Dear Minister Tehan,
As President of the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia, I write on behalf of the CSAA Executive Committee and CSAA membership in response to the draft legislation for the Job-ready Graduates Package released last week.
It has been widely noted that the proposed changes will likely not have the effects the government desires and may have deleterious unintended consequences. We are concerned about the burden the changes will impose on our next generation of Australians.
This response focuses on two probable consequences of the draft legislation, which are cause for serious concern.
Firstly, we are concerned that the recent fee proposals will disadvantage Indigenous Australian Studies and curriculum in tertiary institutions and adversely impact the government’s stated Closing the Gap priorities. Indigenous Australian Studies is predominantly located in humanities departments and schools. Increasing fees for humanities subjects will effectively increase the costs of accessing Indigenous Studies education and undermine the culturally competent graduate skills increasingly desired by businesses. Indigenous Studies and education is crucial for achieving Indigenous student retention. It has been consistently demonstrated in research that embedding Indigenous curriculum across a range of subjects, courses, and disciplines creates a culturally safe learning environment for Indigenous students. The Closing the Gap policy identifies higher education retention and graduation as a policy priority alongside employment. Strong cultural education in the tertiary sector will deliver these goals as identified by the policy. The National Agreement on Closing the Gap identifies Prioritising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Cultural competency of institutions, organisations, and services that deliver this policy is essential to its success as noted by the data reporting strong culture as connected to individual and community wellbeing. The proposed fee changes have the potential to significantly impact Indigenous student retention in tertiary education, undermine the cultural competence of university graduates, reduce the impact of Indigenous Studies education on service providers, and debilitate key segments of the Closing the Gap policy.
Secondly, it is widely recognized both in the university and employment sectors that some of the fastest growing job areas for university graduates are in new and emergent fields which require exactly the skills and experiences that the study of HASS subjects can provide. Content Specialists, Customer Officers, Data Scientists, and Sustainability Analysts are in high demand. These jobs did not exist five years ago, and a strong humanities or social science degree provides a foundation for working in these and the new, related fields that will inevitably emerge in the coming years.
HASS is core to universities continuing role as publicly engaged institutions serving the Australian community. The publics that our universities are part of face challenges, involving significant technological, environmental, economic, demographic and cultural changes. The knowledge and insights drawn from the study of HASS are essential to understanding and supporting the publics our universities serve. We are particularly concerned about the unequal effect that will result from the punitively largely fee rises attached to the HASS fields, given that these fields have tended to attract substantially more women than men as students. The evidence is that while there may be some shifts at the margins, most women will continue to enroll in these subjects. While the proposed changes are unlikely to improve pathways to employment for graduates, they will certainly burden the next generation with debts that will negatively impact on their future careers and family choices. Analysis shows that if this legislation goes forward in its current form young women will be burdened with approximately half a billion dollars more each year in debt as they invest in their educationi. Australia needs to invest in higher education to prepare graduates for the jobs of the future, not saddle them with additional debt. The people and place-focused skills that HASS graduates can provide the Australian community are essential. I am hopeful that the consultation period will lead to a rethinking of the proposed legislation, attentive to the important risks and opportunities outlined here.
Associate Professor Elizabeth Stephens, University of Queensland
Dr Holly Randell-Moon, CSU
Professor Rob Cover, RMIT University
Dr. Jay Daniel Thompson, RMIT University
Dr Michael Richardson, University of New South Wales
On behalf of the CSAA Executive and Membership