Aussie PR industry disappointed with govt overhaul of university fees

“Creativity and powerful communication skills should not be the exclusive enclave of those who are cashed up.”

University fees for humanities courses including PR and comms are set to double
University fees for humanities courses including PR and comms are set to double

Last week, the federal government announced the cost of studying humanities at university is set to double, but "job-relevant" course fees will be slashed under an overhaul of tertiary education.

Subjects in nursing, psychology, English, languages, teaching, agriculture, maths, science, health, environmental science and architecture will be cheaper while fees for humanities and arts courses including PR and comms will significantly increase. The fee overhaul was caused by Australia's "biggest unemployment challenge since The Great Depression", according to Education Minister Dan Tehan.

Industry leaders weigh in on the news:

Leigh McClusky, national president, Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA)

The PRIA is stridently opposed to this social engineering initiative which is attempting to force people into careers they may neither want, nor have any aptitude for. PR and communications is only one industry that will be adversely affected by this short-sighted decision and we will be looking to collaborate across the creative landscape to amplify our concerns. Left unchallenged, these changes will reduce the talent available, erode the enviable quality of communications in Australia and entrench inequality in the industry.

The PR industry in Australia draws talent from a diverse pool of educational backgrounds, but largely employs people who are trained in public relations or journalism. Doubling the cost of these degrees will have a profound impact on the ability of the public relations industry in Australia to attract new talent to the industry, not to mention being able to attract talent from diverse backgrounds, which is so important to our success going forward.

Restricting the pool of potential new recruits to only those with deep pockets will clearly have a negative impact on the number of young practitioners coming through to replace those who retire or change careers. Creativity and powerful communication skills should not be the exclusive enclave of those who are cashed up. Given these changes will also impact journalism degrees, this will compound the effect with less journalists likely to transfer into public relations during their careers, not to mention the loss we'll face in public discourse with less journalism graduates to contribute to essential and robust community debate.

This is unfair, illogical and must be challenged. The PRIA is committed to mounting a targeted and strategic campaign to push the Federal Government and Education Minister, Dan Tehan to reconsider this ill-thought decision. It is ironic that any government that relies so heavily on our industry to sell its message and massage its public credibility, would now seek to undermine the very people who have helped them get where they are.

Vuki Vujasinovic, CEO, Sling & Stone

In general, access to education is critical. For our industry, selfishly, anything that makes it harder to begin studying communications is not good. We'd love to see more and more talented, passionate graduates in future years. Even in the recession, we're optimistic about the short- and long-term outlook, and we plan to make lots of hires in the coming years.

It will be important for universities and agencies to work closely together to create good graduate partnerships. We will continue to invest in our intern program, and more work will need to be done to motivate and inspire the next generation of storytellers. We're currently seeing lots of outstanding talent for our open roles, but the changes we're seeing in university fees could pose challenges in the years to come.

Andy Scales, director, CampaignLab

There's never been a tougher time to be a graduate than right now. For many years Australia has had an issue whereby young people go to university to pursue what they (or often their parents) see as a respectable career, only to find that when they come out the other end there aren't any jobs available—leaving them with little more than a HECS debt. The PR industry is not alone in that respect, the same could be true of other industries.

With that in mind, it's easy to see what the government is trying to do, but sadly they've gone about it the wrong way. The government should be doing more to educate young Aussies about what careers and opportunities might be available after university and how realistic it will be that they will find employment. This would mean that they understand the changing employment landscape before going to university, and for those still keen to pursue their passion for PR, they can.

Instead what the government has done is slap a stealth tax on the top of degrees to act as a deterrent. It will do exactly what it was designed to do—reduce the number of graduates. And it will come at a cost in terms of creativity, raw talent and diversity. Which, quite frankly, is what is needed right now.

Catherine Slogrove, director, Papaya Agency

My first thought was Scott Morrison has clearly never tried to hire a PR account manager. Good quality PR is extremely difficult to find and I would be concerned about any move to limit young talent coming through the ranks.

Generally, competition fuels quality and innovation. If we are seeing the talent pool shrink, I would be very concerned about the impact that this would have on quality standards. In some roles, talent recruitment is a challenge with the mid-level PR roles being the hardest to recruit for. We usually find digital and social roles easier to get good-quality candidates. I think we'll feel the pain of this in five to ten years and wonder where all the amazing young talent went.

Caroline Addy, managing director, Milk & Honey PR

From a purely economic perspective, I understand that during times of recession and increased unemployment hard decisions will always have to be made. However, after watching the ABC interview with Education Minister, Dan Tehan, it's clear the decision to increase fees for certain courses is not about the future of Australia's youth. It's about what's best for "the nation" and "growing the economy".

The problem is that, given the choice, many students will opt for courses like PR and communications because they are fast-paced, creative and strategic. They are popular but they don't fit the Government's 'square box' ideal of job-relevant skills. So the Government's plan is to push the next wave of students down jobs funnels that suit its economic agenda.

Ultimately the government won't deter individuals who are able to afford the increased fees. But, more importantly, what it will do is drive talented individuals from certain socio-economic backgrounds further away from our industry.

My hope is that PR agencies will counter this by prioritising things such as attitude, aptitude and work ethic when making junior hires. We believed we would become a better business by not hiring people that only had PR skills. In our three and a half years we have hired several people from a variety of backgrounds. Most started as ambitious and hungry interns and are now progressing up through their career path. Receiving training and recognised certifications on the job, as well as internal support and guidance.

Providing the industry opens its doors even wider to the next generation of comms professionals it shouldn't matter that the government is trying to close the gate.

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