I have an immensely talented doctoral student from Australia, and when I asked her whether she has considered applying for a job at a university back home, I got all confused because she started telling me that fees have gone up dramatically, and this makes things complicated. Sure, I replied, but I meant applying for a job, not to take another degree. What she meant, however, is that fees have gone up so steeply for Humanities degrees that many jobs are being lost because of lower demand (as you will see, this is not general all over the country). The Australian fee hike reminds me of what happened a few years ago when the British Government allowed English universities to start charging fees of around £9,000 for BAs. The Australian case, however, has an even worse sting in its tail, for the fees went up just for some degrees but not for others, following a twisted logic which corresponded to a blatant but failed attempt at social engineering.
A few days ago the Spanish universities published their BA grade point cutoffs and, as happens every year, the newspapers were full of articles about why some degrees are so popular and others less attractive. The grade point cutoff for each BA degree depends on the ratio between offer and demand and, so, the combined degree Mathematics and Physics does not justify its amazing top-raking grade because it attracts a crowd of students, but because it only offers 20 places for a demand possibly only five times bigger. If it offered 500 places, its grade point cutoff would be low because I don’t think there is that big a demand for it. For many years, UAB’s BA degree in Translation and Interpretation has been amongst the most demanded, even though chances of getting employment as an interpreter or translator are quite low, forget about being well paid. It’s just a fashionable degree, for mysterious reasons. In other cases, such as Medicine, the degree has an enormous demand which seems justified by the high demand for doctors, yet Spanish universities are not offering more places in Medicine BAs because apparently Spanish hospitals lack sufficient positions to train resident doctors.
In Spain, in short, there is not an adequate match between the BA degrees which students choose and the prospective jobs, nor between the places offered and the demand. Our main problem, however, is not so much that mismatch but that 15%-35% students abandon the BA of their choice between the first and the third year (our BAs run to four years), in many cases because that was not their first option. Needless to say, this is very costly for public universities, which must invest much effort and resources on students who often will never finish their degree. Consider that our registration fees are rather low (1.202,32 € for the first year in the BA in English Studies at UAB) but only cover around 15% of the real cost of tuition.
Now for the Australian case. In 2020, Dan Tehan, Minister of Education in the conservative cabinet of Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Liberal Party of Australia, 2018-2022), came up with a plan to redistribute university costs. Claiming that Australia needed workers trained in STEM degrees, education, construction, and health care in the next five years, Tehan lowered the fees for those degrees by 20% (with top discounts of 62% for mathematics and agriculture), and increased the fees for humanities, social sciences or law, up to 113% (see here). In a speech quoted many times in the Australian media, Tehan argued that “Universities must teach Australians the skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future”. He added that since the fees were fixed at ‘unit’ (subject) and not degree level, “students studying Arts can still reduce their total student contribution by choosing electives in subjects like mathematics, English, science and IT within their degree”. Peculiar, to say the least.
One year later, in 2021, it was already clear that, as higher education expert of the Australian National University Andrew Norton noted, the Government’s policies and the fee hike had not had a “dramatic” impact on students’ choices. By June of 2022, the state of New South Wales was even reporting an increase of 9% in the demand for Humanities degrees relative to 2020, even much higher in specific degrees (see The Boar). A girl student declares in this article that “Most people I know didn’t choose subjects based on fee costs, we picked our subjects based on interest or future career, but I know that does come from a bit of a privilege though”. This is very worrying because it suggests that the students who can afford to take degrees in the Humanities are the ones more capable of sustaining the burden of a substantial student’s loan. On the other hand, Professor Catharine Coleborne, president of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, noted in the same piece that “the fee hikes had also created problems for funding” STEM courses since lower fees also mean a lower income for universities. The new Education Minister Jason Clare has promised to review the “job-ready graduates” policy of his predecessor, as Tehan called the bizarre scheme.
As the reader signing as voiceinthewilderness comments, “Only an inhumane government would not want people to study the Humanities”. I can only agree, but I am also going to play Devil’s advocate today by arguing that Humanities degrees should be much more elitist. Intellectually, not financially. Perhaps all degrees. Supposing Minister Tehan was perfectly honest in his wish to supply Australia with well-trained workers in the areas his nation will need in the near future, he was still making the mistake of associating degree choice to price. If you want to engineer the make-up of the work force, however, you need to attract vocational talent and this has nothing to do with fees. If you want to improve nursing, you need students with a talent for it, for which you need to award grants, not lower the fees. Keep all fees moderate, so that anyone who wants to study can pursue a degree, but make degrees much more competitive, so that the best students are given grants. You don’t want more students in one area or another, you want better students in all.
Gabriel Plaza, the student with the highest grade for the university access test (or Selectividad) in the community of Madrid (13,964 out of 14) has chosen to pursue a BA in Classical Philology, a decision which unleashed an astonishing tweetstorm. He replied to those who mocked him or accused him of wasting his talents that “I prefer happiness to success”, as if he could not be both happy and successful in this field of knowledge. The negative reaction to Gabriel’s choice connects with the general impression that Humanities degrees are useless, and full of students with limited talents who could not enter more demanding degrees. In fact, I think that Humanities degrees should have much higher grade point cutoffs so that only students with an average B- grade would be admitted. I believe that Tehan was wrong in increasing fees, he should have made the Humanities more selective by entrance grade if, that is, there is a real need to reduce the number of students. I’m sure that a rich country like Australia can afford them.
We can discuss endlessly the problem of how many Humanities students a society should educate, but this still leaves us with the problem of why, as we are seeing, so many traditional professional areas have no generational replacement whereas newer professions are failing to attract employees despite offering high salaries. Perhaps what the Australian case is revealing is something else: that university students see primarily themselves as students and cannot (or will not) see themselves as professionals. Possibly, the Humanities remain popular against all odds precisely because they are not intended to professionalize but to further educate students, offering a space for personal growth that more practical degrees lack. What seems clear in any case is that no national system of education can make full sense of how personal vocation and the job market combine, and it seems likely that things will continue in the current haphazard way for a long time. Here or in Australia.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/