Ongoing Commonwealth support for projects that incorporate the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) is essential to assist regional economies, such as the Hunter, recover from the COVID pandemic, higher education experts believe.
But they warn the promotion of STEMM studies should not come at the expense of humanities subjects.
The trade-off forms part of the federal government's proposed Jobs Ready Graduates reforms, which are designed to encourage students to study in fields that are more likely to result in direct employment outcomes.
A senate inquiry narrowly recommended last Friday that the reforms be passed.
The fate of the reforms, which are likely to be voted on next month, is likely to hinge on the support of Senator Jacqui Lambie or Centre Alliance's Stirling Griff.
The Newcastle Herald reported in July that an analysis of Department of Education data by Greens senator Dr Mehreen Faruqi found that if University of Newcastle humanities, social sciences and communications students who enrolled in 2018 were subject to the proposed course restructure model they would collectively pay an estimated $62.1 million more for their degrees.
Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon said any move to ease the financial burden on STEMM studies was welcome, but shifting the cost burden to humanities students was "short-sighted and ill-considered."
"We know that students achieve the most when they follow their hearts and minds into careers that interest them. This attempt at social engineering could see students making choices based purely on what they can afford.
"Frankly, if the government was serious about STEMM, they wouldn't be slashing the funding universities receive to deliver STEMM courses.
"If the government really wants to support students into STEMM jobs, it should provide funding for Newcastle's STEMM Regional Transformation Hub."
It is estimated that 75 per cent of the fastest growing employment fields require STEMM skills.
"Industry is saying to me that they need young people who have these STEMM-based skills. If we want young people to be able to fully engage in the future economy we need more young people who have the base skill sets ," Hunter-based STEMM industry Schools partnership program leader Dr Scott Sleap said.
"At the moment we are actually importing people with those skill sets into our country rather than using our sovereign workforce to develop it."
The Regional Universities Network has urged the Senate to pass the government's Job-ready Graduates legislation in order to give certainty to the sector and funding for new places in 2021.
Network chairwoman Professor Helen Bartlett, said the Job-ready Graduates legislation would also implement recommendations from the National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy would address educational equity in regional Australia for the national good.
"In response to issues raised by Regional Universities Network, the government has made significant changes to Job-ready Graduates which will improve the outcomes for regional students, universities and their communities," she said.
These include: lowering the student contribution for social work, mental health/behavioural science and psychology when studied as professional pathways; new arrangements for the Tertiary Access Payment to encourage regional students to study at regional universities; and providing a minimum basic grant amount for universities.
"Further, we suggest that growth in places for universities and indexation be included in a legislative instrument," Professor Bartlett said.