An unwelcome decision

Photo of science students
Professor Trevor Hambley, Dean of the Faculty of Science, believes changes to HECS contributions for maths and science students will be bad for the country.

From 2013 undergraduate students starting science and mathematics degrees will no longer enjoy the lower fees that have been in place for the past four years, after the Federal Government announced that these subjects would no longer be National Priority disciplines.

From 2009 until 2012, new domestic students paid almost half the amount of HECS fees compared to previous years. Undergraduate fees fell from as high as $7260 per year in 2008 to $4162 per year in 2009, making science and mathematics degrees far more appealing to students.

With the skills shortage in these areas, any deterrent to studying sciences is most unwelcome. By placing science and mathematics degrees back in HECS Band 2 from 2013, the Federal Government risks turning students away. We need to continue to encourage Australian students to study science and mathematics, and to recognise that a degree in these areas opens up a huge breadth of career opportunities. Finance, business and government sectors employ maths and science graduates for their analytical and problem-solving skills. These degrees are useful in such fields as science education, communication, journalism and marketing. And, of course, they open up a huge choice of exciting scientific research fields.

The Federal Government estimates that cutting the HECS discount will save $403 million over three years, but this is such a small amount compared with the potential losses incurred from making science and mathematics less attractive study options in Australia.

The Government also states that the National Priority fees were not successful in improving student participation in maths and science degrees, even though the number of enrolments rose. It is hard to measure the success of the program by using student numbers as an indicator, as these are often subject to quotas and because degree offerings change from year to year. What we do know is that any change that jeopardises the attractiveness of choosing to study science and mathematics is unwelcome at a time when we sorely need more such graduates to secure Australia’s future success.