Gillard's education afterthought


Rodin 'The Thinker'When I picked up the newspaper on Sunday morning, my first question of the new Gillard ministry was: Who got education?

Call it self-interest if you will, but the rhetoric of the 'education revolution' would make one think that this Government, or at least its previous incarnation, placed a high value on education, although of course it had previously been lumped together with employment and workplace relations in a mega-portfolio which was meant to keep Julia Gillard busy and not plotting against the PM Kevin Rudd.

Some of us had hoped that education might now be split off into its own ministry, which it deserves. But search as I may I could not find the word education in any of the designated ministries. Schools, yes, but education, no.

Only yesterday, as an afterthought, were the words 'tertiary education' added to Minister Evans' responsiblities. But a clear statement of priorities had already been sent, revealing just where the Government believes universities belong: lumped together under the heading of 'skills'.

'The universities are not going to like this,' I said to my wife.

And so it came to pass that on ABC radio's AM program, Dr Glenn Withers, chief executive of Universities Australia, complained that both education and research had dropped from among the Gillard ministries. The tertiary sector, along with one of its chief raison d'êtres, research, had been rendered invisible.

Withers said: '[The minister] may be overlooking the range of occupations and products of universities that produce widespread benefits of a very generic kind like arts graduates, commerce graduates and so on who don't fit a narrow definition of skills.'

He went on to identify areas such as philosophy and theology as ones which would contribute to a broader education, but not fit into the area of employable skills.

Placing universities under the heading of 'skills' is an indication of the declining understanding of higher education within Australian society. As federal budgets became tight and governments wondered why they were putting so much money into higher education, the university sector pushed the idea that they played an important role in training people, skilling up doctors and engineers, nurses and teachers, all of whom would contribute to the work force and wellbeing of the society.

Governments took them at their word and government policy has been increasingly focused on universities as places where people should learn employable skills.

Now universities are beginning to see the hole they have dug for themselves and are seeking ways out. Melbourne University has developed an approach more along the US lines where students complete a generalist undergraduate degree to broaden their education, and then enrol in a professional graduate degree.

Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University, has suggested universities need to focus less on skills and more in imparting wisdom: 'We once were about character building but now we are about money' — though whose wisdom is not so clear: 'we want our graduates to be familiar with the many different paths to wisdom'.

Notre Dame Australia has, and Australian Catholic University is, developing, a core curriculum which reflects the Catholic values and tradition of those institutions. Will this be enough to counter the trend?

The collapse of education into 'skills training' parallels the rise of homo economicus, an economic vision of human life, where everything is directed to economic production and consumption. How often I used to shudder when then treasurer Peter Costello would refer to 'Australian consumers' when presumably he meant citizens. How small a vision of life, of its meaning and purpose, can we tolerate?

But if you have never been exposed to the work of Plato and Aristotle, of Augustine and Aquinas, or Schwartz's apparent favourite, the ancient Chinese scholar Gu Yanwu, perhaps you would not know any different. You might think life was all about getting a job, starting a family, buying a house and then a larger house, earning enough to retire early and then playing lots of golf.

But the real purpose of education is not to shape you into a viable economic unit, but to teach you to think, to open you up to the full range of human flourishing. And as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, one aspect of human flourishing is the exploration of the very notion of human flourishing itself. Asking the question, 'What constitutes human flourishing?' is itself essential to achieving it.

If this is the case then there may be more to Withers' mention of philosophy and theology than meets the eye. These are the major disciplines which take seriously the question of what constitutes human flourishing. As I argued in a previous piece in Eureka Street, these two disciplines once provided universities with their basic rationale as universities. They were the disciplines which sought to integrate all other studies within a single vision, the 'one word' of the uni-verse-ity.

Now Schwartz has argued, 'education should be a moral enterprise'. Perhaps the time is ripe to reinstate philosophy and theology to their proper place within university education.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, minister for education, tertiary, universities, glenn withers, melbourne university, notre d



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Existing comments

I absolutely agree with Neil's article. Without letting up on lobbying for a change in public policy, more universities may have to take the initiative and unilaterally re-organise and upgrade their humanities, science and research focus at the expense of some of their current vocationally-oriented public funding and private subsidies and sponsorships. Is that just a question of courage and resolve or would it need something else?
Stephen Kellett | 15 September 2010

Steven Schwartz can only be commended for his effort to broaden an understanding of the human condition.

Philosophy and theology are excellent vehicles for offering a wider understanding of human needs and responsibilities
The idea of flourishing has as its root a broader vision than homo economis............a vision which engenders reflection, compassion, understanding "the other", appreciation of art, music and literature and the freedom just "to be".
GAJ | 15 September 2010

We have had the education revolution, the education name removal in the portfolio, the educational name reinstatement at tertiary level so what's next in the education terminology parade?

Hope this government gets its act together and will be much better than its last term with all the money it squandered in the BER where money was diverted from the homeless programme in eg NSW to cover the loss (source ABC Four corners)

We so need stability in education not the merry go round so is it back to the education revolution or will it be something else now that Ms Gillard is no longer the part time education minister well if she put two men in to work at the job she did part time what does that say? Is the education portfolio so huge that you need two people to manage it if so Ms Gillard should never ever have been a part time education Minister well all involved in education and this nation deserve far better than that!
SCHOOL TEACHER | 15 September 2010

The importance of 'wisdom' as well as skills - as suggested by Neil Omerod - is indisputable. But criticism of the naming of Ministries seems to place too much emphasis on words rather than the total aims of the new government. And is there a touch of elitism in the emphasis on the connection of universities and wisdom? My own life experience suggests that possession of wisdom and good principles is fairly evenly distributed between people with and without letters after their names.
Bob Corcoran | 15 September 2010

Whilst I agree that minds need to be expanded beyond a need for economic survival, it is probably difficult for people in family life to concentrate on Aristotle and Plato when they are faced with the necessity to put bread on the table, pay the mortgage, and, in the case of Catholic parents, have enough left over to pay fees to send their kids to Catholic schools. In other words, it's OK for some, but trying to survive in this dog-eat-dog world is probably more important to the majority. Good luck to those who have the intelligence and time to pursue high pursuits.
pat | 15 September 2010

Thank you for your article, I agree whole-heartedly with your sentiments. We are all too often surrounded by people who choose schools and universities for their children based on their reputation for producing graduates who go on to wealth-gaining professions. Friends ask "why study Latin? or literature?" Of course I know why.
SMK | 15 September 2010

Thank you for your article, I agree whole-heartedly with your sentiments. We are all too often surrounded by people who choose schools and universities for their children based on their reputation for producing graduates who go on to wealth-gaining professions. Friends ask "why study Latin? or literature?" Of course I know why.
SMK | 15 September 2010

I have previously pointed out that Julia Gillard does not understand the word, "education". From a range of her comments and from her actions, it has been obvious for some time that she believes that training is education and that human beings are automatons whose only value is that they can "work hard", a phrase that she uses constantly. Thank you Neil Ormerod for pointing out the dangers of such thinking.
Sheelah Egan | 15 September 2010

In my education the three most important things were:
• Philosophy which taught me that just because you think something doesn’t mean it is true;
• French which taught me English (you have to learn a language as an adult before you can understand the language you learnt before you could think) and
• English because it taught me how to write imaginatively, and taught me how to speak because I acted in plays. Many people don’t know how to speak. They just a babble.

These subjects from the unreal world helped me in the real world. I think you need several worlds before you can have an interesting life. I see no need to try to rank these worlds in some quantitative Shanghai Jiao Tong way. To me all worlds are equi-valent. I currently work hard in the of the world of retirement. It is not the "real" world, but it is still real.

Giles Pickford | 15 September 2010

As a graduate in Mathematics, Geography and later on in another degree in History, I must disagree. The foundations of any university were originally theology and philosophy I agree.

Now they should be those studies which extend the ability to explore the world; not those who just want to make money!
much of exploration began in primary and secondary education, then the scholars, teachers continued this!

Now tertiary education strives for gain, not scholastic prestige! Roll on the "material" at the expense of the spiritual, the critical, the knowledgeable and the understanding of the world we exist in.
Jock, at 78 still trying to be a scholar .
John | 15 September 2010

The day that higher education became just another commodity some 25 years ago, our universities have been going "backwards" due to continual reduction in government funding and being forced to seek funds from private sources. One can understand why Australian universities see international students as a financial cash cow.These students assist in reducing the cash shortfalls in university budgets.

A university should be an institution where inquiry, criticism, exchange of ideas and discussion takes places which contributes to the advancement of human knowledge and progress of society. Otherwise if higher education is reduced to just getting a paper qualification for making money, then I believe it has failed to raise the moral and ethical standards of society.

Terry | 15 September 2010

Friends ask "why study Latin? or literature?" I say why not study Greek? Why ? The answer is simple Greek underpins western civilization and knowledge in all its manifestations. By learning both ancient and modern Greek, people will improve their English language skills.
Terry | 15 September 2010


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