The price of IT-related university degrees will drop by 20 per cent as the government tries a new approach to filling chronic skills gaps, using pricing strategies to redirect students into projected areas of need.

A major overhaul of university pricing and course distribution, laid out by Education Minister Dan Tehan in an address to the National Press Club, will see the price of technical degrees decreasing – by up to 62 per cent, in areas such as agriculture and maths – while humanities degrees will increase by 113 per cent, putting them close to law and commerce degrees that will cost 28 per cent more.

Redistribution of educational funding will support the creation of 39,000 additional university places by 2023 and 100,000 places by 2030, Tehan said in laying out his plan to emphasise “job-relevant” courses in a bid to face up to a post COVID-19 jobs environment that he called “the biggest employment challenge since the Great Depression”.

That challenge had been apparent for years, with skills gaps in areas like IT continuing to grow as industry expansion vacuums up new skilled graduates faster than universities can produce them.

With indefinite international travel restrictions set to keep more students on Australian shores, Tehan’s new Job-ready Graduates Package policies reflect an effort to shape an emergent talent pool in a way that suits the needs of businesses – and IT will benefit.

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg flagged technology as a crucial focus area in launching ACS’ Australia’s Digital Pulse 2019 report, which projected demand for 100,000 additional technology workers by 2024.

With enrolments to Australian IT courses plateauing at around 8,800 per year, universities will produce less than half of that demand in that timeframe.

Indeed, the number of offers to tertiary courses in technical areas like nursing and IT plateaued or dropped across the board from 2014 to 2019, with agriculture offers down 21 per cent, teaching offers down 20 per cent, and engineering offers down 8 per cent.

In the face of continued population growth and service demand, these persistent supply shortages have forced the government to move more decisively, moving the needle on price controls to counteract declining enrolment numbers in technical areas.

The situation had been exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions on international movements, which have turned off the tap of international students that enrol in areas like IT, engineering, and architecture at a much higher rate than their humanities-loving Australian peers.

Can’t buy me tech love

Working on the assumption that a higher financial burden will deter students from humanities degrees, the government’s overhaul also includes a $900m “industry linkage” that would be invested in technology, engineering, maths, and science programs to increase their appeal to future university cohorts.

The overall package is a “major step ahead”, academic network Innovative Research Universities said in its appraisal of the policies, warning of unintended consequences as “the conflict between student incentives and university incentives could lead to a mismatch”.

Students, they fear, will flee high-priced courses even as cash-strapped universities divert their resources towards higher-cost courses – leaving less funding to support growing numbers of students in IT and other newly-discounted courses.

“There is a risk that it will become uneconomical for universities to provide some reduced-price courses that are currently run on small margins and we may have more students applying for courses that are being cut back,” executive director Conor King said.

Despite Tehan’s belief that it will shepherd today’s students into the “jobs of the future”, University of Sydney senior lecturer Gareth Bryant argues, the new package could actually backfire because it also “deprives universities of the resources they need to teach STEM”.

“There are in fact few winners in the government’s package,” Bryant writes, “[and] the plan only makes sense as an attempt to shift the overall cost of university education from governments to students.”

Education consultant Claire Field, of Claire Field & Associates, is equally sceptical of the likely outcomes from the policy change, warning that Tehan’s claim to improve humanities students’ employment outcomes “are less about graduate outcomes than they purport to be”.

The reforms, she argues, will give universities more discretion in their use of government funding – leading to “significantly more differentiation across the universities than is currently the case”.

Whether this would automatically drive the desired surge in IT and other STEM enrolments remains to be seen – but university vice-chancellors have also been sceptical, warning that the redistribution of funding won’t be enough to make up for COVID losses.

A range of responses from students suggest that the new policies may not be as productive as Tehan expects, with fairness questioned and mixed results predicted as some students put off study based on the debt load that the new fees will impose.