Minister Tehan’s targeted university funding proposal is part of an ongoing government plan to destroy the ‘hotbeds of left-wing ideological fervour’ seen as centred in arts and social science faculties.
The ‘arts’ have become the victim of an economic rationalist approach which has permeated our social institutions and results from the persistent denigration of ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ in an ongoing culture war. University funding is to be engineered on the basis of assertions that Arts courses are an indulgence in this time of economic crisis. Students we are told need to focus on STEM skills – the basics of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – for the sake of our economic future.
The government’s path towards a utilitarian approach to higher education has been inexorable. If arts and humanities courses do not lead directly to a job, they say they have no market value, and amount to a waste of time and public money. So those wishing to pursue them can pay through the nose.
University funding has been headed in this direction since ‘performance-based-funding’ for the Commonwealth Grants Scheme was introduced as the model from 2020.
The Universities must bear some of the blame for this outcome as humanities and social sciences have lost their cache as providers of wisdom and essential knowledge about life. Where once an ‘educated’ person was one who knew something about human history, philosophy and the diverse cultural underpinnings of societies, such experts have come to be seen as dilettantes in need of a more practical focus. The inexorable advance of science and technology as the source of valuable ‘knowledge’ and essential skills in advanced economies has left them in a backwater, with advocates of STEM skills winning the battle for attention and funds.
The decline in students undertaking a Bachelor of Arts Degree is a world-wide phenomenon which has been clear for more than a decade. It is a response to the push towards mass enrolments and the demand for ‘qualifications’ beyond initial schooling as industry and business moved into ‘advanced’ manufacturing and services.
University is no longer seen as a time for ‘brain growth’. Such a concept is from another age. Government is now insisting Universities will be funded for successfully producing job-ready graduates.
Unsurprisingly, when there are few job opportunities attached to such studies, there has been a developing stigma associated with the study of humanities and social sciences And when a student will be carrying debt for the high fees paid for their qualification, they want a well-paid job at the end of their studies, as do their parents who don’t want to be paying their offspring’s debt into their future.
It will be a massive challenge to restore the status of the Bachelor of Arts/Humanities given the economic pressures of our time. But it is imperative Universities do not concede this assault upon their mission.
Arts faculties should not give up on their basic aim of cultivating the mind. They are there to advance knowledge, accelerate solutions for humanity and educate students for a life of purpose. They need to capitalise on what ‘the market’ seems increasingly to be saying – that practical, technological skills are not the only requirement for success in the workforce or for innovative developments in the economy.
While the pressure is on Universities to turn out potential employees, well- qualified with advanced technical and intellectual skills, at the same time employers are saying they want employees with good communication, interpersonal and emotional skills as well as knowledge skills. They want scientists, mathematicians and engineers who can analyse issues critically, write clearly, speak publicly, contribute ideas with logical thinking and problem-solving capacities.
They want employees with the confidence to relate well in the workforce, with emotional intelligence and creativity, capable of thinking strategically about how to get difficult workmates to cooperate as well as solve the work problem. STEM subjects don’t teach those skills.
Arts degrees teach the disciplines of analysing literature and reports, synthesising ideas, and material from different sources, distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, analysing problems, and solutions critically, writing clearly and persuasively, developing an argument, and critically evaluating alternative solutions. The study of history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and literature offers opportunities to develop these essential capacities. Social Science degrees help students understand the complexities of modern societies, how small groups, institutions, social norms and laws operate, both formally and informally; they put individual choices into their social context and help us understand the forces for and obstacles to social change. Psychology exposes students to how the mind works, the processes of social interaction, small group dynamics and the role of emotions in decision-making.
Many science and engineering medical students are finding they score their first job, but arrive unable to adapt to the demands of a workplace culture, finding interpersonal relationships challenging, insecure about the knowledge and capacity they can contribute and unsure how and when to express themselves.
Universities must highlight their advantages and bridge the dichotomy between the utilitarian model being imposed on them and their intrinsic contribution to the good of society, the future of work and the future of culture. A stand must be taken.
There is a parable about two young fish swimming and flipping about having fun when an old fish swims by and says to them, ‘Isn’t the water wonderful?’ When the old fish has passed, one young fish turns to the other and asks, ‘What’s water?’ That is what the Humanities and Social Sciences should be teaching.
So many of us remain profoundly ignorant of the world we live in, its political system, its environment, how we got to where we are, how we may fit into our social structure, how best to make our way, how to bring about change, how to care for others. It is one thing to learn to do calculus, how to program a computer, design a bridge that won’t fall down; it’s quite another thing to be able to think clearly and to make choices about what to think about.
The goal of Arts and Humanities degrees should be to help us understand our past and to incorporate the experiences of our ancestors to enlighten us. Such understanding at a personal level makes us stronger, better able to articulate ourselves, use language effectively, develop and lay out strategies, persuade and defend ourselves, and able to rise above the tragedies of life more effectively. It should make us more effective as people, as family members, as employees and as contributors to the community in which we live.
This has traditionally been the role of our Universities. They are not simply vocational institutions. Both government and the tertiary sector seem to have lost sight of this overall purpose. Minister Tehan’s way is not a path to either enlightenment or economic growth.