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Respecting Arts and Humanities in universities

  • 16 July 2020
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.

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