In 2021 a new way of funding for university degrees was ushered in. And it spells bad news for many women on uni debt and pay – especially young women.
Under the old approach, the amount the Government contributed to the cost of an undergraduate degree was based on potential career earnings.
So, the Government subsidy for a medical degree has been lower than an arts degree, leaving the better paid medical graduate to pay for more towards the cost of their degree than the lower-earning arts graduate (usually through the HECS-HELP loan scheme).
But changes which took effect this year, align the Government subsidy with degrees linked to a potential skills shortage and not future earnings.
For example, the subsidy for traditionally male-dominated degrees such as science, IT, agriculture, engineering and mathematics has increased, making them cheaper.
By contrast, the subsidy for popular female dominated degrees such as arts, communication, law, society and culture, and creative arts has dropped, making them more expensive.
Unfortunately, women are the collateral damage of these uni changes.
According to Department of Education statistics, 55.6% of all university students are women. So as a gender we are already accumulating more uni debt than men. Considering the gender pay gap currently stands at 14.2% and the median starting salary for female undergraduates in 2020 was $63,400, compared to $65,000 for their male counterparts, women burdened with larger uni debts will have lower earnings to repay them with.
While the majority of the degrees that have become cheaper are predominantly studied by men, the exceptions are teaching and nursing – traditional ‘pink’ degrees that have also become cheaper.
ABS data shows that in 2020, management and commerce, society and culture, and health were the top three fields women gain qualifications in beyond school, while for men they were engineering and related technologies, management and commerce, and architecture and building.
Women graduating from the STEM degrees of science, technology, engineering and maths earn around the $63,400 median. The ABS stats show first year salaries ranging from $70,000 for female engineers to $65,000 for technology graduates, and $62,600 for graduates of science and math.
These starting salaries are in the region of those earned by first-year female nurses ($64,200), teachers ($69,900) and humanities graduates ($61,900), although women graduates from creative arts, communications and business lag these figures.
But the true issue lies in what happens beyond the first year of employment. For example, wages in teaching stagnate, as experience doesn’t equate to higher salaries, while a third of engineering and math graduates are earning over $156,000 a year by their 40s.
Some engineering and IT occupations are among the highest paying roles in Australia, while nursing, teaching, arts and communication-related occupations are all noticeably absent from this list.
If more women don’t make the switch to STEM degrees, and continue the trend of studying humanities, commerce and health, the consequence is that they are likely to suffer the double burdened of disproportionately large uni debts when compared with men, and lower salaries to repay them from.
It’s something important to think about when you, or someone you know is about to launch into a university degree.
Michelle Bowes is a financial journalist and the founder of Money Queens.
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