Although the government likes to talk about investing in higher education for the post-pandemic recovery, it is doing the opposite. Labor and the Coalition used to argue about the scale of Commonwealth funding for universities while accepting a Faustian pact – that the surplus revenue from international student fees could be used to subsidise research.

But the loss of those fees during the pandemic has accelerated the affect of the government’s legislative changes, forcing universities to make drastic cuts.

Although the government likes to talk about investing in higher education for Australia’s post-pandemic recovery, it is doing the opposite.

Universities have no secure source of research funding, and some are being forced to consider abandoning courses any university would once have been expected to teach.

The consequences have been inevitable. In recent weeks, La Trobe University has announced a restructure with the loss of 200 jobs, and the University of Western Australia is poised to pare its social science offerings, including the abolition of anthropology and sociology.

The University of Tasmania had already announced plans to drop more than three-quarters of its degree courses.

The oldest and most established universities, which are asset-rich, will no doubt survive. But some smaller institutions have less certain futures.

While all this mayhem has been happening, the government has been silent. It appears to be proud of the havoc it has wrought under the name of ‘‘reform’’.

It did nothing to restore university revenues lost during the pandemic.

On the contrary, it refused to extend the JobKeeper income-support scheme to higher education, resulting in the loss of more than 17,000 jobs from the sector in 2020.

Then the so-called Job-Ready Graduates amendments to the Higher Education Support Act ushered in the biggest funding cuts in more than a generation.

Total support for domestic student places under the Commonwealth Grants Scheme was cut, and the scheme no longer cross-subsidises research. Despite the scale of the problem, only a paltry, one-off allocation of $1 billion for research was offered in compensation.

The cuts to humanities funding were particularly savage, and the HECS debts of students in these courses have doubled.

The underlying assumptions of the Job-Ready Graduates changes are that, unlike graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, humanities and social science graduates are both less immediately employable and will contribute less to the economy.

Neither of those assumptions is true.

In a speech in 2016, the Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott argued that the analytical and research skills possessed by humanities graduates make them highly employable.

Those are the skills on which an innovative economy depends, just as much as it requires STEM skills. But innovation is another notion that features more prominently in the government’s rhetoric than in its policies. The government’s corporate supporters have not been reluctant to point out that its hostility to humanities disciplines is misguided.

Universities, however, increasingly appear to be taking their cue from the government when deciding how to make do with very much less.

At UWA, abolition of the anthropology major means both the disappearance of a discipline in which that university has long enjoyed a global reputation and a blow to its ability to produce graduates with skills suited to the needs of WA’s commodities-based economy.

Mining companies rely on the expert advice of anthropologists in native-title negotiations, as do the courts. Why the most established university in a mining state would dispense with that expertise is a mystery.

The truth is that it has never been difficult to demonstrate the utility of a humanities education, and only philistines have ever doubted it. But universities should not have to defend every course they offer in terms of economic utility alone.

There is a deeper utility in any study that increases out understanding of our own humanity, and that is the greatest contribution made by the humanities and social science courses that are becoming threatened species.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian Financial Review on Monday, 26 July 2021.

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  • Kim Carr
    published this page in Opinion Pieces 2022-02-09 08:22:04 +1100