For the sake of Australia’s economy, Professionals Australia CEO Chris Walton is calling for science and engineering degrees to be off-limits in the face of university deregulation.
The Government’s proposal to deregulate the university sector has resulted in howls of protest from students, silent terror from parents and growing concerns from professionals worried that rising degree costs and increases in interest charges on student loans, will turn away future generations from specialist careers in science, technology and engineering.
Polling undertaken by the National Tertiary Education Union and published in Fairfax today showed that 69 per cent of voters did not support “significant increases in university fees”.
Indeed, when we ask our student members if rising university fees would deter them from entering science and engineering degrees, the answer is almost universally, yes.
Now leaders and professionals in science are expressing their growing concerns that soaring fees will inflict significant damage on higher-cost, specialist science, technology and engineering programs and see students from middle to low income backgrounds look to more viable career options.
This is a disaster for Australian research, science and innovation.
We already face uphill challenges in enticing young people towards STEM. In recent years, educators and technical specialists have worked closely to foster scientific curiosity in our children, from the earliest stages of primary school, to helping teenagers imagine careers in physics, research and the natural and built environment.
This is all for good reason. As a nation, our future economy depends on the discoveries and innovation that come from research endeavour. If faced with burgeoning debts the next generation votes with their heads, not their hearts, Australia’s capacity to compete and prosper globally will be significantly eroded.
Already, science and maths are challenging career choices. Professionals typically experience insecure work, the impact of intermittent and insufficient research funding, increasing international competition and years of moderate pay in order to build a career.
It is difficult to imagine that our best and brightest will be prepared to take on a huge debt, in light of these existing challenges. We face the prospect of research and innovation becoming a pursuit for those that can pay, rather than those with the drive and desire to solve complex problems and improve how we all live.
Analysis by the Australian Veterinary Association has revealed that under the Government’s proposed changes, vet science student debts could soar to $250,000 (a 150 per cent increase) and take some graduates a lifetime to pay off. This is because vet science degrees are long, graduates face low starting salaries and 80 per cent of veterinary science graduates are women, who may take time off to have children and as a result delay repaying all-the-while-growing debts.
Research by the Grattan Institute, reports that in a deregulated market, science degree fees would immediately rise by a minimum of 59 per cent, with universities expected to raise fees toward the levels they charge international students, while fees at elite universities would be higher still.
The reality is, we need the opposite of what is being proposed.
We call on the Government to support the future of Australian research, design and innovation.
Science, technology, engineering and maths degree fees need to be off-limits under any changes to higher education.
In the 2000s when there was a shortage of nurses and teachers, successive governments lowered degree fees to encourage students into those programs – this needs to happen now for STEM.
We call on this Government to act now to ensure Australia remains a globally-competitive, knowledge-based, innovative economy – our future depends on it.