Higher Education Bill: Disrupting human potential

The “Higher Education Bill” is one of those policies that strike their targets but carry behind a tail of undeclared impact. Here my aim is to define some of its hidden problems and to show why this law is ill-advised and dangerous.

Credit – Unsplash

On 19 October 2020, the Australian government effectively introduced a “Higher Education Act” that uses financial persuasion to veer students’ choices: Maths, Engineering, and Science instead of Arts and Humanities. If students don’t like the “hard” subjects too much, they can get credits on the side by mixing this and that, say, doing a few weeks of something here or something else there. As long as they get the skills employers want: this is a “Job-Ready” Act. This law will in fact suppress the “who” individual students are while pushing ahead the “what” they will have to do.

What is wrong with all this is the underlying idea of prescription for minds to be employed as utilitarian tools; the idea of robbing students of a university education that suits their character. The idea that individual talent can be dispensed with: no need for excellence, numbers will do. The idea that a utilitarian career contributes more than a creative one. The idea that society doesn’t need balance and diversity of disciplines.

Having researched the topic and written a book about the development of self in young people, I have taken home this fundamental point: At its core, the self is a physiological process that aims at managing coherence and equilibrium within the individual persona. In doing so, each brain forms a unique story, based on significant memories that are chemically consolidated and stored in it.

Importantly, the most significant memories turn out to be those formed in a particular decade of one’s life, from early teens, when they carry particularly emotional weight. These memories are more salient than at any other time of life, close as they are to the beginning of one’s own story. Learning is based on that sort of memory and depends very much on the intersection between our hard-wired inclinations and a propitious environment that suits them. Learning cannot be forced if it solicits indifference rather than positive emotions.

It is clear that an education chosen reluctantly will end up in contrast with the aim of the self, which seeks coherence with one’s underlying inclinations. A balanced sense of self emerges from knowing and feeling comfortable with the “who” one is and with the “what” one does. If the choice of tertiary education has been forced upon young people through financial incentives, the consequences of them feeling uncomfortable and somewhat inadequate may, unfortunately, end up in mental health statistics.

There is another important reason why the consequences of the new university law may be dire. Since it is clearly attuned to the current digital revolution, this law wants to prepare mathematicians, engineers, and scientists to fill the jobs of the future. That’s fine, as long as our governments make good choices for the future of our society.

Is it a society where mathematicians and engineers design systems through which too many people lose their jobs? Systems that are based on machines and equipment driven by arbitrary algorithms? Systems where human control is effectively – unnecessarily – lost? A society that pushes its people towards a schism between those who write digital code and those who write literature? That would not be a good future.

We know already that a university degree in philosophy shapes a mind that is perfectly able to design digital coding. That’s because logic is central to that study. What’s more, philosophy students learn ethics, so the algorithms they could design would be fairer than the ones a straight mathematician can write. If we are to be controlled by algorithms, let them be generated in collaboration with someone who has the capacity to introduce deeper human principles.

Over millions of years, biological evolution has brought about a human brain that is so complex centuries of scientific studies have not been able to uncover all its secrets. But our government – in uninformed awe of digital technology- wants to discourage philosophers from studying the human condition and stop artists from using that mysterious brain to depict the scenes of its imagination. And yet, philosophers and artists can see the human future better than the technologists can, because the latter devise only with the knowledge of a brain reduced to its simplest mechanistic functions. The power of digital technologies lies not in brilliance but in their capacity and speed for crunching numbers (and letters, and symbols) to deliver tools of convenience and fun. It is in their interest to leave behind the complexity of the human brain, so they set out to reduce it and then copy it. Does the government appreciate this?

Equally, does this government appreciate what university researchers are and do? In enacting this law, the politicians didn’t show any compelling interest to understand and support this crucial sector. And yet in university research, there is clearly something our government should care about. When the time arrives and the university researcher has attained enough traction to be sent overseas to present work done locally, significant interactions take place. International networks arise and will start collaborations, friendships, or simple but precious exchanges of views.

The networks serve a particular field, but often their effect is of a much wider import. Because, as the exchanges take place, our international interlocutors will measure the calibre of our research, the breadth of our education, our compatibility, or our complementarity with them. In doing this for many years, they have developed a respect for our country, where they might come to work or study, or simply visit.

Indeed, in these global scientific networks researchers will unknowingly assume the status of an alternative diplomatic Corp: they maintain regular contact even when certain official relationships are at a distinct low. This has happened during the current crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. Informally and outside political channels, Chinese and Australian researchers have continued their exchanges, have decided to work together, pooling their expertise, and coming up with extraordinary, fast results.

If our government had called on the Australians in this network, it would have received sound advice about the origin of the pandemic. This might in turn have tempered those official statements that are now hurting so much our agricultural sector.

At the moment, that international respect for Australian research is not matched by a widespread approval of this government’s policies, especially those regarding energy generation and climate change, but also the treatment of refugees. Australian university education is one bright star the government should be proud of. In World University Ranking 2020, Australian universities reported six of the first 100 places, on account of their strong education and excellent research.

It is regrettable that this government took the opportunity of the pandemic – which massively reduced university revenues and saw Vice-Chancellors on their knees – to force on them a law that will have negative effects: it will bring disruption to a university education that is meant to support human potential; it will also lead to a diminished impact of the international networks driven by university researchers. This law is ill-advised and dangerous.

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Alex (Alessandra) Pucci obtained degrees in science from Pisa and Florence universities, a PhD. (medical research) from The University of Sydney; Biotechnology pioneer and entrepreneur; Business Woman of the Year 1986; AO for services to Science and Industry; Centenary Medal; Member of Science and Technology Councils, including the one attached to the PM&C; Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering; Author of "The Scientist: A short Essay and Two Stories (2012) and "DEVOLUTION: The Young Self in the Face of Technology" (2018).

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