University fee changes could see young women saddled with more debt for decades to come

First published on Women’s Agenda on 8 July 2020

Proposed tertiary reforms show that the Federal Government is again implementing significant policy change without conducting a gendered impact analysis, writes Sarah Hill from YWCA Australia.

Minister for Education, Bachelor of Arts graduate, and beneficiary of low-cost university Dan Tehan announced reforms to tertiary education fee structures recently which will negatively impact young women for decades to come.

The proposed reforms to tertiary education will see 113 per cent fee increases for humanities and communications students, a 62 per cent fee reduction for agriculture and maths and a 20 per cent reduction for science and engineering students.

Read more: Superannuation withdrawals during COVID-19 leave young women with a not-so-super future

Ingrained gender bias in society influences subject choice throughout primary and secondary school.

Almost all the degrees set to become cheaper are dominated by male students, due in large part to ingrained gender bias.

Minister Tehan argues the proposed changes could advance gender equality in that they may prompt more young women to study STEM at a tertiary level. However, we see financial incentives repeatedly fail to achieve gender equality. To achieve gender equity in STEM, it requires serious investment to transform a sector where only 20 per cent of STEM graduates are women and 40 per cent of those never enter the industry.

Differences in interest and confidence in STEM subjects appear early and from year 9 onwards, young women in high school are developing interests and selecting subjects that will create an education pathway. It is unrealistic to expect current students to throw away their career trajectories – or overcome ingrained bias — because of a financial incentive.

We need to challenge gender bias, de-stigmatise flexible work conditions and support schools in de-gendering subjects from a young age.

Young women will be most negatively impacted by this reform.

Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) shows that women make up greater numbers of students completing humanities and communications degrees – all areas set to experience significant fee increases from 2021. As a result, more women will graduate with much higher HECS debt which will take longer to pay off due to lower levels of lifetime earnings and extended periods away from the workforce.

The gender pay gap exists from the time women graduate university. Female undergraduates face a 5.1 per cent pay gap that increases to 14.4 per cent at the graduate coursework level. Science, mathematics and agriculture reported some of the largest graduate pay gaps in 2019 whereas communications was one of the few areas where female undergraduate median salaries were higher than or equal to their male counterparts.

For young women from low-income or other disadvantaged backgrounds, this fee increase may present an additional hurdle to accessing tertiary education – some will opt out of starting their working lives with $50k of HECS debt. Those who opt in will carry additional debt that will compound a lifetime of disadvantage.

These reforms are the latest in a long line of policy decisions benefiting male-dominated sectors.

The biggest industry stimulus packages are the $1bn being offered to the construction sector and the $270bn for defence – both of which are male dominated sectors. Contrast this with female-dominated sectors like childcare, which creates more jobs per $1m spent than construction.  

It could be argued that the reduction in fees for nursing degrees is evidence of the Federal Government accommodating women. However, nursing has always been a highly feminised industry, as well as being is one of the lowest paid and highest risk professions. During the COVID-19 crisis, nurses have been subject to public sector pay freezes and excluded from stimulus packages that largely focus on ‘shovel-ready’ construction projects (all the while, being hailed as Frontline Heroes of Australia).

Encouraging more women to go into low-paid high-risk professions, that you do nothing else to support, is not accommodation.

We need to do better for young people and invest in their futures.

The argument these changes will create more ‘job-ready graduates’ is tenuous at best. Humanities and social science graduates already have very similar job outcomes to science and mathematics graduates. Furthermore, data from the Academy of Social Services in Australia shows the value of our Arts Degrees, with 60% of Chief Executives of ASX200 companies holding humanities degrees along with 66% of Federal Parliamentarians —  including, one Minister Tehan.

Due to COVID-19, students have already experienced disrupted learning, social isolation, record job loss and will inherit a generation of debt. They now face racking up an enormous HECS debt while expecting to graduate into a recession. We need to trust young people to make decisions about their own futures and consider the gendered impacts before making national policy decisions.


Sarah Hill is the Young Women’s Development Manager at YWCA Australia. Sarah has worked in various roles across the youth and women’s sectors for over ten years and has an education background in international relations and business.

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