An illiberal assault on the humanities

Australia’s federal education minister, Dan Tehan, responsible primarily for higher education policy and funding, announced today that the government would move to more than double the cost of ‘Humanities’ degrees, increasing fees by 113% to over $14,000 per year.

If anyone needed any further evidence that today’s Liberal Party is functionally devoid of humanity, then here you have it replete with flashing lights and loud noises.

To create barriers to an education in the liberal arts is by definition not a liberal approach to public policy. Rather, this announcement brings to mind the tripling of university tuition fees in England under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The proposal is also at odds with attempts by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, patronized by Liberal Party stalwarts such as John Howard and Tony Abbott, to establish degree programs promoting a Eurocentric liberal worldview.

Neither is it clearly defensible on neoliberal grounds, given the budgetary implications including slashing fees (actually increasing public subsidies) for other degree programs – even if it is ostensibly in the interests of producing more ‘job-ready’ graduates. Many of these courses are in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, which typically have much higher delivery costs than the humanities.

Confusingly, though, tuition for ‘English and languages’ will go down by 46%. As far as I was aware, English literature was the core of the humanities in the Anglophone world!

While the government expects that 60% of students will see a reduction or no change in their student contribution’, the overall package will increase the aggregate student contribution from 42% to 52% of total funding. The surplus by these changes would generate is earmarked to fund up to 100,000 additional university places by 2030 at zero net cost to the budget, with demand for these places supposedly driven by the economics of the CoViD-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdowns to curb the spread of the disease.

To help understand the objectives and implications of this new policy, I look at it from a number of perspectives which would inform this kind of policy change. First, from the budgetary angle does it make sense financially? Second, and arguably most important, is it good higher education policy? Third, I seek to place this policy announcement in the broader political-strategic context of Scott Morrison’s government.

Truth in budgeting?

If legislated, this proposal would dramatically increase the cost of tuition for humanities degrees, modestly increase for other (currently more expensive) degrees including law and commerce, and significantly reduce direct student costs for a range of other, so-called ‘job-ready’ degrees. Without the benefit of detailed modelling, we can still examine some key variables to identify the types of impacts this will have on the federal budget.

Millions of students have been supported with income contingent loans for tuition under Australia’s remarkably successful Higher Education Contribution Scheme, introduced in 1989, and its successor the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). The impact on the budget of these concessional loans is calculated in terms of public debt interest, which is the different between the cost of government borrowing and the interest rate paid on the loan, which in this case is pegged to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

This makes it an effective zero real interest loan for the student. For the public purse, the cost is the difference between the interest paid on treasury bonds and CPI, effectively a proxy for inflation. The cost of borrowing money has never been lower for most of us living in wealthy capitalist countries. Australian Treasury 10 year bonds are currently at 2.5%, while CPI was 2.2% for the year to March.

All else being equal, this policy would increase the amount of debt that each humanities student carried, but it would still be repaid at same rate. This means that even though a higher amount would be paid back, a proportionally higher amount of debt would also be left on the books.

But in reality, a number of things will happen across aggregate student choices in this situation. Firstly, we can expect some students to shift from paying up front fees (which no longer attract a ‘privilege’ discount anyway) to taking out HELP loans. On the other hand, some students will be deterred altogether from enrolling in super expensive humanities degrees. These two factors work in opposite directions in terms of financial impact, and it may be difficult to precisely model the behavioural effects of this policy.

Then we have the cost to the budget of cutting fees for a range of other courses, including many in STEM fields. These degrees often cost considerably more to deliver, often requiring laboratories or specialist equipment, compared to the ‘chalk and paper’ teaching methodology of the humanities. At any rate, humanities programs are being delivered in pandemic conditions without even the need for bricks and mortar in the brave new world of the ‘zöomiversity’.

Unedifying political economics

The economic impacts of this proposal seem to derive from the potential for increasing the number of ‘job-ready’ graduates and decreasing the number of humanities graduates. The first of these, for example resulting in more STEM graduates, seems generally to be good idea for national economic prosperity – though you wouldn’t know that from the record of Liberal-National Coalition governments since 2013 in cutting research and university funding and undermining public trust in scientific institutions.

Conversely, though, why would we need less humanities graduates? Are they not adequately contributing to Australian society and our economy?

Notwithstanding, the key implication that humanities graduates are not ‘job-ready’ is patently untrue. There are many jobs in our advanced industrial economy where a liberal arts degree provides the necessary basis for success, and many humanities graduates have made successful and even high-profile careers across private, public and not-for-profit sectors.

If the idea is to divert human capital from a tertiary studies in the humanities to STEM training, then whoever designed this policy was clearly not an arts graduate. There is good reason to believe this effect would be quite marginal at best. I strongly suspect those who are deterred by the higher costs are much more likely to gravitate toward law or even commerce rather than STEM. The arts/science student is a rare breed indeed.

Contesting the education market

The Liberal Party has long pushed contestability in the education system, seeking to marketise this core dimension of social cohesion and prosperity.

In the school system, successive federal Liberal government have ensured massively disproportionate subsidies for private schools over a long period of time (not only is this again not a ‘liberal’ policy, but these schools are hardly ‘independent’). We saw this political football enter the field again in the CoViD-19 response, where the federal government used it as a carrot to in an attempt to wedge the states on the early reopening of state schools during the pandemic.

At the post-secondary level, the massive debacle that was VET FEE-HELP got completely out of hand during the short tenure of Liberal Party prime minister Tony Abbott. Huge amounts of public monies were funnelled to unscrupulous and non-compliant operators doing untold damage to defrauded students. At the same time, Liberal Party governments at the state level were dismantling TAFE systems by a thousand budget cuts.

There is a trend of federal government education policy over the past several years that indicates it is actively seeking to change the fundamental nature of universities. A key strategy appears to be the breaking down of barriers between post-secondary ‘vocational education and training’ (VET) and the university sector.

While this is not a new process – VET institutions in Australia already offer a few degrees, and universities support some short course activity – it seems to have firmed up as core to the Liberal-National Coalition’s approach to higher education. Having already pried open and partially marketised the VET sector, removing the traditional boundaries between universities and technical training enables marketisation of the academy by stealth.

This was seen in the federal government push announced in April 2020 for universities to offer online short courses as part of the CoViD-19 response. This was clearly articulated as economic policy, and not education policy – both in terms of targeting ‘priority’ skills, and in being part of the governments solution for stabilising universities’ financial positions (the sector having suffered a massive shock from imprudent overexposure to the international student market, and China in particular).

When is education is no longer education?

This is where an important distinction between education and skills needs to be maintained. Fundamentally, the former is social policy while latter is effectively industry policy.

We can see here links to a broader range of very topical issues about employment and early childhood education. Being at the heart of (social) production and reproduction, these have become highly politicised regions of the policy map, and this situation has only been exacerbated by the pandemic situation.

In most cases, the humanities are irreducibly education rather than training. More than that, they are the core of our education systems at all levels. By engaging with the humanities, we learn about who we are as individuals, as a society, and as a species. It provides crucial cognitive and social tools for engaging with complex problems and develops strategic and critical thinking capabilities.

It is in fact the very foundation of the so-called ‘western civilisation’ many in the Liberal Party appear so proud of, allowing us, for example, a portal into the world of Greek epic poetry and to the beginnings of Judeo-Christian religions. The first universities in medieval Europe taught humanities, but now they are under unprecedented attack.

Anti-intellectualism is a hallmark of authoritarian, fascist and totalitarian regimes in all their guises. By smashing the mirror that the humanities hold up to society, they can distort the past and shape the present to further agendas of power and control.

In the Australian context, this policy plays like a trump card in the culture wars. Rather the leaving it to foot soldiers to fight it out in academia and the media, the Liberal Party is using its position in government to make a strategic strike on the home territory of its imagined opponents.

There is no doubt I am biased when it comes to this issue – it is a fundamental and spuriously justified attack on the foundations of my adult and professional life. But it is also bad policy that simply doesn’t add up.

Whether or not it will be become law will ultimately be up to the Australian Senate. But with the crossbench being relatively conservative, the hallowed ‘house of review’ may not be too much of an obstacle for this illiberal assault on the humanities.

Published by Kurt Vall

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Kurt studied linguistics, philosophy and Asian history at the Australian National University and is currently a graduate student in international relations at the University of Melbourne. He has over a decade's experience in public policy and administration in Australian federal and state government.

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