Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities 2014 Conference

18 SEPTEMBER 2014 



I am grateful to the DASSH board for inviting me to speak to you at this time of crisis in higher education in Australia.

I wish to begin by declaring my belief that all who care about maintaining the quality of our universities, and who care about ensuring equitable access to them, should unite in opposing the higher-education changes announced in the Abbott Government’s budget.

I do not accept the narrative peddled in certain quarters that some combination of cuts to public funding, deregulation of fees and increasing the student contribution to the cost of degrees is both desirable and inevitable.

I do not accept that universities have no alternative to bargaining with the Government to soften the most inequitable aspects of Christopher Pyne’s grand plan.

I do not accept the fantasy that implementing the plan would usher in an era in which a few universities become antipodean rivals of Harvard and Oxford while the rest prosper by carving out specialist niches for themselves.

The reality is that that this plan rests on a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest vision that has nothing to offer beyond trashing the Australian expectation of a fair go.

The narrative of inevitability cannot conceal the fact that there are moral imperatives in higher-education policy.

It is morally wrong to vastly increase the cost of degrees and shift the burden of paying that cost on to students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is morally wrong to slug students so that universities will be able to sustain research funding.

Above all, it is morally wrong to let government off the hook – to allow it to evade the fundamental public responsibility to fund universities adequately.

The Pyne plan cannot be salvaged with tweaks and tugs.

It is not reasonable; it is not fair; it is not necessary; it is not smart. It is a lousy piece of public policy.

Those who suggest, as Mr Pyne has, that humanities disciplines would be winners because of the plan’s changes to cluster funding are ignoring the bigger picture.

Practitioners of humanities disciplines are as affected as any other academic from the cuts to research funding: $74.9 million from the Australian Research Council and $80 million from Cooperative Research Centres.

Moreover, humanities graduates, who generally earn less than graduates in medicine, law or engineering, will take much longer to pay off their HELP debts than they do now, with interest compounding at the 10-year bond rate.

It has been widely recognised that the impact of the HELP changes would be more severe for women graduates in all disciplines, because women are more likely to take time out from their professional careers to have children.

That negative consequence would be all the more evident in the humanities and social sciences, which have a higher proportion of women graduates.

Finally, there is an irony for humanities students in the average cut to course funding of 20 per cent.

For the most likely outcome of the cuts is that these students will end up paying higher fees to subsidise places for science, engineering and medical students.

If Mr Pyne hoped to drive a wedge between the humanities and the natural sciences – or between the humanities and the social sciences – he has handled that task as ineptly as he has the rest of his package.

Since the Pyne plan was unveiled in May, much of the focus has been on the harm to Australia’s knowledge base that would be caused by the effect of cutting the so-called STEM disciplines – courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But you know that it is not only those disciplines that would suffer, and it is not only those disciplines that are crucial to expanding the intellectual capital of the nation.

I have always argued – indeed, I have done so in previous speeches in this very forum – that the humanities and the social sciences matter for the same reason that every science matters.

I am speaking of science in the broadest understanding of the term.

I mean the quest to understand and change the world through disciplines governed by rigorous methodologies and tested by unsentimental peer review.

Some choose to study the physical world, of stars and stem cells. They have a vital role to play.

But not everything that matters to human beings can be counted, or assigned a value in dollars and cents. For thousands of years, this world has been shaped by people who have lived and dreamed and created.

People who have tried to build the good society: who have tried to find ways for us to live together that both improve our common lot and uphold the dignity of individuals.

We can’t explain our relationship to the natural world if we can’t also explain that story.

And if we do not keep trying to explain that story, we shall fail to find answers to the questions that confront us every day.

What are political stability, property rights, equality before the law, universal literacy, freedom of religion and cultural vibrancy worth to business, and even more importantly, to citizens in the wider society?

What are the benefits of well-functioning markets? What are their limits? How much do we gain from well-run schools and hospitals and prisons? And what is the cost when we get these things wrong?

These questions are the stuff of the humanities and social sciences, and our society relies on them to its core.

When we talk about valuing the impact of the humanities and social sciences, as you have been doing during this conference, it is clear that the practice of these disciplines affects every facet of our economy and society.

Labor has always understood this, and in government it has always guided our attitude to research funding.

We believe that for the humanities and the social sciences, as much as for the natural sciences, there is a compact between researchers and society.

You have a right to expect the best kit the nation can afford. You have a right to expect the time to think, to discover, and to write.

In exchange we expect your help in building a better world, but we do not prescribe how that is to be done. It is your peers who must assess your work.

Our political opponents do not accept that there is such a compact, or understand it only in the narrowest and most stunted terms.

When I was minister responsible for the ARC, I never vetoed a research grant. But I was committed to giving a full public explanation of my actions had it ever seemed necessary, and I put the Act a provision requiring the minister to do so.

Many of you will remember how Coalition politicians and their media cheer squad howled when I defended a seven-year, $24 million grant to the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of the Emotions, headquartered at the University of Western Australia.

On its establishment, the centre was led by Professor Philippa Maddern, whose passing earlier this year was a sad loss. She was not only a distinguished scholar in her own field, medieval history, but also an inspiring academic leader who helped bring about fruitful collaboration between other researchers in Australia and overseas.

The History of the Emotions Centre of Excellence uses historical knowledge from Europe – between 1100 and 1800 – to understand the history of emotional behaviours.

Andrew Robb, then the shadow finance minister, sneered at this, saying the money could have been better spent on projects supporting innovation and greater productivity.

He ignored the fact that the insights gained from the project are absolutely relevant to contemporary well-being and social and political decision-making.

The centre’s historical study of the reasons for suicide, and community reactions to it, is helping to fill gaps in modern-day psychiatric understanding.

With a little consideration of what these researchers actually do, Mr Robb could have understood that.

But he preferred to stick with the cheap sneer and the tabloid headlines it gained him.

And so it has most often been when Coalition politicians bother to take note of research in the humanities and social sciences.

Or they follow the lead of the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis. In a speech to the Council of the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2007, he chose to see academic research that did not accord with his own political preconceptions as a rejection of reality.

The prime minister we defeated, John Howard, took a similar view in his Australia Day address in 2006:

          “… too often, history, along with other subjects in the humanities, has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.”

When we were in office, we broke with that routine disdain for the humanities and social sciences, and with the tactic of insulting the practitioners of those disciplines for populist political gain.

We understood and embraced, as our opponents did not, the importance of symbolic and discursive political acts.

Our opponents only seem to grasp that on Anzac Day or Australia Day, but we recognised that for Australia to reach full maturity as an inclusive democracy it was necessary to engage in other forms of symbolic engagement with the nation’s past.

The great instance of the engagement was Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations.

When I was minister, I always kept the door open to scholars and researchers in the humanities and social sciences, and to the leaders of their faculties.

In government we opened up research programs such as the Cooperative Research Centres to humanities and social sciences researchers, so that they and their disciplines could compete on their merits.

They were no longer arbitrarily excluded.

We restored the public good outcome to the CRC program that the previous government had removed. Can you imagine, specifically excluding public benefit as a desired result from a publicly funded program?

Yet that is what the conservatives did, to prevent proposals that benefit everyone from diverting funds from capture by private interests.

And it is no coincidence that many of the projects that produce public good are grounded in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

There is nothing wrong with making a quid, or stimulating the economy. But there is nothing wrong with making the world a better place either, although our political opponents have a hard time with that concept.

We also opened up the International Science Linkage program, from which these researchers had also been excluded – to the bemusement of international partners in the program.

We allocated $1 million to academics in the humanities, creative arts and social sciences for international collaborations and exchanges.

Under our government, for the first time in the world, researchers in the humanities and creative arts became an inherent part of the research assessment design process.

We established subcommittees of scholars in these disciplines to advise the Excellence in Research for Australia indicators reference group.

Not an awkward add-on, with a bunch of different practices to be considered later, if at all. You were in the room from the start.

And we encouraged researchers in the humanities and social sciences to participate formally, through the Australian Council of Learned Academies, in advising the Chief Scientist.

I appointed Graeme Turner, a professor of cultural studies and past president of the Academy of the Humanities, to the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council.

It was only the second time in the history of the council that an academic from outside the natural sciences or engineering had been appointed to the council.

But it was an entirely appropriate appointment, because our national success as innovators depends on how effectively we use the whole stock of intellectual capital available to us.

That is what Andrew Robb missed in his populist rant against the grant to the Centre for the History of the Emotions. Innovation has a broader meaning than he seemed able to grasp.

But researchers in all disciplines have understood that broader meaning. It is only politicians with economic rationalist agendas who do not understand it, or perhaps deliberately ignore it.

There is a reason why the CSIRO, for example, hires social scientists and historians.

There is a reason why successful companies like Apple place those who understand people alongside the engineers and scientists, right from the start of the design process.

The comic-book image of research as a series of Eureka moments in which a lone researcher or scholar suddenly makes a great discovery could not be further from the truth.

Research is a collaborative process, and without support for research across the broad range of disciplines there will be few discoveries, and very little effective innovation.

That understanding shaped our higher-education policies in government, and it is that legacy I am upholding and defending when I oppose the Pyne changes in higher education.

Our legacy was built on the principles of public provision and equitable access, and it is these principles that the Pyne plan repudiates.

Most alarmingly of all, Mr Pyne’s arguments in support of his changes show no awareness that these principles are connected. He does not recognise that education is a public good.

He has often said that those who have not had the privilege of a university education should not have to subsidise those who do.

What’s wrong with that is not only that it ignores the fact that graduates typically earn more than non-graduates over the course of their working lives and so will pay more tax.

More fundamentally, it also ignores the fact that there is a direct connection between having a more productive economy and having an educated workforce.

And ensuring that we have an educated workforce is not only a matter of providing training in skills. It is also a matter of producing graduates who are capable of analysing problems and resolving them creatively.

In other words, the kind of graduates who have traditionally come from the humanities and social science disciplines.

Yes, an innovative economy will require more STEM graduates – but it will also require more graduates who know how to apply what STEM graduates have to offer.

Christopher Pyne doesn’t get that, but voters do. They grasp the connection between education and the economy.

They don’t feel the kind of resentment at funding students that Mr Pyne imagines they do, either.

People who didn’t go to university themselves still want their children or grandchildren to have that option.

That is why the public is deeply hostile to the shredding of equality of opportunity in the Pyne plan.

They know that it would price many aspiring students from low-income families out of the higher-education market.

For Labor, that prospect lies at the heart of our objection to Mr Pyne’s so-called reforms.

For us, it is a fundamental principle that access to higher education should depend only on individual ability and choice, not on wealth or family background.

That is what we are defending. Yet those who adhere to the narrative of the inevitability of deregulation also like to say that Labor’s contribution to the debate has only been negative or obstructionist.

That is disingenuous. It is the Government that is seeking to tear down what has been achieved in higher education – achieve over decades, often with broad bipartisan cooperation – and it is hardly a failure on our part if we refuse to help them do it.

On the contrary, it is the Government that should be pushed to provide a better explanation and justification of its aims than it has so far been able to present.

The Pyne plan, unlike the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s, was not preceded by extensive consultation with stakeholders.

There has been no green paper, no white paper, no exposure draft legislation.

And modelling of the consequences of deregulation has all been the work of bodies outside the Government – NATSEM, Universities Australia and the National Tertiary Education Union.

It is their work that has raised the spectre of the $100,000 degree, which Mr Pyne tries to dismiss as fear-mongering but which he has been unable to refute because he has no reliable modelling of his own to cite.

We are resolved not to let that spectre become a reality.

And to those who insist on claiming that we have withdrawn from the policy debate, I say: watch the forthcoming Senate committee inquiry into the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill.

We shall prosecute our case in that forum.

The philistines who rail against research into the history of the emotions or other projects that they purport not to understand will always be with us.

We will have to deal with them case by case.

But the Pyne plan must be decisively defeated now, for the sake of our universities and their students, for the sake of our children, and for the sake of Australia’s future.


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