The Federal Government’s “job-ready graduates” package has come under fire for building unfairness into university student fees.
From 2021, new science students will while fees for many humanities and social science courses will double.
Education Minister Dan Tehan the legislated changes would “incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices”.
However, Margaret Gardner, chair of the Group of Eight research universities, the policy ignored the evidence on which degrees actually lead to employment.
“People who do humanities degrees and social science degrees get jobs at about exactly the same rate as science graduates,” she said.
Is she correct? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Professor Gardner’s claim is a fair call.
Employment rates, covering either full-time or part-time work, for humanities and social science graduates are roughly the same as those for science graduates.
Census data for 25-34 year-olds with a bachelor degree shows that 94.7 per cent of science graduates had a job in 2016.
For humanities and social science graduates, depending on the definition used, employment rates ranged from 94.4 per cent to 95.8 per cent.
Experts also recommended data from a government-funded graduate survey, which examines employment rates three years after graduates complete their degree.
The survey adopts categories that are less detailed than the census. In addition, it publishes employment rates but not raw numbers for each category, making it less straightforward to establish rates for the humanities and social sciences and science graduates.
However, based on extra information supplied, Fact Check estimates the employment rate in 2020 for science graduates was 90.9 per cent.
Meanwhile, estimates for humanities and social science graduates ranged from 91.4 to 93.6 per cent, depending on the definition used.
Experts contacted by Fact Check said the relationship between graduate employment and the Government’s fee changes was not always consistent, with students being encouraged into some fields with poor job prospects.
Assessing the claim
Professor Gardner was discussing to university places.
For these students, the Federal Government pays part of their course costs and limits the fees they can be charged.
Though Professor Gardner did not say what level of “degrees” she was referring to, subsidised places are at the postgraduate level.
On that basis, Fact Check has confined its analysis to bachelor-level graduates.
Her reference to graduates finding “jobs” is taken to include either full-time or part-time work.
Defining the humanities and social sciences
Professor Gardner spoke of the humanities and social sciences, whose definitions are open to interpretation.
However, some guidance is offered by the nation’s peak academic bodies for the university sector, or learned academies, which federal funding and in their respective fields.
The “investigate human cultures, values and beliefs”, explains the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
According to the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, examine “society and its institutions”.
The roughly 30 disciplines represented by the academies are listed on their websites:
|Social sciences||The humanities|
|AccountingAnthropologyDemographyEconomics and economic historyEducationGeographyHistoryLawLinguisticsManagement and marketingPhilosophyPolitical SciencePsychologySocial medicineSociologyStatistics||Film, television and digital mediaJournalism and professional writingCreative writingPerforming artsVisual arts and craftsCommunication and media studiesCultural studiesLanguage studiesLinguisticsLiterary studiesArchaeologyCuratorial and related studiesHistorical studiesApplied ethicsPhilosophyReligion and religious studies|
But these lists are not exhaustive, and some fields (such as philosophy, history and linguistics) overlap.
As Peter Hurley, Education Policy Fellow with Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, told Fact Check: “the boundaries between bodies of knowledge are much more porous than many people think.”
And, as discussed below, some experts said they would exclude certain disciplines.
In the absence of a single definition, Fact Check will assess Professor Gardner’s claim in two ways: against a broad definition covering all of the fields used by the academies, and against a narrower definition, as recommended by experts.
From disciplines to data
To compare jobs data, Fact Check has used a list of “fields of education” from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ education
The 30 disciplines covered by the two academies can usefully be reduced to four ABS categories: “society and culture”; “management and commerce”; “education”; and “creative arts”.
While not a precise match, these categories are a good proxy for Fact Check’s broad definition for humanities and social sciences:
|ABS categories||Example fields of study|
|Society and culture||Anthropology; Literature; Religious studies; Social work; Political science; Law; Economics|
|Management and commerce||Accounting; Business; Marketing; Banking|
|Education||Teacher education; Curriculum studies|
|Creative arts||Performing arts; Visual arts and crafts; Graphic and design studies; Communication and media studies|
As mentioned, opinions differ on whether all the fields listed by the two academies should be included in assessing Professor Gardner’s claim.
For example, while performing arts appears in studies by and into the economic value of the humanities, Mr Hurley and Australia National University’s Andrew Norton told Fact Check they would exclude them from a comparison of job outcomes.
Similarly, while Australia’s Deans of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences the fields of economics, commerce, law and education among the social sciences, experts recommended excluding them, along with vocational fields such as librarianship, social work and sports coaching.
Fact Check’s narrow definition will use more detailed fields of study, which fall into seven ABS subcategories:
|ABS subcategories||Example fields of study|
|Political science and policy studies||Political science; Policy studies|
|Studies in human society||Sociology; History; Anthropology; Archaeology|
|Language and literature||Languages; Linguistics; Literature|
|Philosophy and religious studies||Philosophy; Religious studies|
|Other society and culture||Family studies; Criminology|
|Communication and media studies||Audio visual studies; Journalism|
What about science?
Science, too, can be hard to pin down.
Defined broadly, it can encompass the natural and physical sciences, social sciences and formal science, or the study of logical systems (for example, mathematics), the Royal Societies of Australia, a body representing some of the nation’s oldest academic communities.
It can also cover the application of science.
The Australian Council of Deans of Science says include not just the natural and physical sciences but also mathematics, engineering, technology and psychology.
However, the commonly used acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) suggests many, including , differentiate between science and science-related fields.
Indeed, a 2020 report on the STEM workforce by Australia’s Chief Scientist draws this distinction, defining separately.
It says of science:
“Science encompasses disciplines within the natural and physical sciences, and from agriculture and environmental studies: astronomy and the earth sciences; physics; chemistry; the materials sciences; biology; and agricultural and environmental science. These sciences are characterised by systematic observation, critical experimentation, and the rigorous testing of hypotheses.”
(The report does not include psychology, which is by the humanities and social science academies.)
That leaves the question of whether to include degrees in mathematics or the applied sciences of engineering and technology.
In her radio interview, Professor Gardner referred to “engineering graduates and science graduates” as distinct categories.
Meanwhile, six of the eight universities represented by Professor Gardner house their school of mathematics within their science faculty, with just two situating it in their engineering faculty.
In the absence of a consistent definition, Fact Check will take “science graduates” to mean people with degrees in mathematics, agricultural and environmental science, and the natural and physical sciences.
These disciplines are well matched with two ABS categories: “natural and physical sciences” (which includes mathematics), and “agriculture, environmental and related studies”.
So, where is the data?
Experts recommended two datasets to compare graduates’ job prospects: the 2016 Census of Population and Housing, conducted by the ABS; and a graduate outcomes survey conducted by ANU’s Social Research Centre.
Both datasets use ABS education classifications, asking people about their qualifications and employment status.
They also both consider someone to be “employed” if they worked during the previous week, with employment rates reflecting the number of employed graduates from each field of study as a proportion of those who were available for work.
What the census shows
The census data covers everyone in Australia, regardless of when they graduated.
Professor Norton suggested focusing on younger people, because “arguably the experience of someone who went to university 30 to 40 years ago is not a reliable guide to a young person’s prospects”.
Moreover, science graduates had flooded the labour market in recent years, he said, so looking too far back would likely produce an “overly favourable view” of their job prospects.
On that basis, Fact Check has analysed census data for 25-34 year-olds with bachelor degrees.
The results show that 94.7 per cent of science graduates were full- or part-time employed in 2016.
Defined narrowly, humanities and social science graduates recorded a slightly lower employment rate, at 94.4 per cent.
Defined broadly, their rate was noticeably higher, at 95.8 per cent.
The graduate outcomes survey
The graduate outcomes survey asks roughly 40,000 graduates about their work situation roughly six months after graduating, and again three years later.
Results are published in a as short- and medium-term outcomes.
Mark Warburton, a director with PhillipsKPA and an Honorary Senior Fellow with Melbourne University’s Centre for Higher Education, said graduates from some disciplines can take longer to find work, so Fact Check has only considered the three-year medium term outcomes, published in August 2020.
Importantly, while the survey adopts ABS education classifications, its results are according to configurations that differ from some of Fact Check’s definitions.
It publishes employment rates for the two ABS categories used by Fact Check to define science graduates, but does not publish a combined rate.
Nor does it show the numbers of graduates for each category, which are necessary to calculate a combined rate.
The survey’s “humanities, culture and social sciences” category is a close match to Fact Check’s narrow definition for the humanities and social sciences — though it includes librarianship and curatorial studies, and excludes both communications and psychology.
However, the published survey results include the latter two ABS subcategories, allowing Fact Check to estimate the survey’s employment rates for its narrow definition of the humanities and social sciences.
The centre also provided figures on request for the four ABS categories preferred by Fact Check for its broad definition of humanities and social science graduates.
Again, these employment rates do not show the numbers of graduates for each category, and therefore do not allow for a precise estimation of the combined rate.
However, a rough calculation of combined rates can be undertaken and all these results shed light on Professor Gardner’s claim.
What the numbers show
The survey shows that among science graduates, those with degrees in the natural and physical sciences had an employment rate of 89.8 per cent in 2020, three years after graduation.
Agriculture and environment graduates recorded a much higher rate of 95.1 per cent.
Importantly, these graduates represented just 20 per cent of science graduates in 2016, according to Fact Check’s analysis of the 2016 census data for 25-34 year-olds.
This is consistent with findings from the Chief Scientist’s report on the STEM workforce, which found natural and physical science graduates outnumbered them .
Assuming the same split, Fact Check estimates the employment rate for science graduates overall would be 90.9 per cent.
The centre provided data showing that for the four ABS categories that make up Fact Check’s broad definition of the humanities and social sciences, graduates recorded employment rates of 96 per cent for education, 94.6 per cent for management and commerce, 91.9 per cent for society and culture and 90.6 per cent for the creative arts.
Fact Check calculates that these translate to a combined estimate of roughly 93.6 per cent, based on the number of graduates counted in the last census.
The survey categories show that, defined narrowly, humanities and social science graduates recorded rates between 91.4 per cent to 91.9 per cent.
All of these rates were roughly the same or higher than Fact Check’s combined estimate for science graduates.
It’s worth noting that these employment rates from 2020 are different to those from the census data from 2016.
Lisa Bolton, Director of QILT Research and Strategy with the Social Research Centre, told Fact Check it was important to keep further study rates in mind when considering graduate employment outcomes.
As the longitudinal report data shows (), roughly 14 per cent of natural and physical science graduates, and more than 18 per cent of graduates in the ABS category of “society and culture”, were still studying three years later. These were the two highest rates behind health graduates.
How does this relate to fees?
The Government uses to set fees for university courses, which it groups into clusters.
In total, 33 ABS subcategories fall within Fact Check’s broad definitions of the humanities and social sciences and science.
The “job-ready graduates” package will cut fees for science subjects by between 18 per cent and 59 per cent.
Fees for some humanities and social science subjects will drop by 42 per cent. But for many of them, they will jump by 113 per cent.
Fact Check has used the census data to show the relationship between these changes and the employment rates for the graduates Professor Gardner spoke of.
What the experts say
Mr Hurley pointed out that employment outcomes rested on more than just a graduate’s “job readiness”.
“[If] you’re looking at employment outcomes, so much of it is actually dependent upon what’s happening in the employment market”, he said.
Indeed, Professor Norton said some of the fields deemed to be national priorities, including languages and science, were “not good options for students hoping to get a job” and in some cases were “relatively high risk for employment outcomes”.
In a recent paper, Mr Warburton the Government’s funding priorities against occupations it had itself identified as strategically important, or for which skills shortages currently exist.
He concluded: “Overall, it appears that decisions about whether to discourage or encourage particular disciplines have not been made on labour market grounds. They may have been based on subjective preferences about what students should study.”
Principal researcher: , with Katie Johnson
- Michael Corliss et al, Is a university degree still a worthwhile financial investment in Australia?, 2020