Earlier this month a fresh round of commentary kicked off regarding the failure of the long-term cultural and public policy project of fostering the sustained study of Asian languages in Australia. The latest expression of concern was sparked by reports that Australian universities, including La Trobe, Murdoch and Swinburne, were set to close some or (in the case of Swinburne) all of their Asian language programs in 2021.
Rather than revisit the recent history of decline in the study of Asian languages in Australian schools and universities, I would like to focus for a moment on the latest piece of (imperfect, perhaps) public policy to offer some hope for Asian language education advocates – this one emanating from the Commonwealth Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE). At the outset, I would like to suggest the that the project of Asian language education in Australia has always been fitful, and scrappy, and has nearly always required advocates and enthusiasts making the most of imperfect and sporadic public policy interventions.
The El Dorado of a comprehensive national Asian languages strategy has never been attained or sustained in Australia. The closest the country has come to this was the brief period between 1994-2002 during which the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) scheme – a cooperative initiative of the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments – was operational. NALSAS was discontinued in 2002.
The Coalition government’s higher education funding reform, the “Job-ready Graduates (JRG) Package” passed in October 2020, might have just provided Australian universities around the country with their best chance in decades for building scale within struggling language programs. Specifically, the new higher education funding package radically discounts – from 2021 – the price that a domestic student pays for completing a language major within their Arts degree ($3,950) relative to most other arts and humanities majors ($14,500). Importantly, under the new funding regime, this discount in the cost of tuition for the student is realised while preserving the $20,000 of revenue that a university receives for teaching that language major to a domestic student. From next year, completing a language major will cost an Australian undergraduate approximately one quarter of the expense of most other arts, humanities, and social sciences majors.
The new JRG funding regime is an attempt by the Australian Government to use stark price signalling to encourage students to enrol in disciplines (like languages) deemed to be of national priority, but that historically have struggled to attract large numbers of students.
It is a rather LNP-flavoured bit of public policy. A Labor government might have (and might still) pursue the objective of increasing national language enrolments differently – and more directly. However, I posit that if the Commonwealth Education Minister had just announced a New Colombo Plan-style pot of funding that provided $10,000 grants to induce domestic Australian undergrad students to enrol in a language major from 2021, language education advocates nationally would be applauding it as a welcome funding initiative from the Commonwealth.
This is effectively what we have in the Government’s JRG package – except in the inverse. It is not a pot of grants, but a (functionally) unlimited pot of subsidies. The economic effect for students commencing university from next year is the same. They pay $10,000 less for their degree (or are left with $10,000 less in HECS debt) if they enrol in a language major.
It might not be the exact public policy intervention we were waiting for; it is, however, what is currently on the table. As language education advocates, we would be foolish not to make the most of the Commonwealth public policy we do have to hand (for however long it lasts) to maximum effect.
If you were designing the perfect piece of higher education policy to increase enrolments in disciplines of national priority (including languages) – using the mechanism of the HECS-CGS prices set by DESE – you would attend to three things, namely:
- Sending a strong price signal to students to induce them to enrol in languages and other disciplines of national priority;
- Mounting a targeted public advertising campaign to raise awareness of these new price signals among the economic actors whose behaviour and choices you’re trying to influence (i.e. school-leavers and possibly their parents); and
- Creating strong financial incentives for Australian universities to recruit more students into disciplines of national priority – like languages.
Against this measure, I believe that (on its own) the JRG package does one-third of the job.
Clearly the reform will send newly strong price signals to students in order to shift their behaviour and enrolment choices. Tick. However – to the second element outlined above – in order to have effect, awareness of the JRG’s economic inducements needs to be raised among students (and parents) making enrolment decisions. “Study a language and knock $10,000 off your $40,000 uni degree” might be just the kind of simple, compelling message that sees language enrolments tick up nationally over the next few years. But who is going to hear the message and receive the price signal if no one is paying to broadcast it into the living rooms and social media feeds of prospective students and their parents? On their own, the JRG changes are currently akin to having a sale but not telling your customers about it.
So. We need a national awareness-raising campaign. But who is going to pay for it?
Perhaps the Commonwealth Department of Education (DESE) will? One imagines both the Department and the Minister’s office have an interest in seeing the JRG reforms succeed in their stated aim of driving greater numbers of domestic students to enrol in national priority disciplines. To date, there has been no indication that DESE is about to embark on national advertising campaign to promote the JRG fee changes to students and families, but this would be an ideal and sensible solution.
Perhaps the universities could pay for a national campaign? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t bank on it. With the respect to the third and final element of my hypothetical perfect piece of public policy, Andrew Norton from the ANU’s Centre for Social Research and Methods has provided some high-quality analysis (here and here) of the economic incentives that the JRG package sets up for Australian universities.
As Norton explains, within an Australian higher education sector fundamentally shaped by the 2017 capping of Commonwealth CGS funding for domestic students, the JRG provides – at best – a very weak incentive for universities to recruit new domestic students into disciplines of national priority. At worst, perversely, in a capped funding environment, the JRG provides a newly strong financial incentive for universities to drive up domestic enrolments in non-priority disciplines. The quick (though politically discomfiting for an LNP government) fix to this would be to uncap Commonwealth CGS university funding for domestic students and revert to the demand driven system that prevailed from 2012 until to 2017. A compromise position would be to uncap CGS funding for just those disciplines – like languages – designated as national priorities. This change would go a long way to harmonising the universities’ economic incentives with those of the domestic students they teach. Uncapping Commonwealth CGS funding for national priority disciplines – like languages – would turbo-charge the universities’ financial incentives to recruit new domestic students into these disciplines.
As it stands, in a world of capped Commonwealth CGS funding, with many (if not most) universities already up against their CGS funding caps for domestic students, there is very little commercial incentive for the universities to spend much of their (newly COVID-constrained) marketing and advertising budgets on shaping the behaviour and enrolment choices of domestic students.
So, again. Who is going to conduct (and pay for) a national awareness-raising campaign to make students (and parents) aware of the money they stand to save (or debt they stand to avoid) under the new JRG funding regime should they choose enrol in national priority disciplines – like languages? If DESE does not end up conducting this sort of advertising campaign (though they should if they want the JRG reforms to succeed), and the universities have little commercial incentive to do so, who is going to communicate this information to students and parents?
From January 2021, students and their families will be living in a world of $40,000 undergraduate degrees. Students will have to choose nimbly in order avoid the worst-case scenario in terms of the student debt they carry forward into later life. There is an opening and an opportunity here – even if DESE and the universities don’t come to the party and fund it – for a motivated coalition of language education advocates to mount a targeted public advertising campaign to raise awareness of the new financial incentives that will accrue to students who enrol in a language at university from next year.
The Commonwealth Government is clearly telegraphing through these new HECS price signals that the teaching and learning of languages is a national priority. Language departments and advocates around Australia could – if they were inclined to – pool their resources in 2021 to conduct a coordinated national campaign aimed at convincing Australian students of both the hip pocket and intrinsic virtues of studying a language at university.
I, for one, would be very happy to play my part in a national campaign of this sort.