Arts put-down is narrow, self-defeating

Dan Tehan’s disturbingly limited attitude to arts education

Yesterday’s passage of the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill has formalised the Morrison government’s stated position that universities exist to turn out “job-ready graduates”.

When education minister Dan Tehan began promoting the legislation last June, he said it aimed to raise graduate numbers in areas of high employment demand while strengthening universities’ relationships with business “to drive workforce participation and productivity”.

He sought a partnership between universities, government and business in the recovery from the pandemic. The new funding arrangements, he said, would “incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices, that lead to more job-ready graduates, by reducing the student contribution in areas of expected employment growth and demand”.

So from next year, students in agriculture, mathematics, nursing, clinical psychology and languages will pay around half the fees they pay now. Science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT, and engineering students will have a fifth of their present fees discounted. Law and commerce students will pay 28 per cent more.

But the real hammer blow is to students of the humanities or “liberal arts” – fields like philosophy, archaeology, history, social and cultural studies, anthropology, politics, diplomacy, literature and creative writing. The costs of study in these areas, for both arts students and those whose principal degree is in another faculty, will more than double.

In their early years and for centuries afterwards, universities meant nothing more nor less than the study of “the Arts”, in which mathematics and all the sciences sat alongside historical and classical studies. Students were exposed to the full spectrum of knowledge. Without that broad sweep of learning they had no claim to being educated.

By the time I became a student in the 1960s it was common practice to offer degrees in science, law, economics, medicine, engineering and so on, distinct from an arts degree which contained all the general areas of learning not covered by those other faculties.

But the basic idea endured – and has persisted right up to the present – that universities are more than vocational training centres; they are places of advanced learning, offering something intangible but nonetheless vitally important to their communities.

As a university student I learned something I’ve carried with me ever since, that real education doesn’t crave financial reward. Among a university’s scholars and teachers – some well paid, most not – you’ll find all the usual faults and foibles of any community. But what gets them and their students up every day is the huge buzz to be got from good ideas and the thinking that led to them.

The qualifications that Dan Tehan wants to support are a permanent part of the university landscape – prescribed conditions of entry to many occupations. But a good arts education is a degree not just for a job, but for living. It offers a lifelong love of ideas and learning, along with broader skills in research, critical analysis and communication.

Former University of Tasmania history professor Michael Bennett disputes that those criteria aren’t “job-ready”. He cites his institution’s finding that overall, a Bachelor of Arts degree gets a better job outcome than a Bachelor of Science. (It should be added that science employment is severely limited by Australia’s appalling dearth of R&D funding, both public and private.)

The Australian Academy of the Humanities would agree with Bennett. In a submission to Tehan in August it cited multiple government sources to show how arts studies benefit all employment along with the wider community. “The Job-ready Graduates Package risks jeopardising this human capability development when Australia needs it most,” the Academy said.

If a 113 per cent increase in fees isn’t enough to deter students from taking on an arts degree or individual arts subjects, it will have them in debt when they’ve finished to the tune of $43,500 – or $48,000 if they’ve completed an honours degree.

All that in a time of pandemic, when school leavers have had the year from hell. Those who might have thought that in these hard times they could study sociology to become a social worker, or Indigenous culture to work with Indigenous people, will have to think again. The low pay for this sort of work would not allow them to pay off their student debt.

In the 1970s, convinced that universities are a public good to be funded out of the public purse, we made higher education free. The 1989 Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was the first nail in free education’s coffin; the Morrison government is now intent on cremating and burying it.

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On trial: Australia’s dismal climate record

The pandemic lays bare a truth leaders consistently ignore: in the end, nature reigns supreme.

It ought to be worth noting that last month was Earth’s hottest September over the 140-year global temperature record, or that this year is in record territory even without an El Nino, or that warming over the past 12 months was just 0.2C below the internationally agreed “safe” limit.

But that was in a week of unheard-of budget deficit numbers, when Europe succumbed to a second COVID-19 wave, when the White House became a pandemic hotspot and the FBI foiled a plot to kidnap a governor and stir up civil war. How can climate data compete with that?

The sad fact is that new temperature records have next to no impact in a world that has become hardened against climate shocks, a situation encouraged by an unholy coalition of political and corporate interests which over many decades have worked hard to obscure the true story.

As a nation, we ought to be up in arms about the Morrison government’s plans to ramp up methane extraction, based on the false claim that generating power by burning natural gas is somehow clean energy. But we’re not. It seems that in a pandemic you don’t question and don’t argue.

The pandemic is bad and generally getting worse getting worse as countries battle with competing health and economic demands. But at least, on the whole, governments recognise that COVID-19 constitutes an emergency and that urgent measures are needed to counter it.

What they don’t see is that the pandemic emergency sits within a bigger emergency. For all its devastation – and we should never downplay its impact on lives and livelihoods – in the long run we know it will end. That cannot be said about the all-enveloping catastrophe of climate change.

Climate change is an emergency for one reason only: with very few exceptions governments around the world, our own included, have ignored the clear imperative to stop the burning of fossil fuels, the principal cause of rising carbon dioxide levels in our air.

This failure, compounded over 30 years, has brought general warming, more heat waves, accelerated polar ice melting and sea level rise, more extreme storm and fire events, and a global ocean growing warmer, more acidic, less amenable to thriving marine ecosystems. It means a climate that is less stable and a world less safe for our children and grandchildren.

Knowing this, and frustrated by the repeated refusal of governments to act, some people have moved outside normal processes like petition and peaceful protest. Extinction Rebellion, which seeks to get attention by illegal actions like obstructing traffic, is an extreme form of this.

I find such behaviour perfectly understandable. These are acts of despair, stemming from a belief that our governing systems have failed us. But in times when governance itself is under great stress, going outside the law cannot solve the crisis. We have to find ways to make the system work better.

Litigation and divestment are two potent legal and financial levers that hold much promise. A case brought this year against the federal government promises to pull both of them.

Katta O’Donnell, a 23-year-old La Trobe University law student, grew up in Victoria’s central highlands. She experienced the impact of long-term drought on that landscape, and twice in 11 years saw it devastated by unstoppable wildfire. Last year, inspired by a lecture by Australian climate law specialist David Barnden, she decided it was time to act.

With Barnden’s help, O’Donnell filed a federal court claim alleging that the Australian government was breaching its legal duty and misleading sovereign bond investors by failing to disclose climate-driven financial risks, such as stranded fossil fuel assets and worsening environmental conditions.

In identifying a material risk to the market in government bonds everywhere, her action attracted attention globally, including in business circles in Europe and the United States alert to any sign of future financial loss.

In identifying a material risk to the market in government bonds everywhere, her action attracted attention globally, including in business circles in Europe and the United States alert to any sign of future financial loss.

Australia’s troubled environment, she told me last week, puts it on the front line of the climate crisis. Coral bleaching threatens Great Barrier Reef tourism, drought is lowering our capacity to grow food, and last summer’s bushfires will cost us upwards of $100 billion. Such tangible threats prompted Sweden to sell its Australian bonds last November.

The pandemic is telling us that fiscal and monetary controls, budgets and banks and all the rest of our economic constructs and artifices can’t hide the fact that it is nature, above all, that determines wealth, or its absence. We should all take that message to heart and welcome O’Donnell’s initiative as a long-overdue wakeup call.

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Government is flying blind on marine management

We are making key decisions about our use of our coastal waters without having the full picture.

Some of the strongest opposition to the culling of sharks around Australia’s coasts comes from those directly exposed to the terrifying trauma of a shark attack – the victims and their families.

Rodney Fox is a survivor of a South Australian shark attack who believes it’s unacceptable to shed more blood: “We have to learn to live with them.” The partner of a diver killed near Esperance (WA) early this year said the victim believed that better-protected fish stocks would lessen the risk to people in the water.

These are not isolated statements. Over the years they have come from people and their families on the receiving end of shark attacks. Their simple message is that killing sharks because they sometimes attack people is unjustified and pointless.

It’s a hopeful sign that old perceptions of the shark as a dangerous pest to be exterminated might one day die out. Science says clearly that as top predators sharks protect habitats by limiting numbers of prey species, and strengthen those species’ gene pools by eating weaker animals.

Most people think of the sea as just its surface, where the waves are. Those who know it better understand that it is a natural environment, many metres and even kilometres deep, to be protected and respected for what it is, not treated as a limitless resource for human benefit.

Two current publications – one by the Tasmanian government, the other by the Australia Institute – highlight the need for authorities to get really stuck into this issue, sooner rather than later.

Last month primary industries minister Guy Barnett released a recreational sea fishing strategy discussion paper, seeking public input to help him decide the “right balance” between recreational and commercial fishing in Tasmanian waters while ensuring fish stocks remain sustainable.

The discussion paper points to the importance of recreational fishing to the Tasmanian community and its need for support. This is certainly true to the extent that the current bias in favour of support for commercial activities over recreational fishing should be rectified.

The paper also suggests that sustainability of stocks, and regulation to prevent high-impact fishing methods, are important. Fishers should be involved in citizen science to help everyone better understand what’s at stake.

At the same time though, the paper states the case for “targeted promotion of Tasmania as a fishing tourism destination” and raises the prospect of changing group fishing rules, arguing that such changes could have “significant economic benefits”.

The contradictions inherent in the discussion paper, between looking for commercial opportunities in recreational fishing and sustaining fish stocks, are a classic illustration of why an integrated management regime for the coastal marine environment is so badly needed. You cannot justify increased fishing activity if you don’t know what’s happening to species and ecosystems.

As it happens, the Australia Institute paper proposes just that – an integrated, ecosystem-based management regime that accommodates current and future uses of the entire marine estate for all uses, users and values.

The report, written by marine biologist Eloise Carr and the Australia Institute’s Leanne Minshull, pointed to a complete absence of any integrated analysis of the state of the marine environment. That criticism can be extended to the whole of Tasmania, which hasn’t seen a State of Environment report since 2009. It’s supposed to happen every five years.

All of which underlines a deep and abiding failure in governments and the major parties to attend to the health of natural Tasmania, on which all our prosperity depends. But if natural resources on land are neglected, how much worse could things be for resources hidden beneath the waves? Especially considering the impact of a persistent severe heatwave in waters off eastern Tasmania.

It is often alleged that too much of Tasmania is tied up in protected areas. But the Australia Institute report points out that under 4 per cent of Tasmania’s marine environment is protected even partially, about half the Australian average and well below the global average of 5.3 per cent. The situation cries out for a full reappraisal of the values we assign to our marine environment.

A sector-by-sector approach that puts marine farming, commercial fishing, recreational fishing and other recreational uses in separate baskets is a recipe for disaster. We need to consider all those elements together, against the background of improving the overall health of our marine habitats.

We cannot effectively manage resources we don’t know. The first step has to be resuming five-year comprehensive state-of-the-environment reports, covering both land and sea, which effectively determine decisions about future use. Without that, we’re flying blind.

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