Australian shake-up ‘greatest hit to humanities in a century’

Government’s proposals are contradictory and will torpedo its jobs agenda, humanities lobby warns

June 19, 2020
People are thrown upside down while riding the Wipeout at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast, Australia
Source: Getty
Upended: new plan will fundamentally shift rationale behind fee structure

The Australian government’s university fee and subsidy shake-up will undermine its employment agenda and represents “potentially the greatest hit to Australia’s humanities sector in a century”, according to the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Academy president Joy Damousi said the proposals would “disproportionally affect the humanities and call into question the very role of the 21st-century university”.

Professor Damousi said there was a “clear disconnect” in the government’s treatment of the humanities and its aim to revive post-pandemic employment. “Disincentivising studies in humanities courses will have the opposite effect,” she warned.

“Evidence shows that the skills and knowledge from humanities and social sciences training – including critical thinking, communication skills and understanding the impact of change on humanity – are highly valued by employers and in the workforce.”

Professor Damousi said that having announced new strategies to combat disinformation and to develop ethical artificial intelligence, the government now proposed to reduce incentives for people to study related areas such as media and applied ethics. She stressed the “bitter irony” that the proposals had been unveiled by an education minister, Dan Tehan, who is a humanities graduate.

Under the proposals, annual fees to study humanities, society and culture subjects will more than double, from A$6,804 (£3,752) to A$14,500. Meanwhile, government subsidies for humanities courses will plunge by 82 per cent, from A$6,226 to A$1,100.

Government support for society and culture courses will fall even more steeply, from A$11,015 to A$1,100.

Mr Tehan, who outlined the proposals at the National Press Club in Canberra, was asked whether he would have studied the arts under such circumstances. He responded that under his plans, fees would be levied on individual units rather than entire degree programmes, and arts students would be able to keep costs down by peppering their courses with more generously subsidised subjects such as English and other languages.

Mr Tehan said he had studied politics and international relations with a view to joining the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. “One of the things that nearly prevented [that] was the fact that I didn’t have a language.

“I regret that I didn’t do a language at university. It nearly cost me the opportunity of getting a job that I loved. I want to make sure that students, given the economic climate we’re about to face, are really thinking about the employment outcomes from their degrees.”

But Professor Damousi said the government’s “perverse incentives” favoured some forms of interdisciplinarity but not others. “[There is] an onus for students in philosophy and ethics to study computer science, but not the other way around,” she complained.

“There are some humanities disciplines that do well in the new funding structure – such as languages, librarianship and English – but the rationale behind philosophy and history taking such a hit is unclear and unfathomable.”

The Australian Academy of the Humanities cited census data suggesting that the education sector, which Mr Tehan had flagged as a key employment growth area, was the “single biggest destination” for humanities graduates as measured by the highest qualifications of people working in the sector.

It said government job projections suggested that other sectors likely to employ humanities graduates – such as public administration, scientific and technical services, healthcare, social assistance and arts and recreation services – were all expected to experience “substantial growth in the near future”.

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