Walk into the start of any early-year law lecture and you'll be greeted with a homogeneously scattered chorus of MacBooks powering up. In later-year lectures, students often walk in accompanied by the jingle of keys to a shiny, new car. In general, law students tend to come from relatively wealthy, well-connected families. As much as we pretend that education is based entirely on merit, it's not - the students with the high school marks to get into law school overwhelmingly come from middle-, upper-income families that could fund an inner-city, private school education and are unlikely to balk at the prospect of a burgeoning HECS debt.
This is why it's so difficult to understand the Education Minister's carrot-and-stick proposal to siphon students away from law and humanities to mostly STEM subjects.
Experience confirms this won't have the intended effect. Fee changes don't have major downstream effects on demand.
Instead, I fear that the actual consequences of this proposal would be highly damaging.
Sprinkled among the archetypical, MacBook-toting law students - many of whom come from white backgrounds - is the minority. They come from lower-income backgrounds, are often people of colour, and have summited a far steeper hill than many of their classmates to sit beside them in the lecture hall. To these students, a price hike feels more real - money is something that they had worried about long before their classmates did. This group will be the first prospective law/humanities students deterred by the government's proposed changes.
On top of this, young people today - especially those from low-income backgrounds - are perpetually cognisant of the broad tapestry of contemporary economic obstacles within which the concerns cited in the Education Minister's Press Club address are couched. Entering the workforce is a daunting hurdle and there are not many entry-level positions to go around. Furthermore, young people today face the prospect of likely being the first generation in modern history to be less wealthy than our parents, and having an undergraduate degree has become the rule, not the exception. This is a reality that young people are fully aware of. Degree decisions are the products of a painstakingly careful balancing act. Naturally, the question of finances bears far more prominently in the minds of prospective students from low-income backgrounds than others. The government's proposal to tip the scales of this calculus impinges on youthful passion, ingenuity and creativity. From a certain perspective, the proposal is patronising and condescending.
This is particularly poignant in the current political climate. The George Floyd protests have, once again, brought racial tension to the foreground of social discourse. It is more apparent than ever that racism is a sinister and malignant force that lurks beneath the surface: overtly racist taunts, jeers and boos are built upon the pillars of illusive inclinations, preferences, and aversions hardened by centuries of reinforcement. A diversity of identity and experience in all fora of society is conducive to confronting, important questions that prompt a reconsideration of these pillars.
The government's proposal would go to detriment the diversity of our lecture halls. This homogeneity will inevitably flow into the prominent public positions that students of law and humanities often go on to occupy - the purveyors of politics, law, media, public service - and exacerbate the issues that so plague us today.
- Noah Yim is a law and international relations student at ANU and former editor-in-chief of the ANU student media organisation, Woroni.