‘All the markers of youth are being extended’: higher education, Covid and the debt burden

With graduate employment at a low ebb and some degrees costing more, young people are starting their adult lives with onerous debt.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘All the markers of youth are being extended’: higher education, Covid and the debt burden” was written by Naaman Zhou, for theguardian.com on Friday 5th February 2021 19.00 UTC

At the end of November, three weeks after her last exam and one week after she got her results, Maddison Sklenar found out the course she was doing might no longer exist. It was the start of the summer break.

Sklenar, 23, had just finished the second year of a three-year bachelor of arts, majoring in Chinese language and minoring in finance, at Swinburne University in Melbourne, with a dream of working in business overseas. After a year disrupted by online learning, the pandemic and the months-long Victorian lockdown, she was due to graduate at the end of 2021.

In January it was confirmed: the major she spent two years doing would no longer be offered. She had already completed ten out of the 12 units she needed.

For many students, the pandemic has thrown a light on the state of higher education. Closed borders have hammered universities’ financial health and entire business models. At the same time, government changes are decreasing the overall funding to universities, while also asking some students to pay more for their degrees. As of this year, new students in the humanities will pay up to 113% more, and law and commerce degrees will cost 27% more.

Sklenar dreams of working overseas in Asia. Originally from the border town of Albury in New South Wales, she is the first person in her family to go to university – her father is a truck driver and her mother used to work at transport company Toll Ipec.

Maddison Sklenar sitting
Maddison Sklenar says of her student debt: ‘From my previous business degree it was already about 40 grand. It’s not cheap.’ Photograph: Maddison Sklenar

“I planned to do a language degree so I could apply for jobs overseas and go work in either China or Korea,” she tells Guardian Australia. “You know how K-pop is rising at the moment? I would love to help Asian artists get to the global, western world, expand their careers and manage businesses as well.”

Along with many other students, she is navigating a higher education system in a greater state of flux than previous generations have experienced.

In Sydney, Remy Boyd is starting a new degree at the moment thefees are changing, embarking on arts at the University of Sydney in March. It is the 25-year-old’s second arts degree after one (with honours) from the University of Newcastle in 2018. This one will cost more than twice as much.

“The reason I am doing another arts degree is I want to get into law at Sydney,” he says. If his marks are good enough in the first year, he can transfer.

At the start of 2020 Boyd had a job, through his arts degree, in a relevant field. He lost it when the pandemic hit. For him, the move to law is not just about employability – he is looking forward to the learning experience itself. “I have wanted to do law since I was 16 in high school,” he says.

But as someone who has been through the process before, he has noticed the changing nature of university. “At Newcastle I started in 2014 and finished in 2018,” he says. “I definitely noticed class sizes grow. There were subjects in my first year that I wanted to do, and kept a mental note of them, and when I went to choose them in later years, they didn’t exist any more. They got rid of the whole classics department while I was there. They got rid of philosophy, Latin, Ancient Greek, and they blended modern history and ancient history.”

In 2020 he read with sadness that Newcastle would cut or consolidate 530 of its subjects, affecting students just a few years younger than him starting the same degree.

“I feel very sorry for them,” he says. “I think university is not only an education in terms of your future employability … The more they strip universities of subjects like philosophy, students are being robbed of that traditional uni experience.”

‘The most highly educated generation in history’

The reasoning for the government’s changes to higher education is in the title. Under the job ready graduates (JRG) program, students will pay less to study in “areas of expected future job demand” and pay more for degrees that don’t offer as many jobs.

However, the government is also changing the amount of government funding that different degrees receive. Combined with the lower student fees, for many degrees this will lead to less funding overall. Environmental science degrees, for example, will have their funding cut by nearly 30% under the new rules. Overall the government contribution to all subjects will drop from 58% to 52% .

The JRG package has been criticised for being too vocation-focused but the tying together of universities and jobs is nothing new, says Andrew Norton, an expert in higher education policy and history. “But it is the first time the government has explicitly tried to price out or talk down the non-vocational courses. This time, we have had some negative rhetoric about unfavoured courses.”

And it is coming at a time when graduate employment is at one of its lowest ebbs. The most recent government survey, taken in November, found that 31.3% of graduates had not found full-time work within the first four months. That is the second worst result ever, after 2014.

Shirley Jackon, an economist at Per Capita, says graduate employment is “still well below pre-GFC levels. We are seeing people come through with these degrees – some of the most highly educated, highly skilled generation in history – yet they are not seeing that as a payoff. They are not moving into jobs.”

Norton says there has been a “structural deterioration” in graduate employment over the years, meaning the youth of today have fewer job opportunities than anyone else before.

Students like Boyd are also facing a mountain of debt. With two degrees, the money keeps piling up. “My first year, I calculated, is going to cost over ,000,” he says. “Times that by five, that is a lot of money. Somewhere between 60 and 100k, I am predicting. My current debt is around 30 or 35k, so I am basically going to reach the maximum limit of my Hecs debt allowance by the end of this degree.”

Sklenar, too, is studying her second degree. Prior to languages at Swinburne, she already had a business degree from Charles Sturt University. “From my previous business degree it was already about 40 grand,” she says. “It’s not cheap.”

And the removal of her major means she will add another year to her studies, and more money to her debt. Her new plan is to start a major in aviation management and keep Chinese as her minor. “It’s another year added, meaning I graduate in 2022,” she says.

Jackson says the growing cost and length of university degrees is “pushing young adulthood out”. He notes that past surveys of household, income and labour dynamics in Australia surveys found that higher Hecs debts are correlated with people being less likely to own their own home.

Zara Whellum
Zara Whellum, studying health and medical science, says: ‘I don’t really worry about my fees a whole lot. I will worry about that in 15 years when I have to.’ Photograph: Zara Whellum

“All the markers of youth are being extended,” he says. “We usually traditionally perceive youth to be 18 to 24. But it is not until the late 20s and early 30s that we are starting to see things like home ownership, long-term partners, marriage, children, all those sorts of things We know that these things are influenced by how long people are staying at uni, and how quickly they are moving into secure employment after university.”

But neither student says that the cost of a degree, or the mounting debt, will change their life decisions. Zara Whellum, 18, from the University of Adelaide, agrees. She started in 2020 and dreams of working in health. If all goes well, she will be done in seven years after she transfers from her current degree – a bachelor of health and medical science – to medicine.

“I guess I’m lucky, I had never experienced a year of uni without coronavirus,” she says. “For me it is normal, so it will probably be a shock that everything blows over that ‘Oh this is not actually what university is actually like’.”

Whellum is from Booleroo Centre, a small rural town 300km north of Adelaide, where she graduated from year 12 with a class of 16 people. For her, the first year of university has been a great experience. She lived in St Ann’s College near campus, made friends and did not mind online learning.

Whellum is not thinking about the fee increases, and says it won’t deter her from her seven-year uni journey. “I have seen things about some of them increasing but I don’t really worry about my fees a whole lot,” she says. “I will worry about that in 15 years when I have to.

“If it does go up, it definitely is not going to deter me, I will just worry about it in the future … We are very, very lucky in Australia to even get our Hecs debts in the first place, so I just kind of look at it and say, ‘Oh OK, wow, I’ll worry about this in a couple of years when I have a pay high enough to even think about it.’”

‘That is not what the system was intended to do’

But it is exactly this traditional idea of Hecs that experts say is under threat.

Norton says it is not surprising these students are not changing their degrees based on its cost, and he argues that the JRG reforms may not change student choices. Rather, it will saddle students with high levels of debt for courses they will still pick anyway.

This threatens to undermine the purpose of the Hecs system (now called Hecs-Help) as it was initially set up in the late 1980s. In 2019, the repayment threshold for Hecs loans also dropped to include anyone earning over ,881. For 2020-21 it is ,620.

“Kids going into university now, we are 16 to 18 when you start to think about these things,” Jackson says. “Financial literacy is not great, across the board, in Australia. They are making these decisions without really having a concept of what this debt means to them.”

Part of the problem, he says, is that “Hecs was designed to not feel like it is going to be a big burden”. But that has changed. “The reasoning behind Hecs is that young people who were entering into the professions in the late 1980s, because they were coming from university, were going to be getting that wage premium that comes from not working in a more manual job.”

Now there is a “disconnect” between education and wage, as graduate employment and wages have slowly slipped. The premium of a degree has also evaporated as they become more standard.

Norton says that even degree costs in the 1990s under Liberal prime minister John Howard were “designed to reflect repayment”. “If your course was going to earn more, you pay more,” he says. “It had nothing to do with trying to steer you towards particular occupations.”

This decades-old link between Hecs repayments and earnings, he argues, is being broken by JRG program’s intention of using price to discourage students from enrolling.

“I think it is bad social policy,” Norton says. “The help is designed so that some people always take a long time to pay, that is fine. But when you are setting up, say in arts, ,500 a year, the median graduates, who are doing OK, middle of the road, could take 20-plus years to repay. That is not what the system was intended to do.”

‘There is that fear: will those degrees be accessible?’

Despite the doom and gloom, for the quality of the education, Norton says data shows student satisfaction has risen over the past 30 years. In fact, the same survey that found graduate employment went down in 2020 found student satisfaction with degree quality “increased across all measures in 2020”.

Whellum, who started university last year, says she preferred having all her lectures online, and found the teaching quality to be high. She lost some hands-on learning, meaning she missed out on seeing cadavers in person, but overall had a good experience. This year it still will be “half and half”, with lectures all online and a choice of tutorials and laboratories online or in person. She will be going in for the tutes and says she prefers that split.

But Norton says slashed funding and larger class sizes mean that some aspects of the learning experience are worse than when he was a student. “It is probably harder to form a relationship with academic staff where they can mentor you … I think very few academics would have the time to do that now – way more students, way more pressure to produce research.”

In February, Universities Australia said more than 17,000 university staff had lost their jobs in 2020 and more cuts were “probable” in 2021.

Whellum is also very confident she will get a job after uni. If anything, the pandemic has probably affected her future “in a good way”, she says. “Hopefully people are recognising the importance of medical people and doctors and nurses.”

Remy Boyd sitting on a bed
Remy Boyd is starting his new degree right when university fees are changing. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Norton’s overall message to students is also optimistic, but he says they should brace for “chaos” over the next few years. “I don’t want to be too negative. I think for the vast majority of students, they are probably going to make the right decision. Even though Covid is probably going to have a depressing effect on Australia for many, many years, they are largely better off going to university than if they didn’t.”

Boyd agrees. He finds the government’s job-focused reforms disappointing and does not consider a law degree to be the ticket to employment that some think it is. “It is quite a popular degree,” he says. “If I stay in Sydney, there might be an over-saturation of graduates there.”

He also points out that many of his friends have gotten “brilliant jobs” through undervalued degrees such as arts, film or fine arts. But regardless of jobs, debt and degree costs, he will still treasure the experience of going to uni.

“It was always instilled in me that I would go to university, because my mum sort of regretted that she didn’t have the opportunity,” he says. “I wouldn’t change the fact that I am entering my second degree now at all. I think the knowledge I will gain from it will mean I will be able to do the things I want to do.”

Boyd has two younger siblings, and says he worries what higher education will look like for them.

“My brother wants to be an engineer – there are always developments in that field, and he might be lucky enough to get the jobs he wants … But there is that fear: will those degrees be accessible by the time they graduate high school? Who knows what university will be like by then?”

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