Australia’s recent university graduates face the toughest job market in over 20 years. Many students are deciding to go straight on to postgraduate study to increase their chances of finding a job. These students stand to lose a lot from the Abbott Government’s changes to university funding and welfare entitlements and we can expect fewer students to add to their skills in this way. This is bad for students and bad for economic growth.
When I finished my bachelor degree early last year, my colleagues and I faced what reports claim is the worst period of graduate employment in over 20 years. The options for graduates facing a tough job market are somewhat limited. The main asset we offer an employer is the education we received by studying at university. This is the reason I made the decision to continue study at postgraduate level when I found myself unable to find a job in my field after finishing my undergraduate degree.
This is not an unusual decision for a recently graduated student to make. In fact, 20.7% of graduates who were surveyed by the 2013 Australian Graduate Survey (Graduate Careers Australia) made the same decision. Whilst some of these students will, no doubt, be completing research and seeking academic careers, others, such as me, are undertaking postgraduate coursework degrees with the aim of increasing their prospects for employment. Postgraduate coursework degrees have clear benefits for both students and the economy. They allow students who have proven themselves with generalist degrees to add more specialist – even employment specific – skill sets.
But there are some obstacles for students who wish to study postgraduate coursework programs. And these obstacles are compounded when we take into account the Abbott Government’s budget ‘reforms’ including the deregulation of university fees and the tightening of welfare entitlements.
Firstly, students studying postgraduate degrees are unlikely to be eligible for student income assistance (Youth Allowance or Austudy). The centrelink payment scheme for students was created with the intention of excluding all postgraduate programs except those that are a prerequisite for employment. An example of a program that fits the criteria would be the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, which law graduates must undertake before being able to practice as lawyers. Because of this postgraduate coursework degrees are only an option for students who do not require income assistance.
When the Abbott Government’s welfare ‘reforms’ are added to the equation, there are further obstacles to consider. Treasurer Joe Hockey has said that young Australians ‘need to be earning or learning’. But if they choose to earn by postgraduate coursework they are unlikely to receive income support, meaning some university graduates that are unable to find a job will not be able to continue to ‘learn’. They are also facing a six-month period before qualifying for unemployment benefits which will no doubt compromise the search for a graduate role.
Secondly, the majority of postgraduate coursework degrees are offered as full-fee paying places in contrast to undergraduate degrees, which are largely Commonwealth Supported Places. As a result a one or one and a half year Master’s degree can cost around the same amount as a full three-year undergraduate degree.
Again, the Abbott Government’s reforms to university fees add to the predicament, via a perfect storm of university funding cuts, deregulation of course fees, and an increase in interest rates applicable to the large (and growing) levels of student debt. Taking on a full-fee postgraduate course could become a luxury only afforded to the very wealthy if these measures are to go ahead.
The rules for funding and income support for postgraduate students should be an area for thoughtful consideration by government. A far better alternative would be to expand access and widen government assistance to postgraduates, not rely on funding cuts and fee deregulation.
Even in the context of the Abbott Government’s so-called ‘budget emergency’, the savings from proposed ‘reforms’ for tertiary education and welfare have little fiscal impact. They are rooted in good old-fashioned class based ideology, and should rightly be opposed. If Australia is to address its competitive position in a global economy dominated by the cost efficient emerging markets in Asia and the sub-continent, it needs to support and develop its tertiary education sector, which is already well regarded by our overseas neighbours as the data on international fee-paying students attending Australian universities demonstrates.