Overcrowding and affordability stress: Melbourne’s COVID-19 hotspots are also housing crisis hotspots (from The Conversation)


Rebecca Bentley, University of Melbourne and Erika Martino, University of Melbourne

Melbourne is once again grappling with increasing COVID-19 rates. Ten suburbs in Melbourne have been designated COVID-19 outbreak hotspots: Broadmeadows, Keilor Downs, Maidstone, Albanvale, Sunshine West, Hallam, Brunswick West, Fawkner, Reservoir and Pakenham.

The outbreaks have sparked discussions about lockdowns and travel restrictions for people living in these parts of Melbourne and generated intensive suburb-specific testing.

The outbreaks have been attributed to family gatherings in homes and people failing to self-isolate, even after positive test results. This has occurred alongside possible breaches of infection control protocols in hotels accommodating people in quarantine – with security guards from major hotels having contracted the virus.

Read more: The housing boom propelled inequality, but a coronavirus housing bust will skyrocket it

Socio-spatial clues

While chance and circumstances converge to create outbreaks there are also some obvious factors related to where and how people live that impact their capacity to isolate.

As we potentially face a two year-long wait for vaccines (16 are in clinical evaluation internationally (with one being developed in Australia), we need to acknowledge the spatial concentration of these sites of vulnerability is not random. There are socio-spatial clues as to why we have had outbreaks in these locations.

Four measures: overcrowding, homelessness, housing affordability stress and financial hardship often occur in the same areas. Shutterstock

First, the hotspots have some of the highest rates of housing precarity and financial hardship across Melbourne. People in overcrowded or unaffordable or insecure housing may have less control over their immediate environment and less capacity to isolate themselves than other community members.

Read more: Homelessness and overcrowding expose us all to coronavirus. Here’s what we can do to stop the spread

The recent Melbourne outbreaks have occurred largely in areas with:

  • high housing affordability stress: where those in the lowest 40% of income spend more than 30% of their household income on housing,
  • overcrowding: measured in terms of the number of people in a household, their age and gender in relation to the number of bedrooms in a dwelling, and/or
  • homelessness: where a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives and their current living arrangement is in a dwelling that is inadequate, has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable or does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations.

While housing security seems like an obvious problem to fix, it remains a long-standing, difficult issue for governments to tackle. Going into the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia exhibited high rates of homelessness and spiralling housing costs.

Many people in Melbourne and Sydney live in overcrowded or inadequate forms of housing as a result of what has become known as our “housing affordability crisis”. Alongside this, the numbers of people who require emergency accommodation far outstrip our cities’ capacity to house them on a medium- to long-term basis.

Second, people without savings may be compelled to go to work despite feeling unwell. They need to meet their weekly housing costs and don’t have savings enough to go two weeks (or longer) without income. This can occur even if people have negotiated reduced rent with their landlords.

Where housing and COVID-19 collide

When one considers these housing and financial factors from the perspective of COVID-19 suppression, their geographical clustering should not be disregarded. The areas in Melbourne with high rates of household overcrowding, homelessness, housing affordability stress and (related to this) financial hardship (often measured using people’s self-reported capacity to access funds in an emergency) map closely to areas where there are now high numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Read more: If Australia really wants to tackle mental health after coronavirus, we must take action on homelessness

Using publicly available data, we created a simple index describing capacity isolate based on the above four characteristics. We created maps of Greater Melbourne to examine the relationship between current COVID-19 cases and these housing and financial vulnerability factors. Our index shows Hallam, Sunshine West, Albanvale, Broadmeadows, Falkner, Reservoir and Maidstone are all in the top two quintiles.

Housing Vulnerability Index for Greater Melbourne. NATSEM – Social and Economic Indicators – Synthetic Estimates SA2 2016; ABS – Data by Region – Family & Community (SA2) 2011-2016; and UNSW CFRC – Overcrowded Households Australia (SA2) 2016. Data were accessed on 26 June 2020 from AURIN Portal (https://portal.aurin.org.au/), Author provided

Over the last decade, Melbourne has seen itself become more spatially segregated. And household overcrowding and precarity are geographically clustered.

Acknowledging correlation is not causation, these findings suggest solving some of Melbourne’s housing problems might reduce the spread of COVID-19 now and in future outbreaks as we await a vaccine.

Taking this further, when assessing where in cities we are likely to see a spike in cases in the future, we should take housing-related vulnerabilities into account alongside other factors.

While steps have been taken by the Victorian government to address some of the issues we have flagged, such as the one-off payment of up to A$2,000 for eligible renters who are unable to afford rent, and the A$1,500 payment to people who test positive and have no leave cover, more could be done in the medium to long term to reduce the risk of overcrowding, housing related financial stress and precarious forms of housing (that lead to homelessness) across the city.

Read more: Coronavirus shows housing costs leave many insecure. Tackling that can help solve an even bigger crisis

The past months of COVID-19 restrictions have highlighted how critical housing and financial security are to our health and well-being at both an individual and population level. The Victorian Council of Social Service has noted disasters can be “profoundly discriminatory” in where they occur, and in their impacts.

Successful COVID-19 suppression requires safe and equitable cities and addressing housing vulnerability is one of the many challenges we must take up.

Rebecca Bentley, Professor of Social Epidemiology, Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne and Erika Martino, Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus and university reforms put at risk Australia’s research gains of the last 15 years (from The Conversation)


Andrew Norton, Australian National University

Education minister Dan Tehan will be meeting with university vice-chancellors to devise a new way of funding university research. They will have plenty to talk about.

Australia’s universities have been remarkably successful in building their research output. But there are cracks in the funding foundations of that success, which are being exposed by the revenue shock of COVID-19 and the minister’s reforms announced this month, which would pay for new student places with money currently spent on research.

I estimate the gap in funding that needs to be filled to maintain our current research output at around $4.7 billion.

The funding foundations crumble

The timing of Dan Tehan’s higher education reform package could not have been worse for the university research sector.

The vulnerability created by universities’ reliance on international students has been brutally revealed this year. Travel bans prevent international students arriving in Australia and the COVID-19 recession undermines their capacity to pay tuition fees.

Read more: Australian universities could lose $19 billion in the next 3 years. Our economy will suffer with them

Profits from domestic and international students are the only way universities can finance research on the current scale, with more than A$12 billion spent in 2018.

Based on a Deloitte Access Economics analysis of teaching costs, universities make a surplus of about A$1.3 billion on domestic students. Universities use much of this surplus to fund research.

Tehan’s reform package seeks to align the total teaching funding rates for each Commonwealth supported student – the combined tuition subsidy and student contribution – with the teaching and scholarship costs identified in the Deloitte analysis.

On 2018 enrolment numbers, revenue losses for universities for Commonwealth supported students would total around $750 million with this realignment. With only teaching costs funded, universities will have little or no surplus from their teaching to spend on research.

Read more: The government is making ‘job-ready’ degrees cheaper for students – but cutting funding to the same courses

International student profits are larger than domestic – at around $4 billion. Much of this money is spent on research too, and much of this is at risk. The recession will also reduce how much industry partners and philanthropists can contribute to university research.

Australia’s Chief Scientist estimates 7,700 research jobs are at risk from COVID-19 factors alone. Unless the Commonwealth intervenes with a new research funding policy, its recent announcements will trigger further significant research job losses.

Combined teaching and research academic jobs will decline

Although less research employment will be available, the additional domestic students financed by redirecting research funding will generate teaching work.

More students is a good thing in itself, as the COVID-19 recession will generate more demand for higher education.

But this reallocation between research and teaching will exacerbate a major structural problem in the academic labour market. Although most academics want teaching and research, or research-only roles, over the last 30 years Commonwealth teaching and research funding has separated.

After the latest Tehan reforms, funding for the two activities will be based on entirely different criteria and put on very different growth trajectories.

An academic employment model that assumes the same people teach and research was kept alive by funding surpluses on domestic, and especially international, students. With both these surpluses being hit hard, the funding logic is that a trend towards more specialised academic staff will have to accelerate.

We can expect academic morale to fall and industrial action to rise as university workforces resist this change.

Read more: More than 10,000 job losses, billions in lost revenue: coronavirus will hit Australia’s research capacity harder than the GFC

The funding squeeze will also undermine the current system of Commonwealth research funding. This funding is allocated in two main ways. In part, it comes from competitive project grant funding, largely from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.

Academic prestige is attached to winning these grants, but the money allocated does not cover the project’s costs. Typically, universities pay the salaries of the lead researchers and general costs, such as laboratories and libraries.

Universities are partly compensated for those expenses through research block grants, which are awarded based on previous academic performance, including in winning competitive grants. But because block grants do not cover all competitive project grant costs, the system has relied on discretionary revenue, much of it from students, to work. It will need a major rethink if teaching becomes much less profitable.

The stakes are high

University spending on research (which was over $12 billion in 2018), has nearly tripled since 2000 in real terms.

Direct government spending on research increased this century, but not by nearly enough to finance this huge expansion in outlays. In 2018, the Commonwealth government’s main research funding programs contributed A$3.7 billion.

An additional $600 million came from other Commonwealth sources such as government department contracts for specific pieces of research.

In addition to this Commonwealth money, universities received another $1.9 billion in earmarked research funding from state, territory and other (national) governments, donations, and industry.

These research-specific sources still leave billions of dollars in research spending without a clear source of finance. Universities have investment earnings, profits on commercial operations and other revenue sources they can invest in research.

But these cannot possibly cover the estimated $4.7 billion gap between research revenue and spending.

With lower profits on teaching, this gap cannot be filled. Research spending will have to be reduced by billions of dollars.

We are at a turning point in Australian higher education. The research gains of the last fifteen years are at risk of being reversed. The minister’s meeting with vice-chancellors has very high stakes.

Andrew Norton, Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Queens’ Play (The Lymond Chronicles #2) by Dorothy Dunnett

‘She wanted Crawford of Lymond.’

It is 1548 and the five-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, betrothed to her cousin the Dauphin, has been sent to France.  Her mother, Mary of Guise, Queen Mother of Scotland, and widow of James V wants Francis Crawford of Lymond to protect her.  She is worried about Mary’s safety: an infant ruler is never secure.  An assassination would serve the ambitions of some, while others would like to see Mary married to Edward VI of England.

Crawford of Lymond, for his own reasons, does not want a direct contract.  Instead, in disguise as a member of an Irish group, he will be at the French court of Henri II. It becomes obvious that the little Queen is in danger as a series of accidents befall her.  But others, including the disguised Lymond, are also in danger.  Who is trying to kill Mary, Queen of Scots? 

In typical Dunnett fashion, there are many twists in this fast-paced novel.  Lymond’s disguise (not always convincing, but frequently amusing) leads him into some interesting encounters and heroic endeavours.  The reader is usually at least one step behind Lymond, which makes for frantic page-turning reading while trying to find out what is happening (and why).

When I first read this series, during the 1980s, ‘Queens’ Play’ was my least favourite Lymond novel.  I’ve reread the novel at least twice since then and have come to better appreciate the action and the cleverness of the story.  Francis Crawford is a fascinating hero: athletic, erudite and patriotic.  But he has his demons as well.

This is the second in Dorothy Dunnett’s six volume series ‘The Lymond Chronicles’. Recommended, if you enjoy complex, well-written historical fiction. But be warned: reading Dunnett can be addictive.

The six novels are:

The Game of Kings

Queens’ Play

The Disorderly Knights

Pawn in Frankincense

The Ringed Castle


Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver

‘I’ve decided to run a marathon.’

Meet Serenata Terpsichore (‘rhymes with chicory’) and her husband Remington Alabaster, who live in upstate New York. Serenata is 60 years old, with a captivating voice and ruined knees. Serenata uses her voice (she is particularly good at accents) as a voiceover artist and as an audiobook narrator. Her knees are the consequence of a lifetime of keeping fit, of a firm belief that 10-mile runs are the key to both longevity and good health.

Remington, on the other hand, slightly older and forced into early retirement from the New York State Department of Transport, has always been sedentary. But now he decides he wants to run a marathon.

Picture the contrast: a woman whose lifetime commitment to exercise has left her with pain and the need for joint replacements, and a sedentary man who decides to take up training for a marathon. Serenata struggles with her pain while Remington spends a lot of time (and money) training to run a marathon. And he does run a marathon (eventually and slowly) just to be convinced by a young personal trainer named Bambi that running 26.2 miles is nothing: he needs to train for triathlons.

And as Remington trains their lives are taken over. Serenata learns that being good at accents is no longer desirable, and her knee replacement cannot be postponed for ever. But this novel is not just about the cult and folly of obsessive training, it’s also about relationships and cultural change, usually delivered with acidulous wit. One of my favourite lines:

‘Nancee was a victim of a nomenclatural fad that celebrated an inability to spell as a manifestation of originality.’

Serenata’s work dries up: being able to mimic accents and speech patterns is now a liability. We also learn why Remington was retired early. Diversity has consequences.

Will Remington survive his new fitness obsession and complete the MettleMan triathlon? Can Serenata come to terms with reduced fitness? Can their marriage survive? What does the future hold?

I enjoyed this novel: the send up of the fitness cult; the consequences of political correctness; and the patterns that we humans slavishly adopt when we think we have found the answers to whatever existential crisis we’ve found (or confected).

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia /The Borough Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street #2) by Natasha Pulley

‘It’s easy to think that nobody could really arrange the world like clockwork.’

The events of this novel take place a few years after ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’.  And if you haven’t yet read ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’, my advice is to read that novel first.  It’s really important to know who the characters are.

Thaniel Steepleton receives an unexpected posting to Tokyo.  This is fortuitous: the London smog is making him ill.  But what on earth is happening in Tokyo?  The staff at the British Legation have been seeing ghosts.  And then Thaniel starts to experience strange things, and clearly Keita Mori (with whom he is staying in Yokohama) is unsettled.  Then Keita Mori vanishes. 

‘He can’t predict random things.’

I don’t want to write more about the story: it might spoil what is an absolutely fantastic read. Besides, what more do you need to know about a tale of magical realism, set mainly in late nineteenth century Japan, with a clairvoyant samurai, a clockwork octopus and a child named Six?  You’ll need to pay attention because details are important.

Highly recommended

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Spring of the Ram (The House of Niccolò #2) by Dorothy Dunnett

‘He has, I believe, no idea what is really going to happen.’

Florence, 1461.  Nicholas is in Florence where, having accepted a prospect put before him by Nicholai Giorgio de´ Acciajuoli, he hopes to lead a Florentine agency to Trebizond.  He seeks, and obtains, the backing of the Medici.  Nicholas and his team obtain a galley, purchase trading goods, and set off.  But Nicholas has a rival, Pagano Doria, a Genoese adventurer, who has eloped with Nicholas’s stepdaughter.  Trebizond is under threat from the Ottoman Turks and is seeking support from the west.  Trading opportunities will be fraught with danger and may be limited.  Who will triumph? 

This is the second book in Ms Dunnett’s eight volume ‘The House of Niccolò’ series and continues the adventures of the enigmatic Nicholas as he strives to establish the Charetty company in both trade and the provision of mercenaries.  Ms Dunnett uses 15th century history brilliantly to provide a backdrop for Nicholas and his adventurous schemes.  Banking and trade are expanding, political conflict and empire building provide ample opportunity for those astute (and courageous enough) to take risks.

I have finished ‘The Spring of the Ram’ and am taking a breath before starting ‘Race of Scorpions’ (the third novel in the series). 

If you enjoy well-written historical fiction set in 15th century Europe with complex storylines and intricate plotting, you may enjoy this series as much as I do.

I should add that I have read and reread this series at least three times.  And each time, I find a new aspect to view, a different perspective to consider.  These are not light reads, there are plenty of twists in the story, a large cast of characters to try to keep track of.  But these novels are amongst the most rewarding works of fiction I have ever read.  As well as  ‘The House of Niccolò’ series, Ms Dunnett wrote the six volume ‘Lymond Chronicles’ and ‘King Hereafter’ ( a novel about Thorfinn of Orkney) as well as six spy/detective mysteries (the Dolly or Johnson Johnson series).

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

King of the Anglo Saxons (Sons of Kings #4) by Millie Thom

‘An uneasy silence fell over the Winchester Hall.’

In 883, five years after Guthrum’s crushing defeat at Edington, Alfred’s kingdom is enjoying a rare period of peace.  Alfred is ageing, and bouts of his chronic illness are becoming more frequent. Alfred would like to see continuing peace from Viking raids so that he can improve his kingdom’s standard of learning.  He summons scholars to the kingdom, including Asser, a welsh monk.  But peace is not assured, and an attack on Rochester proves that more work will need to be undertaken to further improve the kingdom’s defences.

This, the fourth and final novel in the ‘Sons of Kings’ series continues the connection between King Alfred of Wessex and the fictional Eadwulf of Mercia.  The fiction is woven around the facts, the maps at the beginning show the areas involved in the novel, and the list of characters helped me immensely.

There is plenty of action in the novel: the arrival of a Norse army tests the Wessex defences, Eadwulf settles back in Aros with Freydis and then travels (with Bjorn and others) to al-Andalus.  Alfred’s children grow older, Asser contributes to the education of the kingdom.  And Alfred himself steps out of the shadows of history.

Ms Thom brings her characters to life.  While I especially enjoyed that part of the story set in al-Andalus, it was Ms Thom’s depiction of Alfred, of the struggles between the Anglo Saxons and the Norse which held my attention.

I finished the novel, sad to leave the characters behind, but with a better appreciation of the period in which they lived.

Thank you, Ms Thom, for this series.  I started the first book almost six years ago and have been eagerly awaiting this instalment since 2018.

Note: My thanks to the author for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Latest $84 million cuts rip the heart out of the ABC, and our democracy (from The Conversation)


Alexandra Wake, RMIT University and Michael Ward, University of Sydney

At the height of the coronavirus emergency, and on the back of devastating bushfires, Australia’s much awarded and trusted national broadcaster has again been forced to make major cuts to staff, services and programs. It is doing so to offset the latest $84 million budget shortfall as a result of successive cuts from the Coalition government.

In the latest cuts, wrapped up as part of the national broadcaster’s five-year plan,

  • 250 staff will lose their jobs
  • the major 7:45am news bulletin on local radio has been axed
  • ABC Life has lost staff but somehow expanded to become ABC Local
  • independent screen production has been cut by $5 million
  • ABC News Channel programming is still being reviewed.

Even the travel budget, which allows journalists and storytellers to get to places not accessible by others, has been cut by 25%.

These are just the latest in a long list of axed services, and come off the back of the federal government’s indexation freeze.

Announced in 2018, that freeze reduced the ABC budget by $84 million over three years and resulted in an ongoing reduction of $41 million per annum from 2022.

Read more: The ABC didn’t receive a reprieve in the budget. It’s still facing staggering cuts

The indexation freeze is part of ongoing reductions to ABC funding that total $783 million since 2014. In an email to staff, Managing Director David Anderson said the cut to the ABC in real terms means operational funding will be more than 10% lower in 2021–22 than it was in 2013.

To be fair, the way in which the ABC executive has chosen to execute the latest cuts does make some sense, pivoting more towards digital and on-demand services. Right now, the commuting audience that has long listened to the 7:45am bulletin is clearly changing habits. However, with widespread closures of newspapers across the nation, the need for independent and trusted news in depth, that is not online has never been more important.

ABC Life is a particular loss. It has built an extremely diverse reporting team, reaching new audiences, and winning over many ABC supporters and others who were initially sceptical. The work they produced certainly wasn’t the type commercial operators would create.

Clearly the coronavirus pandemic has slashed Australia’s commercial media advertising revenues. But the problems in the media are a result of years of globalisation, platform convergence and audience fragmentation. In such a situation, Australia’s public broadcasters should be part of the solution for ensuring a diverse, vibrant media sector. Instead, it continues to be subject to ongoing budget cuts.

Moreover, at a time when the public really cannot afford to be getting their news from Facebook or other social media outlets, cutting 250 people who contribute to some of Australia’s most reliable and quality journalism and storytelling – and literally saving lives during the bushfires – appear to be hopelessly shortsighted.

The latest Digital News Report 2020 clearly showed the ABC is the media outlet Australians trust the most.


These latest cuts join a long list of axed services in the past seven years. They include

While not everyone will miss every program or service that has gone, and even with its occasional missteps, there is no doubt the ABC is the envy of the liberal democracies that do not have publicly funded assets, particularly the United States.

Has the ABC’s budget been increased?

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has continued to suggest the funding cuts are not real, are sustainable without service reductions for Australians, and has claimed the ABC has received “increased funding”.

The minister’s comments are not consistent with data we published last year based on the government’s own annual budget statements and the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC.

Read more: A tale of two media reports: one poses challenges for digital media; the other gives ABC and SBS a clean bill of health

The government argues base or departmental funding is higher in 2020-21 than it was in 2013-14. The relevant budget papers do show that in 2013-14, the ABC was allocated $865 million for “general operational activities”. The most recent budget statement shows this has increased to $878 million in 2020-21.

So how can it be the ABC budget shows this increase when we have been arguing they are facing an overall cut?

First, we noted last year the complexity of the budget process, which means, for example, the reinstatement of short-term funding can be counted as extra funds, or the ending of such funds, while reducing an agency budget, will not appear as a reduction in allocation.

Second, the 2020-21 ABC budget reflects the inclusion of indexation for increases in CPI-related costs between 2013-14 and 2018-19. This is the funding that is being halted until at least 2021-22.

So despite statements to the contrary, nothing can change the fact the ABC has suffered massive cuts in recent years. The data published last year showed the reality of the ongoing situation for the ABC, with an annual cost to its budget in 2020-21 of $116 million. As the table below shows, taking into account actual budget allocations and adding the items cut, frozen or otherwise reduced, the ABC should have funding of approximately $1.181 billion in 2020-21, not the $1.065 billion it will receive.

It is against this background the latest funding freeze, due to a failure to meet the impact of inflation costs, occurs. While it doesn’t sound like a lot, the three year impact is $84 million, and has resulted in the cuts announced today.

But more importantly, these ongoing cuts represent an attack by the federal government on the broadcaster, its role in democracy, and in keeping Australians safe, informed and entertained.

Alexandra Wake, Program Manager, Journalism, RMIT University and Michael Ward, PhD candidate, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Goldminer’s Sister by Alison Stuart

‘Out of the way, woman!’

June, 1873.  After travelling from England, Eliza Penrose has arrived in the goldmining town of Maiden’s Creek, Victoria.  She’s looking to start a new life with her brother, William, whom she’s not seen for five years.  But Will does not turn up to meet her, and when she arrives at her uncle Charles Cowper’s home, she discovers why.

Alec McLeod is a mining engineer who came from Scotland to try to escape the memory of his dead wife and child.  He’s determined to never fall in love again, despite the best efforts of the single women of Maiden’s Creek.

After their inauspicious first meeting, Alec and Eliza are thrown together.  There are dangerous work practices at the Maiden’s Creek Mine, and lives are endangered. There are secrets to be uncovered, and the closer Alec and Eliza get to the truth, the more care they need to take.

I really enjoyed this novel.  It is set two years later (and in the same town) as ‘The Postmistress’.  Ms Stuart brings her characters to life and doesn’t shy away from demonstrating the hardships of life on the goldfields, especially for women and children.  There’s action and romance, and a cast of well-developed minor characters as well.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



View from The Hill: Tehan’s student fees are not just about jobs, but about funding and a dash of ideology too (from The Conversation)

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government’s higher education changes, announced last week, appear driven by three factors. How you judge the result will depend on where you sit.

In sum, the shake up will reduce student fees for courses in areas the government identifies as potentially job-rich and increase them for the humanities and certain other courses to produce a result that’s funding-neutral for the government.

The first driver of the policy is the surge in demand for places. This is coming both from what’s dubbed “the Costello baby boom” (“have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country,” Peter Costello said when treasurer) and from the COVID-flattened economy, which will stop many young people taking a gap year.

The government wants to manage this pressure without having to fork out more money.

Secondly, the changes reflect Scott Morrison’s overwhelming preoccupation with jobs. This is the main element in both his rhetoric and his policy across government. When he announced recently the national cabinet would be made permanent, he said its singular focus would be jobs.

Read more: Fee cuts for nursing and teaching but big hikes for law and humanities in package expanding university places

While it is understandable that at the moment most issues are being seen through the employment prism, in the longer term a government’s lens should be wider. Work (with the opportunity to obtain it) is critical to the well-being of the individual and the community. At the same time it is not everything, certainly not if people are to have rounded and fulfilling lives.

Finally, there does seem to be an ideological tinge to the policy, notably in the treatment of the humanities. The cost for these courses will rise by a massive 113%. This compares with hikes of 28% for law and commerce.

There is an anti-intellectual streak in this government, with ministers unsympathetic towards universities, which many of them see as breeding grounds for left-leaning activists. Education Minister Dan Tehan, for one, has been very critical of what he has identified as curbs on free speech in the universities.

This government and its prime minister are a very long way from Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies’s views. Menzies saw as one of his major achievements the expansion of Australia’s universities, and he had a broad view of higher education.

David Furse-Roberts wrote in a Quadrant article titled, “A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education”: “Far from functioning merely as utilitarian “degree factories” to churn out the greatest volume of graduates, Menzies esteemed universities as the great nurseries of civilisation. In addition to equipping undergraduates with essential training and vocational skills, the university would serve to cultivate the character of students and encourage them to seek truth and beauty in their chosen discipline.“

Menzies strongly defended the humanities (although it has been noted the “humanities” as taught in universities of his day looked rather different from much of today’s content). And, it should be added, universities then did not teach the wide range of vocational courses they do today.

The Morrison government takes a basically “utilitarian” view of universities. Indeed, universities have made themselves very utilitarian, as they have transformed into giant businesses – substantially in response to governments of both persuasions pushing them on the revenue front.

This strengthened the Australian economy, as higher education ballooned into a massive export sector.

But COVID has brought home the over-dependence of our universities on foreign students, for many thousands of whom they are now desperately trying to find a passage back.

It is not just the financial position of institutions that has been compromised by excessive reliance on overseas students, who pay so much more than the domestic cohort.

So have some academic standards, although this is not often publicly admitted. One hears frequent complaints, for example, from domestic students who find themselves working (and assessed) in groups with overseas students who have limited English language skills. And some staff feel under the pump to pass foreign students.

The COVID crisis should mark a point where universities take stock of how they are managing the trade offs between foreign income on the one hand and educational standards and the needs of domestic students on the other.

Coming back to the Tehan package for domestic students, the reaction has been predictably diverse, according to how various stakeholders see it affecting them. The winners are applauding; the losers cross.

Read more: Humanities graduates earn more than those who study science and maths

In terms of its broad effects Andrew Norton, professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Australian National University, believes it will not alter students’ choices substantially.

He tells The Conversation that student course choices are primarily driven by their interests. For most of them, that includes the career they hope for after finishing their degree. Students with firm goals would not change a fundamental life choice due to a change in fees, he says. Students who are less clear about exactly what kind of job they want after finishing their career will only choose within their range of interests.

Norton argues that if some students are not aware of courses that might interest them, then improved careers advice and course marketing would be a better solution than shuffling hundreds of millions of dollars in student payments between courses.

He says the changes raise questions of fairness. While those benefitting from lower fees, such as students undertaking teaching and nursing, will pay off their student debts more quickly than under the current system, those graduating from the humanities could be saddled with debt for decades. “This mix of windfall gains and heavy new debt burdens seems unnecessary to achieve the policy goal of improving graduate employment outcomes.”

The government will need to get its changes through the Senate. When it launched a sweeping plan to deregulate fees some years ago, it could not obtain parliamentary approval. It stresses this is not deregulation, but whether it will be more successful with this proposal remains to be seen.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.