Examining the health of social science education at universities and non-university higher education providers:
What we’re doing well, where we’re falling behind, and priorities for the near future.
Why social science in
One of the main functions of undergraduate and postgraduate education is to prepare people for knowledge-intensive roles; those that require analysis, higher-order thinking and the use of specialist methods to arrive at complex decisions. Social science degrees in particular, equip students to manage the human challenges in organisations of all types, from small businesses, to community organisations, to public policy and administration. Social science graduates–economists, psychologists, managers, lawyers, social workers and countless other social professionals–make up roughly 13% of the population aged 15 to 64.
At the time of writing, there are over 2,500 bachelor-level, 1,700 master’s-level, and 400 doctoral programs in social science across Australia, delivered by over 130 university and non-university providers. In 2019, nearly 860,000 people were studying towards a social science degree; 53% of all enrolments in this education segment.
The health of the university social science sector and its ability to train critical, adaptable knowledge workers is arguably a leading indicator of how well Australia will manage the human factor when dealing with grand challenges such as climate change, global pandemics or artificial intelligence; how swiftly our government, industry and community will be able to adapt to change, and the democratic quality of our institutions.
“I don’t want to go back to our reliance on international students and precariously employed casuals. But we need a bigger conversation. What are the core principles within our disciplines? What is a core curriculum? And what are the skills and knowledge that we want our graduates to have? I think there’s a huge opportunity to rethink some of the ways in which we’ve been doing things.”
Deputy Dean, Faculty of Arts at an Australian university.
Higher education scorecard
Quality and relevance of social science qualifications
Good to excellent graduate employment outcomes.
Slow decline in domestic enrolments
Poor community understanding of the role of social sciences in Australia’s future.
- Make the case for the relevance of social science degrees in the 21st century.
- Elevate government and the public understandings of social science skills, for jobs and beyond.
Teaching workforce & infrastructure
High student satisfaction with teaching.
- Uncharted standards for online teaching.
- Unknown extent and impacts of nation-wide staff cuts.
Limited progression for teaching-only staff, casualised and overworked.
- Better support and incentivise teaching academics.
- Proactively discuss the role of universities in the changing qualifications landscape (anticipated introduction of micro-credentials).
- Set benchmarks for online teaching quality.
Accessibility, diversity and fairness
Online delivery uplift welcome by remote and non-traditional students.
Gender still sets staff back.
Need for better data on equity, including impact of recent legislation change.
- Improve quality of available equity student and staff data.
- Monitor, understand and address equity-related impacts of recent legislation changes on students and staff.
In universities across Australia, the social sciences are at an impasse. On the one hand, social science graduates have excellent employment outcomes (right), On the other, many stakeholders feel that governments and communities are losing confidence in the relevance and value of social science and related humanities education.
Since 2014, domestic student enrolments have declined in Education, and Management and Commerce, and stalled in Society and Culture.
The Job-Ready Graduates Package passed in 2020 included a new schedule of student fees to match the perceived job-relevance of different degrees. Seven out of 12 social science areas were classified among the less ‘job relevant’ (see The JRG aftermath).
Australian university departments and facilities are undergoing major shifts in workforce, infrastructure and student profile in the social sciences as in many other fields.
Since the early 2010s there has been an increasing trend of casualisation in the teaching workforce (see No guarantees in academia) along with increasing administrative requirements on academic staff.
COVID-19 border closures during 2020 and 2021 have meant a loss of over 30% of yearly international social sciences enrolments. This has combined with a five-year decline in domestic enrolments, a significant increase in remote and online learning offerings, and the possibility of a further decline in enrolments in response to the Job-Ready Graduates Package.
Not surprisingly, universities have needed to rapidly adjust to changed circumstances; reducing workforce and restructuring programs. As of February 2021, Universities Australia estimated that jobs losses passed 17,000, with many more cuts reported since (see The JRG aftermath).
A consequence of this has been the reported closure of several social science programs across Australian universities, with many more deemed to be at high risk, especially smaller disciplines, and those in regional areas. The sector needs to keep a close eye on how these trends (i.e., casualisation, downsizing and restructuring) are impacting Australia’s capability to carry social science knowledge forward into the future.
‘Equity groups’ comprise students from low socio-economic backgrounds, women studying in male-dominated fields, students from regional and remote areas, those with a disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Public datasets on equity group participation are only available for the entire student population, so the levels of participation specific to social sciences study programs are unknown.
As of the 2016 Census, Australia had achieved what is considered ‘universal’ tertiary education, with 51.4% of the population aged 19-20 enrolled in either university (41.2%) or VET (10.1%) according to a report by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE). The 50% threshold assumes that if the majority of a cohort participates, engagement becomes a social expectation, and thus ’universal’.
According to the same publication, the proportion of enrolled students coming from at least one ‘equity group’ was also high, at 47.3%.
The social sciences (and the humanities) are those parts of our universities that can and must educate and research for democracy. This is their distinctive role and comparative advantage. Absent this political significance, not only would Australian democracy be weakened […] but the social sciences themselves would no longer be worth fighting for.
Political Science academic at an Australian university.
Priorities for action
Raise awareness of the value and impact of the social science
Among current and potential future students, starting at Year 11 or earlier.
Emphasise the value of broad study programs including social sciences for students in all disciplines
As one survey respondent put it, Job-readinesssells universities short of their purpose. A balance between practical, analytical and discipline-specific knowledge and skills is in the best interest of all Australians, and about the main differentiator of a university education (see The skills conundrum).
Reformulate career incentives and development opportunities for research and teaching academics
To ensure a priority focus on quality education (see No guarantees in academia). Improvements in this area could benefit the university sector as a whole, as this issue is not exclusive to social sciences.
Investigate opportunities for the social sciences in emerging education markets
Such as the upskilling and reskilling of older workers and the anticipated introduction of short-cycle qualifications (micro-credentials) (see Online education: Winner takes all?).
Ensure consistent standards of quality for virtual teaching
The social sciences are critically placed to lead this vital reinvention of our education systems.
Collect more and better data on student and staff diversity and inclusion
Including through direct consultation with students and staff.
Monitor, understand and address equity-related impacts of recent legislation changes
On students and staff, including the end of demand-driven funding to universities (or funding caps, introduced in 2017), to the review of the Australian Qualifications Framework (in 2019), to the Job-Ready Graduates Package (2020).
Number of social science higher education programs available across Australia estimated from data available through the CRICOS course database (fields: Education, Management and Commerce, and Society and Culture).
Enrolments in higher education social science programs from: DESE (2010-19)Higher Education Statistics, Student data (multiple datasets). https://www.dese.gov.au/higher-education-statistics/student-data.
Estimated loss of international enrolments is based on the percentage of international enrolments in social science higher education programs in: DESE (2019) Higher Education Statistics, Student data.
Analysis of median weekly income by field of study and highest level of education based on: ABS (2016) Census of Population and Housing (using Table Builder).
Analysis of changes to student and government contributions introduced by the Job-Ready Graduates Package based on: Parliament of Australia (2021) Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-ready Graduates and Supporting Regional and Remote Students) Bill 2020, Bills Digest No. 12, 2020–21. https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/bd/bd2021a/21bd012.