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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