Universities are for thinking – clearly, freely and hard

The educational challenge of our age is to develop our individual and collective ability to think.

What are universities for?

This is not an idle question, especially when you consider the cost of using them – high enough to put some students into penury for the rest of their working lives. That high price suggests our country puts a high value on what universities do.

In earlier times we took a different tack. Governments under Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke said that universities were indeed valuable – so valuable that the nation should spread the burden and ensure their services were available free of charge to users.

Then in 1989 fees were reintroduced – this time without the benefit of the old Commonwealth scholarship scheme, but with the “sweetener” that students could defer paying the debt (initially just $1800; now vastly more) until they earned enough to do so through the tax system.

Ever since that fateful year, with varying levels of success, governments have repeatedly tried the conjuring trick of appearing to be right behind universities while grabbing as much money as possible from students for the “privilege” of tertiary education.

Now we are seeing another bid to limit university funding, presented by education minister Dan Tehan and employment minister Michaelia Cash as a necessary remedy for economic woes.

“Job-ready graduates to power economic recovery” was the benign heading on the media release by Tehan and Cash 11 days ago, but it was enough to spark a furore. “They’re destroying our universities” was the response from GetUp.

GetUp is over-dramatic. The Morrison government’s determination to see students pay more for arts, law and economics study and less for science, maths and various vocational and technology degrees is just one more step in hundreds of changes to tertiary education funding over decades, and universities will survive.

But nor should we swallow the line that this will help universities to be more “job-ready” by churning out graduates who fit the careers that employers demand, or that universities’ main role is to prepare people for employment. If true, that would be a sad reflection on universities today.

A lifetime ago I was a part-time arts student, the field at the centre of this latest controversy. My degree may have helped land me a job, but far more important was what it did for how I think and see the world. I realised that whatever I knew, there was far more I didn’t know.

Most of all, it taught me that education is a process, not a product, and its greatest gift is not factual knowledge but the quest for knowledge. Not truth itself, but the search for it. Not answers, but questions.

In the face of incompetence and failure in these most troubling of times, people demand answers that they can easily comprehend, that will be simple and straightforward. But as with all profoundly difficult situations, there are no such answers.

Consider the history of this land, which has traditionally defined itself in terms dictated by early colonial overlords, that Australian history began with the first effective occupation by Europeans from the late 18th century. But that interpretation of our past is under challenge as never before.

Steadily growing evidence of a strong culture of indigenous land occupation and stewardship have seen growing numbers of academic historians open up the prospect of an integrated pre- and post-colonial history extending back tens of thousands of years. This nation needs to know this.

Consider climate scientists, who have always warned of the uncertainty around distant-future projections, such that some of them might happen much sooner. Now they’re happening around us. Or the medical scientists who have guided government policy during the COVID-19 pandemic. They know a lot, but their most important attribute is that they know they have much still to learn.

The rest of us must be like that. We must learn from climate change and pandemic disease that we don’t know the full consequences of what is happening, and that to counter it we need to be able to think clearly, freely and hard.

Speaking in tones of authority and assurance as if they know the future, leaders say certainty is important and desirable. But we are already learning that certainty of mind is a road to ruin. How many shocks will it take to make them understand that?

Universities can provide job skills and knowledge, but their real value to employers – to all of us – is turning out incisive, critical minds that can see possibilities and pitfalls that others miss. As we understood half a century ago but seem to have forgotten, the nation’s duty is to safeguard that by opening universities to all.

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