consequences.
News Image
motor board and pencil

On Friday 19 June, the Commonwealth Government announced a plan to change the structure of funding for universities. The headline feature is lowering the fees paid by students of engineering (amongst others) and conversely increasing fees for students of other courses. The effect for engineering is a reduction in student debt, with the policy intention that it encourages more young people to choose engineering for their university studies and careers.

On first review, this sounds good for our profession. But, as always, the overall situation is quite nuanced and there are pros and cons in the Government’s proposal.

One positive outcome is that funding for universities will again be indexed to CPI. Also, it appears funding for research is being decoupled from funding for teaching. That should lead to a more efficient allocation of resources and enable a focus on student outcomes whilst maintaining high-value research programs.

However, the money paid to a university by the Commonwealth Government for each engineering student will go down. The tertiary sector has calculated that the drop in both student and government contributions leads to a net reduction in funding of 16% per engineering student.

There may be other unintended consequences that require careful management to ensure it does not lead to increased inequality and a harmful reduction in the diversity of skills necessary for a modern workforce.

Engineers Australia’s views in this regard have been covered widely, and most notably on ABC TV news on 20 June, and in The Australian on 23 June. 

Successfully meeting societal challenges of sustainability, economic growth and improved quality of life through innovation requires engineers to work in cross-disciplinary teams of human behaviouralists, economists, lawyers, communication specialists and more.

The future of engineering requires a diversity of students that have a breadth of knowledge that extends beyond the technical. This new policy will make education more expensive for the many engineering students who choose to do a double degree with, for example, arts or commerce.

And whilst not affecting engineering students specifically, but society more broadly, an increase in university fees risks increasing structural inequality. Women and people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds who choose to study humanities, law and other courses will now be left in even more debt.

Boosting the skills pipeline

Engineers Australia believes it is important to challenge outdated perceptions of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), both in the classroom and at home. We know that when we do this, we are able to encourage young people to choose degrees in high-demand fields. Engineers Australia will continue to advocate for more funding to be allocated to programs and services that highlight the design, innovation and future-shaping potential of STEM-based roles.

Related to this, more needs to be done to address the low number of young people studying essential preparatory subjects for engineering, such as maths and physics. Until this is addressed, it will severely inhibit national objectives to lift enrolment rates in engineering courses.

In NSW, for example, the Government announced this week that a new school curriculum is being introduced. The key theme of the reform is to unclutter the curriculum and focus on the basics of reading, writing, science and mathematics, and to give teachers more time and flexibility to teach. This has the potential to improve the uptake of the subjects essential for later studies in engineering.

The next steps

The Commonwealth’s funding plan needs to pass Parliament to take effect. Engineers Australia agrees that a goal to encourage more people to study engineering is a good thing, but that unintended consequences of a policy shift need to be carefully managed.

Engineers Australia, as the voice of the profession, has a role to provide advice to Government and others about how major policy shifts like this may affect engineering. Our advocacy will continue to highlight potential improvements and offer more ideas for complementary actions to increase the number of qualified and well-rounded engineers for the workforce of the future.