Dan Tehan, BA (Hons): Biting the educational hand that fed him

Someone recently observed that Education Minister Dan Tehan is “as dumb as Peter Dutton”. Tehan’s latest foray into higher education policy certainly puts him in the same class as Dutton as a hoary wielder of a sledgehammer when it comes to making public policy.

Tehan has proposed doubling fees for humanities degrees and slashing fees for degrees that he believes will miraculously produce graduates who contribute to economic growth. He also thinks his initiative will reduce unemployment as the economy plunges into recession. He appears to think that a BA degree will render you all but unemployable (unless, it seems, you are an MP – there are loads of BA MPs in the federal parliament, including the Minister himself!).

It is difficult to decide whether Tehan’s policy (for want of a better word for it) is driven simply by naivety, or by calculated cynicism. It is certainly aligned with a narrow-confected prejudice that universities should be regarded as tools of micro-economic management under the firm direction of governments of the day.

There is a long and noble tradition of thought – ranging from Adam Smith through John Stuart Mill, to Michael Oakeshott, to the present day – that warns against what Adam Smith described as “extraneous persons” (“the governor of the province; or perhaps, […] some minister of state”) interfering in the life of universities. He wrote: An extraneous jurisdiction of this kind, […] is liable to be exercised both ignorantly and capriciously. In its nature it is arbitrary and discretionary, and the persons who exercise it, neither attending upon the lectures of the teacher themselves, nor understanding the sciences which it is his business to teach, are seldom capable of exercising it with judgement. From the insolence of office too they are frequently indifferent how they exercise it.

There are plenty of reasons why Tehan’s policy should be dismissed, not only as ignorant and capricious, but also as utterly counterproductive. Hopefully a wise Senate will refuse to allow it.

First, at a very practical level the evidence is clear cut: a degree in humanities/social sciences makes a graduate at least as employable as graduates in the areas being prioritised by the Minister. (They are also the most popular degree for students wanting to enrol in a university degree.) What on earth is blinding the Minister to this basic fact? If employability is the issue, it is at this point that the argument should be over, done and dusted.

Secondly, the kinds of critical and creative thinking nurtured in humanities/social sciences courses are (and always have been) fundamental to cultural advancement and social development, and to economic diversity and growth. They also promote clear thinking, coherent expression, and sound communications skills. All of these points have been made eloquently by Deans of Arts and Social Sciences over many years now – seemingly to no avail in the ill-informed ranks of the Coalition parties.

Thirdly, as the Chicago philosopher Professor Martha Nussbaum has explained, a sound grounding in the humanities is a necessary condition for sustaining democratic forms of governance and for cultivating mutual understandings among peoples from diverse cultural backgrounds, helping, as she puts it, “compassion and empathy [to] win the clash over fear and hate” (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, p. 43; see also her book, Cultivating Humanity). With the contemporary world in the grip of populist nationalisms and crude resorts to racism and gender prejudices as means of political propaganda, the need for an education in compassion and empathy could not be more relevant or important – especially for Australia as it seeks to defend its prosperity and security in a “rising Asia.”

However, there are also two salient political or pragmatic considerations that pertain to this debate that Tehan and his mates in the Coalition have seriously miscalculated.

The first refers to considerable agreement, right across the electorate, that public universities are a public good, that they serve ends which are respected and valued, even among citizens who do not (or have not) attended universities. They are among a range of public goods that neoliberals like Dan Tehan completely fail to understand, much less appreciate. In his book What Are Universities For? Cambridge University’s Professor Stefan Collini makes this point well: “I may choose not to have children, but I am happy to contribute to the cost of maternity hospitals, primary schools, and so on, because I want to live in a society that makes civilized provision for these things. […] There are a great number of forms of public provision of which I may not be a direct beneficiary but which I believe society should attempt to support, and I suspect that this conviction is shared very widely indeed, or would be were the case clearly made” (pp. 97-8).

It is time for universities to come out swinging to make precisely this case. It is likely to be heard by many voters, not a few of whom would normally align themselves with the Liberal Party and who will view Tehan’s policy as offensive towards values they cherish.

The second concern that should be troubling Tehan et al. is a generational one. The 2019 Australian Electoral Survey has shown that among young people most likely to be affected by Tehan’s fee hikes there is clear “evidence of a growing divide between the voting behavior of younger and older generation” in contemporary Australia. The Study reports that in 2019 only 15 per cent of voters aged 19 to 24 voted for the Liberal and National Party Coalition, and less than a third of voters aged 25 to 34 voted for the Coalition parties (see Sarah Cameron and Ian McAllister, The 2019 Australian Election: Results from the Australian Election Study, Canberra: ANU). This “growing divide” will surely be exacerbated by Tehan’s ham fisted policy.

It is possible that the Coalition parties are facing the prospect of rising generations of younger voters who will see policies like Tehan’s, or policies like climate change advocated by the Coalition, or policies like Dutton’s war against asylum seekers, not simply as unacceptable but deeply disgusting – disgusting enough to sweep the Coalition from power for a very long time.

Will Tehan’s “reform” be seen as a straw in the wind leading to such a shock for Australia’s latter-day neocons? It very likely will.

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Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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