It is well known that Australian higher education funding has been hit hard by COVID-19. What is less well understood is that under cover of the crisis, the government decided to decisively restructure university funding.

The “job-ready graduate package” adopted in October 2020 not only reduced government funding, but introduced new mechanisms to force universities to rely more on corporate funding.

The result was confirmed in last week’s federal budget, with overall university funding down 5.4% next year in real terms, and another 3.6% the following two years.

The border closures that governments have enacted in the face of COVID have had profound implications for the higher education systems of countries that rely on international tuition fees such as Australia, the UK, the US and the United States. Canada.

This was particularly the case in Australia, which had the most immediate and total border closures, and the highest proportion of international students in the world. Twenty per cent of students at Australian universities come from overseas and tuition fees for international students have become essential after 30 years of per-student budget cuts.

However, while 68% of OECD countries have increased funding to universities in the face of this (and also in recognition of the costs of a rapid shift to online learning), the Australian government has consciously refused to provide a financial support.

Even as the government rolled out a historic stimulus package worth 16% of GDP, it excluded the university sector from the relief, tweaking its JobKeeper wage subsidy three times to ensure public universities were not eligible. .

Then, in October 2020, it introduced the “job-ready graduate package” which included a 15% reduction in government funding for universities. Prior to COVID, higher education was Australia’s third largest export market. This is not an area that a government can simply neglect. Instead, there was a clear decision to allow the system to go into crisis to force structural adjustment.

Vice-chancellors, both from universities that have suffered deep funding cuts and those that have remained in surplus, have responded with historic job cuts, with one in five university staff losing their jobs since the beginning of 2020.

Initially, it was casual staff layoffs – turning off the labor tap, just as casualization is designed to do. But last year the cuts affected permanent staff.

Ready-to-use graduates

The Work-Ready Graduate Bill confirms the Liberals’ belief that, for working-class students at least, college should be a treadmill to the capitalist economy and nothing more. It is based on the misconception that students are wasting taxpayers’ money by studying the humanities and the arts where there are no jobs.

In fact, arts graduates have a higher employment rate than science graduates studying in “priority areas”.

Even business groups have opposed the deprioritization of the arts, arguing that arts degrees foster the flexibility and communication skills that industry wants in an increasingly insecure and automated economy.

But as we saw with the debacle of the Ramsay Center for Western Civilization, the culture war vendettas against university humanities departments remain dear to liberal politicians.

Graduate Ready introduces price signals through fee increases and decreases to drive students into government priority areas of study and out of others.


  • Those studying science, health, agriculture and math will pay 62% less for their degree than pre-2021 students.
  • Education, Nursing, Clinical Psychology, English and Languages ​​students will pay 46% less for their degree.


  • Law and business students face a 28% price hike.
  • Humanities students and most social science students will pay 113% more, to the point of paying 93% of the cost of their degrees.

This will leave students with considerable debts. Currently, average student debt is $20,000, but arts students will now pay $43,000 and the popular combined arts/law degree will cost $75,000.

While it may be cheaper for students to study nursing or teaching, it will be more expensive for universities to offer these degrees. This can lead to fewer places in exactly the areas where the government claims to want more graduates.

As the nurses’ and teachers’ unions have said, if the government is serious about securing more qualified nurses and teachers, it should accede to union demands for higher pay and better conditions. It would do a lot more to attract workers to these crucial areas and retain those who are already there.

Social science

The virtual defunding of the humanities is very acute in the Job-ready package. Previously, fees roughly reflected projected future earnings, with law students paying more for their degrees than arts students. Now, humanities students face much higher student debt without any increase in their likely lifetime earnings.

The government is trying to steer working-class students toward professional degrees and away from some of the social justice content and critical thinking that social sciences and humanities departments still allow.

The children of the rich, of course, will continue to study the humanities as they have always done, and as most parliamentarians who voted for this bill have done.

But in families where no one has been to college before, the increased costs are very likely to have a chilling effect. Fee deferral under HECS-HELP can hide the true costs of short-term education, but at the cost of long-term debt.

For women, who earn 22.8% less over their lifetime and who make up two-thirds of arts and social science students, this debt burden will dominate their working lives.

Commercialization of research

For decades, researchers have had to prove their ties to industry to get their work funded. But Scott Morrison wants to speed that up.

The Liberals led a three-pronged offensive. First, they cut $1.4 billion from the Australian Research Council. Then they dismantled existing research funding streams within universities.

The Job-ready package prevents cross-subsidies within universities, so that tuition revenue can no longer be used to fund research. Previously, 30% of research was funded by international student fees and another 10% by domestic student fees.

In February of this year, they announced a brand new $2 billion action plan for the commercialization of university research. This will fund research only in defense industries and government priority manufacturing areas.

Announcing the plan, Morrison said: “We need to shift the focus from citations to commercial success…we need to develop a new breed of research entrepreneurs here in Australia so that they can create new products and new businesses and , more importantly, new jobs. .”

The Liberal government has used the COVID crisis to force universities to respond even more closely to the needs of Australian business and the war machine. Students and staff must demand that all these changes be reversed and re-ignite the fight for fully publicly funded, quality higher education accessible to all.

The NTEU business accord campaigns kicking off across the country are a chance to launch this fight back and elevate the broad vision of education for human needs.

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