Labor’s faulty uni intuitions cost taxpayers $562 million

Fulfilling an election promise, this year’s budget contained:

$562.2 million over four years to encourage students to study maths and science and compensate universities. From 1 January 2009, the maximum annual student contribution amount for maths and science will be reduced to the lowest ‘national priority’ rate for new students.

As I pointed out when Labor first announced this plan in early 2007, it rests on two false assumptions.

The first assumption is that choices between broad academic disciplines are driven by relative prices. There is no evidence in the history of changing HECS levels that this is the case. A moment’s reflection explains why: for most people, a choice of course is a career decision, and who in their right mind would choose a field that did not interest them to save a few thousand dollars in eight or nine years time (when their HECS repayments would finish earlier than would otherwise be the case)? And for students motivated by money, a few thousand dollars in tuition costs is not going to change substantially the lifetime earning relativities between occupations.
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