Amidst the brouhaha over the federal government’s overhaul of university fees, one thing is clear: it means the end of the humanities in Australia. Education minister Dan Tehan has proposed a whopping 113 per cent fee increase for humanities and social sciences courses, putting them on a part with law and business in a new top tuition band. The cost of those law and business degrees will also rise by the somewhat less astronomical rate of 28 per cent. By contrast, nursing, teaching, languages (strangely, including English literature), and the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) will benefit from fee reductions ranging from 21 per cent to 62 per cent.
Debates over the relevance of the humanities are always thoroughly political. Opponents of the humanities denounce their uselessness and decry their radicalism, while humanities scholars themselves respond with outlandish claims that they teach the very skills employers want most. Both positions are valid, up to a point. Neither position fully acknowledges the historical role of the humanities in providing a humane foundation for further learning and future life.
In a true liberal arts approach to education, the humanities would be embedded in all degrees: if we believe that all educated citizens should have a basic grasp of history, ethics, culture, and the like, then all students should study the humanities, at least a little. Unfortunately, few academics actually embrace this model. Scientists don’t want to ‘waste’ their students’ time on peripheral subjects, while humanities scholars don’t want to be relegated to ‘service’ teaching for degrees that are perceived as being (and probably are) more useful for future employment.
That impasse is now a moot point. Aside from a few limited experiments (like those sponsored by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation), humanities education will disappear in Australia in the coming decade. Consumers respond to price signals, and the humanities can’t survive a doubling of fees. Unlike law and business, the humanities can’t compensate for lower demand by slightly loosening admissions standards in order to keep enrolments constant. They’re already scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) ranks.
For example, the minimum ATAR for humanities (arts and social sciences) students at the University of Sydney is 69, or roughly equal to the average ATAR for all secondary school graduates. At the University of Melbourne, it was 73, while at the Australian National University it was 74. Considering that fewer than half of all Australian secondary school graduates go to university, these figures suggest almost any university-bound student in Australia can get into a Group of Eight humanities program.
It is true that these minimum scores include students entering through a range of special programs and pathways, but even the median ATAR ranks (87 for Sydney, 91 for Melbourne, and 86 for ANU) are none too high for these supposedly elite universities. At non-elite universities, the medians are even lower. There is no downside flexibility. A doubling of fees will mean a catastrophic loss of students.
With students already complaining about the lack of electives on offer in humanities majors, there are also few opportunities for consolidation within traditional arts and social sciences disciplines. Instead of cutting back offerings within existing majors, universities will be forced to amalgamate humanities disciplines into broad new majors like ‘liberal arts’, ‘global studies’, and — dare it be suggested? — ‘Western civilisation’. Universities will dramatically scale back the number of distinct units of study they offer, rearrange them into boutique majors, and hope to attract a small number of high-ATAR, high-income students to them.
Much of the universities’ existing humanities teaching staff will disappear along with the classes they teach. Have no illusions: it’s going to be a bloodbath. Pre-existing pressures from chronically declining enrollments, exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, were already prompting universities to restructure the humanities, with concomitant job losses. The new fee structure will turn that retreat into a rout.
Some will celebrate the misfortunes of their ideological bugbears. Others will lament the passing of an era. Most of us who find ourselves in Minister Dan Tehan’s crosshairs will just shrug our shoulders and start looking for a job. The party was good while it lasted. But if the government makes good on its promises — and all indications are that, with minor tweaks, it will — then the party is over.
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Salvatore Babones is The Philistine.