Denigrating a degree in humanities is nothing new. Ironically, it’s a bit of an art form in itself. Arts graduates are well used to defending their chosen field of study – something I found myself doing over and over again throughout my university years.
One of the many skills an arts degree gives you is the ability to construct an argument and articulate it in a clear and compelling way. Fortunately, this enabled me to dispatch every “But what will you be when you finish your degree?” to the boundary, one condescending engineering student at a time – in the same fashion Alyssa Healy sorts out a full toss.
Under the sandstone arches of the University of Adelaide I discovered my passion for politics, the classics and feminism. I left uni with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) – I also left with a strong sense of social justice and equality, an even stronger sense of myself and, importantly, a manageable HECS debt. (HECS was introduced halfway through my degree).
Although it may not have been precisely mapped out at the time – my degree was my springboard into becoming a journalist, author, documentary-maker and campaigner for gender equality.
If the ‘practical’ benefits of my degree only came under scrutiny from a few dry, smug engineers, or from a smattering of privileged, loafer-wearing medical students, it wouldn’t matter so much. But sadly, contempt for the arts and humanities runs deeper, much deeper, and it’s set to become enshrined in law.
The Federal Government’s Job-ready Graduates Bill passed the Senate (28 votes to 26) last week.
The House of Representatives will consider amendments made to the legislation when parliament sits again. Under the new funding arrangements, future university students in disciplines such as law and humanities will pay up to 113% more than current students. (The cost of a 3-year humanities degree will rise from about $20,000 to a whopping $43,500). This astronomical increase will fund fee cuts for other courses that fit the government’s idea of ‘job ready’, such as maths, science, engineering, information technology and nursing – and an overall cut in the government contribution from 58% to 52%.
The bill passed the Senate with support from One Nation and Centre Alliance. Labor, the Greens, and independent senators Rex Patrick and Jacqui Lambie opposed it.
Senator Lambie tweeted: “It’s a bill that creates no new uni places, makes them more expensive, gives 10% off coupons to rich kids and tells poor kids to go dream elsewhere”.
The package is grossly unfair and short-sighted and comes at a time when the rapidly-changing labour market needs more graduates with a broad range of transferable skills, not less.
Education must be viewed as a right, not a privilege, and it has to be accessible to all.
Applying a gender lens (the same one that apparently went missing during Federal Budget deliberations), these changes to university fees will disproportionately affect women. Engineering and information technology courses predominantly attract men, while women overwhelming make up society and culture subjects. (Perhaps some thought should also go into how we can bust a few stereotypes and get more girls interested in STEM subjects from a young age.)
The Job-ready Graduates Bill isn’t just an attack on the arts and humanities, it strikes at the heart of what it means to be human.
Critical thinking is a cornerstone of a civilised society. 5th century BC Greek philosophers knew it. Socrates said “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”.
Of course, studying philosophy, politics, history and classics provides the context to better understand society and the world. These types of subjects set young people up for a lifetime of asking questions, analysing facts, debating ideas, and showing empathy; contrary to some thinking, they prepare people for the real world.
These are the skills that underpin leadership, regardless of whether that leader is a member of parliament, a school principal or the CEO of a major corporation.
And the real tragedy (and hypocrisy) is politicians know this. Two-thirds of chief executives of ASX200 listed companies have degrees in humanities – and the most popular combination of qualifications across both major political parties in Australia is a double degree in Arts and Law. Nine Coalition ministers and 14 Labor shadow ministers hold a BA, and four of the past eight prime ministers have a humanities degree – Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Bob Hawke.
The Federal Government says its strategy is all about stimulating jobs and growth but leading education researchers and economists have challenged the thinking behind it. They say the key to filling shortages in nursing and teaching is improving wages and conditions, not reducing course fees. And rather than channel people into vocational courses, a better solution is to create more viable post-secondary options for students and let them make the choice that’s best for them.
The question I’m asking is, “What sort of country do we want to be?” A curious, creative, clever, and empathetic one, or one that allows one-eyed bureaucrats to ruthlessly steer us into places where ‘effectiveness’ can only be measured in terms of hard-data and productivity.
Surely there has to a balance of not undermining the vital importance of our engineers and scientists but of also not undermining the vital importance of what it means to be human.