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Government shows a lack of humanities in post-COVID universities plan

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A federal government proposal to dramatically hike fees for humanities courses to drive demand for more ‘job ready’ degrees will make our institutions less accessible, and diverse, when we need it the most.

At the beginning of lockdown, glass-half-full types hoped the COVID-19 pandemic might offer an opportunity for Australia to take stock of our institutions and workplaces. More of us spent time away from our desks and physical workplaces, and reflected on alternatives to the earlier status quo. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the global Black Lives Matter movement bring forth nuanced, transformative conversations about racism and structural inequality at every level of society.

In light of all that, perhaps a post-COVID Australia would see real and impactful change, from genuine employment flexibility for caregivers to expediting leadership pathways for people of colour.

Unfortunately, Education Minister Dan Tehan’s announcement today overhauling university fees for domestic students suggests that our post pandemic recovery is more likely to err on the side of ideology-driven austerity that further entrenches that status quo.

The proposed changes aim to incentivise study in areas with expected increased employment demand. To do so, fees for “job ready” degrees including Agriculture, Teaching, Psychology and STEM subjects are being reduced to make them more attractive. Likewise, fees for what Tehan calls “popular” courses will increase. Law and Commerce, for example, is set to increase by 28 per cent. But no sector is more impacted than Humanities of which the cost will, if the Government is successful, more than double with a 113 per cent increase.

Addressing the National Press Club, Tehan was quick to emphasise that, thanks to our HECS system, no domestic student pays a cent upfront. But that contradicts the core purpose of these changes: to send a conspicuous price signal that disincentivises studying humanities. And we know the impacts of price signals are unevenly distributed. Prospective students from poor backgrounds are far more likely to be attuned to, and dissuaded by, a more than doubled Uni bill than their more affluent neighbours.

“Historically, these courses and the institutions that house them have been shamefully mono-cultural and so have produced work with huge blind spots. The first few iterations of feminism near-wholly excluded the voices of black and working-class women.”

The Government claims that this is all about employment outcomes for humanities students, but the conversations and positions that shape our public policies are dominated by those graduates. Almost half of current Federal Cabinet Ministers have a humanities degree.

Regardless of what the government, or your uncle at Christmas lunch, has to say about it, humanities courses are incredibly valuable; they help us make sense of our social and internal worlds and, when effectively supported, produce critical thinkers armed with knowledge of the past, equipped to apply it to contemporary issues. Historically, these courses and the institutions that house them have been shamefully mono-cultural and so have produced work with huge blind spots. The first few iterations of feminism near-wholly excluded the voices of black and working-class women.  

Recent history shows us the new perspectives brought by first-in-family, poor and racially diverse graduates are vital to holistic theory. We are barely halfway through a year that has already inundated us with once in a lifetime events. Now more than ever we need to eliminate our real and rhetorical blind spots. During social and economic upheaval, we need thinkers from the groups most directly impacted. It would be a great shame if these price signals, read by their intended audience, inhibit that.

Minister Tehan’s education overhaul reveals an incredibly narrow understanding of both what it means to be job ready, and what kind of workforce we really need. This is not an all-or-nothing game; we can incentivise studying psychology and tech without literally doubling the cost of studying history.

A truly innovative, agile, and forward-thinking workforce is an interdisciplinary one – and for that we need the humanities.

Gemma Beale

Gemma Beale

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Gemma Beale is a PhD candidate at the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute, Flinders University exploring the relationship between precarious employment and industry closure.

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