Plans to more than double the cost of humanities degrees and hike fees on law and commerce degrees have been met with broad condemnation.
But the government is confident it can convince the Senate to agree to the funding changes in the name of better equipping young Australians for jobs, after they were hardest hit by the coronavirus-driven recession.
Under the changes, fees for 17 degrees including teaching, nursing and agriculture will be cut, some by more than half.
But a three-year humanities degree would more than double in cost for students, from about $20,000 now to $43,500.
The government’s contribution would nearly halve to $3300.
Fees for law degrees, typically four years, would jump from $44,620 now to $58,000.
Conversely, the government would contribute more and charge students less for courses it says are more likely to lead to jobs, including maths, teaching, nursing, science, IT, architecture and engineering.
Maths and agriculture degrees will each drop from $9698 a year to $3700.
No existing student will pay more.
Education Minister Dan Tehan wants students to look beyond the silo of their core studies.
“If you are wanting to do philosophy, which will be great for your critical thinking, also think about doing IT, so you can help in a new and emerging area where we know that is going to be jobs,” he told the National Press Club in Canberra on Friday.
“What we don’t want is students finishing their degree, having had a HECS debt and not be able to get a job.”
The 2019 graduate outcomes survey showed people finishing science and maths degrees were less likely to have jobs than humanities graduates.
The proportion of medicine, nursing and teaching graduates with jobs also dropped from the previous year.
But Mr Tehan said the nation was facing a shortage of teachers, nurses, engineers and psychologists.
The plan was met with immediate opposition from Labor, student unions and humanities sector organisations.
Labor’s education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said students and their parents should be trusted to pick a course that would lead to employment.
“It’s a bit strange for the minister to think that getting a job is not incentive enough,” she told reporters.
Engineering is one of the areas where student fees will drop, going from $9698 annually to $7700.
Nevertheless, peak body Engineers Australia is sceptical, saying it may increase inequality and reduce the diversity of skills a modern workforce needs.
Under the “budget-neutral” package, the government will restart indexation of annual funding to universities.
However, despite anticipating 39,000 more students over the next three years it won’t specifically fund extra places.
The coalition had effectively capped places by freezing its funding at 2018 levels.
The combined annual funding will also drop dramatically for some courses, with medical science losing almost $12,000 per student and environmental science $10,000 from existing levels.
The Group of Eight research-intensive universities is relieved to see many students pay less for their degrees but is concerned others will pay considerably more.
“We disagree strongly with the idea implicit in the changes for law, economics, business and particularly the humanities that these students should miss out on government support and should have to pay over 90 per cent of the cost of their degrees,” chief executive Vicki Thomson said.
Nevertheless, she recognised pragmatism had to be embraced and hoped discussions with Mr Tehan would be “much more measured and understanding” than for previous proposals.