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Respecting Arts and Humanities in universities



It is a strange time to have to defend universities. There has been a glut of professors and doctors from various disciplines on our television screens and among official government advisers during the twin heath and economic crises, as well as plaudits to Australian governments, relying on expertise to underpin policy. These academics and experts have received their higher education in traditional universities.

Main image: Exterior Parliament House Canberra (Alex Proimos/Flickr)

Yet this reliance on experts in practice has failed to translate into support for those institutions that have produced these well-qualified individuals. The universities, relying so much on temporary and casual employees and on students, both graduate and undergraduate, who support themselves by casual employment, have not been adequately recognised during the pandemic for their social contribution.

Universities were denied access to JobKeeper support for their staff, including many casuals who are part-time PhD students and whose future is now in jeopardy.

They were also excoriated for undue reliance on foreign students, without adequate recognition of the role that lack of government financial support played in the expansion of international student numbers.

Despite the central place of higher education in the domestic and export economies, the universities were neglected in the various programs put in place to stimulate the economy to snapback after the pandemic.

Then came the attempt by the federal government to deter students from studying Arts degrees (fees up 113 per cent), a misguided attempt which focused on the Humanities by increasing the cost of studying these popular courses.


'Specific government policies, such as the reshaping of student fees to disadvantage the Arts compared with other more supposedly vocationally-oriented courses, are ham-fisted and universities themselves don’t believe they will achieve the goals government policy-makers set out to achieve.'


This new direction came during a major speech by Dan Tehan, the federal Minister for Education. The speech itself contained many useful ideas, though it was bogged down in jargon about harnessing the higher education system, reshaping its architecture, and incentivizing students to provide more job-ready graduates.

Here I should declare my conflict of interest. I have spent my whole academic life teaching in Bachelor of Arts degrees in four Australian universities in three states and one territory. In the process I have enjoyed teaching many now high-profile individuals of all political persuasions in public service, the media, NGOs, and politics.

There are many jokes about Arts students, mostly misplaced. Arts graduates are highly employable and demonstrably successful in the private and public sectors. This conclusion is demonstrated in graduate careers surveys. Starting salaries are also relatively high compared to STEM graduates.

The case for Arts does not just rely on the case for a generalist education, but skills in thinking, writing, creating and speaking. It is also an incredibly varied degree, including social sciences as well as humanities. Many Arts disciplines, including political science and history, are a mix of the two.

Many Arts students are studying double degrees, including the very popular Arts-Law. The combination of International Relations and Languages, European or Asian, is also much in demand. Students come to Arts units from Economics, Environmental, Indigenous and Asian Studies, Social Work, Education and many other fields.

Government attitudes towards universities, the humanities and the arts, are often a strange mixture of ignorance, blindness and misplaced priorities. It is almost as if their graduates fail to match the image of what the government would prefer Australians to be. To say these attitudes are ideologically driven is a big call, but some critics see Arts courses as either inherently left-wing or trendy nonsense.

Such attitudes are ill-fitted to any society which values open-mindedness and critical thinking. Ironically, given international events, these are the very values that distinguish us from authoritarian societies.

Specific government policies, such as the reshaping of student fees to disadvantage the Arts compared with other more supposedly vocationally-oriented courses, are ham-fisted and universities themselves don’t believe they will achieve the goals government policy-makers set out to achieve. Students will follow their hearts and their interests and not be socially engineered.

Government ministers should remove their blinkers and educate themselves about what the Arts offer and what they contribute to Australian society instead of relying on prejudices.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He is a PC 2020 delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

Main image: Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas

Topic tags: John Warhurst, universities, arts, humanities, Dan Tehan



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Existing comments

Yes, I agree. The government seems to be displaying a profoundly naive understanding of Arts courses, and, if they continue with this agenda, may end up 'shooting themselves in the foot'! Their ignoramce of their own role in setting up this situation is also profound, and it is quite mind-boggling to witness as they display their narrow worldview for all to see.

Richard | 16 July 2020  

Thank you Professor Warhurst for your commentary on, defence of Humanities. Mr Tehan's attempt to influence the nature of university education by belittling the value of courses in Humanities should come as no surprise to those familiar with the record of Conservative governments. When Margaret Thatcher blundered into the funding of universities Oxford philosopher Simon Blackburn wrote in the Times Literary: 'The self-declared pragmatist or realist, the expert on management and efficiency, who flatters himself on being immune to anything airy or artsy - he is not free of the sway of ideas. He is merely in the grip of a particularly coarse and unexamined set of them.' No wonder Oxford, her alma mater, snubbed the Prime Minister by refusing her an honorary degree. It is to be regretted that many of our politicians have relegated Newman's Idea of a University to the pyre of economic irrelevancies. The skills inculcated by the broad study of Humanities are the fundamental skills demanded for efficient management of a complex, ever-evolving society.

John Nicholson | 16 July 2020  

Does not the widespread, rank-closing resistance to the Ramsay-sponsored course on Western Civilisation count as evidence of Gramscian hegemony in many Australian universities' Arts courses, as well as grounds for government concern of their value as promoters of "open-mindedness and critical thinking"? Happily, the ACU and several others, in adopting the course, have defied leftist determination to reduce the liberal arts into mere vehicles of neo-Marxist ideology.

John RD | 17 July 2020  

Without vibrant and open minded faculties embracing Humanities /Arts there is no university. The closed minds on both sides of politics in this country which have morphed universities into job training businesses and vice versa in pursuit of budget bottom lines have contributed to what is becoming the stupid country rather than the clever country they proclaim. Some of the courses offered these days are so poor that any average student could complete the undergrad course before morning tea and a post graduate doctorate during the lead up to the lunch break. By afternoon tea a professorship might be successfully accomplished. In pursuit of budgetary imperatives, proficiency in English in our English speaking institutions is no impediment provided the student keeps paying the fees. Noxious weeds, like Business and Marketing are choking once high quality, productive crops.

john frawley | 17 July 2020  

With student debt over $62 billion by 2018, it’s reasonable to ask if students are getting value for money. With a few exceptions—Campion College comes to mind—the Arts and Humanities have fallen under the spell of grievance warriors who have injected race, gender and sexual politics into every course. Tolerance and free speech have been replaced by conformity and censorship. An appeal to merit can be construed as a “white supremist dog-whistle.” (Donna Zuckerberg, PHD in Classics, Princeton University); “academic rigour” only enforces “white male heterosexual privilege” (Head of Engineering Education, Purdue University, Professor Donna Riley}; buildings can be racist (Unmaking Architecture: An anti-racist architecture manifesto); and “It’s time to let classical music die” because it is “inherently racist” and about “white supremacy” (Nebal Maysaud) China has 50 million classical piano students. One classical music critic applauded Chinese pianist Yuia Wang for playing “Beethoven’s most difficult piano work better than any Westerner has played it.” She has “penetrated to the inner sanctum of the Western soul, including its nasty side, and understood us better than we understand ourselves.” If China is securing the great accomplishments of the West, do we need as many Western Professors?

Ross Howard | 17 July 2020  

How quickly nature falls into revolt When gold becomes her object! For this the foolish over-careful fathers Have broke their sleep with thoughts, their brains with care, Their bones with industry. Shakespeare

ao | 18 July 2020  

I meant to say "lack of proficiency in English" in the comment above. Apologies!

john frawley | 20 July 2020  

I want to support the whole idea of the humanities and teaching the humanities as being something that even if it can't be quantitatively measured as other subjects - it's as fundamental to all education.

james | 20 July 2020  

Sarah Henderson, Liberal Senator for Victoria said yesterday on Q@A,"We done it before". And how about Tedros Adhanom's English proficiency? John Frawley, do not be deceived with the first appearance of things, for show is not substance and a lack of substance has nothing to do with ones proficiency of a language.

ao | 21 July 2020  

Companies such as ABC fail to hire young journalists. Surely the hosting of the new program on the ABC for children, with Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, could have been given to a young person who recently graduated from the faculty of science. Four words come to mind. Insular, kith and kin. It's not just about what is taught at uni. It's landing a job thereafter!

ao | 27 July 2020  

And yet, John RD, it has to be said that USYD and the ANU, neither of which betray any sign of the neo-Marxist bias that you implicitly accuse them of in rejecting the Ramsay bribe, are far higher regarded universities than Wollongong, which accepted it and the ACU, which wasn't even considered for it.

Michael FURTADO | 25 September 2020  

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