June 22, 2020


Oh, the humanities

By Frank Bongiorno

Minister for Education Dan Tehan at the National Press Club on June 19, 2020. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP

Despite the ideological thrust of Dan Tehan’s funding proposals, universities might now have an incentive to boost humanities enrolments

When Education Minister Dan Tehan got up at the National Press Club last Friday to sell the government’s tertiary education package, he hastened to explain that his package “does not mean fee deregulation”.

He was certainly right about that. The party of the free market, free choice, user-pays and all the rest of the discredited slogans of the neoliberal era has reached right down into the universities to attach a bunch of fake prices to tertiary courses. And like so many other exercises in which the grubby paws of government are put to work to engineer social and economic outcomes, this one may well have the very opposite effect from its ostensible purpose.

The prices are fake in several senses. The decision to increase the price of most humanities subjects by 113% while reducing charges for science, engineering, maths, nursing, teaching and other priority areas bears no relationship to the relative cost of mounting such courses. Nor is there any relationship to the demand for humanities courses, relative to others – there is no scarcity here, except that posed more generally by the government’s caps on tertiary places. The price hike has no relation to the monetary value of such degrees, conceived in terms of future earnings (again, relative to other degrees). No one believes the lifetime earnings of the average humanities graduate will be greater than those of a medical graduate. It might also be added that humanities degrees are disproportionately studied by women, so the government is proposing to saddle them with larger student debts than, say, a male engineer who can look forward to a lifetime of stellar earnings as long as we keep building stuff. 

As was revealed in 2014, in the reception of the government’s proposals for $100,000 degrees, the concept of the fair go is not yet dead – and this is not a fair go. It is surely on this point that the policy will fail to pass the national sniff test. If the early statements from some members of the crucial Centre Alliance are any indication, these proposals may well have a rough time at the hands of the Senate crossbench. But we should not expect either vice-chancellors or the university peak organisations to offer any opposition. It should be recalled that they were overwhelmingly on board with the government in 2014 and, in the process, largely forfeited their capacity to speak for the sector.

Universities Australia has offered ringing endorsement, only adding toward the end of its press release: “We will need to examine it closely in coming days in order to understand the impact on our students including those in the humanities.” We await its analysis with great anticipation. But it is rather puzzling how the peak body can be so enthusiastic about the rest of the package while unable to offer even a preliminary opinion on the effect of more than doubling the price of a humanities degree. If arts students and academics are a little dubious about the level of support they are likely to receive from this quarter, they can surely be forgiven.

More predictably, opposition has come from the Australian Academy of Humanities and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. The Australian Historical Association, which represents the professional interests of the historical profession, has expressed “its dismay and fierce disapproval”. (It is relatively rare for historians, the mildest of scholars, to express “fierce disapproval”.) Twitter has been flooded with tweeters telling fellow-tweeters what an arts degree had done for their life.

It’s clear enough that the attempt to divide courses into those that are “job-relevant” and those pursued as a kind of hobby is as absurd as it is monstrous. It flies in the face of almost everything we know about the range of transferable skills that our rapidly changing economy requires. Sure enough, recent graduate destination data suggest that humanities graduates are being employed at roughly the same rate as science graduates – slightly better, in fact.

This is undoubtedly maddening to the culture warriors within the Coalition and the Murdoch press who see the humanities as a glorified exercise in the dissemination of cultural Marxism. And it is hard not to see a measure of ideological purpose in Tehan’s package; it is juicy, red meat to a Coalition base who love nothing better than the government telling humanities students that if they want to indulge in wankery, they can do it at their own expense. I heard the minister in an interview last week providing course advice to students of Ancient Greek who, he thought, really needed to do IT as well. It lies beyond this kind of invincible ignorance to understand that any student with the intellect and patience to master Ancient Greek is probably among the very first graduates likely to be snapped up by employers, even if they don’t go on to become prime minister of the United Kingdom. In any case, languages are to attract lower fees.

The overall financial drift of this package is hardly less worrying than its targeting of the humanities. While it has agreed to indexing of funding to the inflation rate, a welcome return, in the aggregate the government has transferred a larger percentage of the costs of education to students themselves. Government is now apparently bearing a little over half the cost, 52%, with the rest being paid by student fees – according to the differential rates of the government’s inequitable scheme.  

The universities, however, have clearly done their sums, and the results are somewhat surprising. Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University, an astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate, has reported that the ANU’s modelling suggests that the funding per student will decline in science, mathematics and engineering, while total funding in humanities, social sciences, law, business and economics will raise more revenue. The ANU is likely to receive a little more for its teaching overall than under the old arrangements. The calculations that have begun to emerge from Australia’s higher-education gurus confirm a hit to the sciences and a boost to the humanities. If universities charge the maximum that the government will let them, funding per student for those doing history will likely climb by $2570, while it will drop by $4758 for science students. Under the new arrangements, universities will presumably have an incentive to boost their humanities enrolments.

This is all very strange indeed, when the supposed purpose of the policy is to steer students away from the humanities degrees that won’t get them a job and instead towards areas of expected growth. But leaving aside for the moment student debt, and the unfairness of differential pricing arrangements that are now detached from future earning capability, the question of whether this will help or hinder the humanities remains open. I have an economist colleague at the ANU, Rabee Tourky, the Trevor Swan Distinguished Professor and Director of the Research School of Economics, who assures me that as the head of a history department, nirvana is now on my doorstep (not his words – but you get the drift). The reasoning behind his prediction is that demand for university courses is inelastic; that is, significant pricing changes have minimal effect in large part because income-contingent deferred fees mean that students follow their interests and aspirations, without much regard for rising prices that they will only have to pay some years down the track.

The decision to increase the price of humanities by such an astronomical sum will test their theories, but the economists may well be correct. Interestingly, right-wing critics of the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS) in the 1980s – Don Watts, the first vice-chancellor of Bond University, was an example – made the point that deferred fees failed to overcome the problem he associated with free education: people would not properly value something if it had no price attached to it. Deferred income-contingent payments, in those days (and until 1997) a flat rate across the different degrees, so blunted the operation of pricing that it failed to exploit the endless potential of the market.

It is these considerations that have led Andrew Norton, the higher education expert and ANU professor, to suggest that the government may well have grossly overestimated its capacity to shift student demand through pricing changes: “The central concern with the student contribution changes is that, to produce marginal changes in the pattern of student enrolments, many students would have windfall gains in lower fees for courses they were always going to do, while other students would spend many extra years repaying their HELP debt.”

As Norton also points out, the problems that the government is seeking to grapple with are real enough. In the first place, there is the present recession, combined with a growing number of school-leavers, which is a legacy of demographic change. That combination will greatly increase the demand for domestic university places in the next few years. Universities could not have accommodated the increase in demand without the expansion of places this package is intended to deliver. Many students may well still miss out.

But no one should underestimate the level of fear in the university sector at present, and the anger among staff at the government’s failure to do anything about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their finances, via the disruption to the international student market. Yes, the universities are to blame for leaving themselves exposed, but government funding policy sent them down this road. It is notorious that international student fees are used to cross-subsidise other operations. I once heard former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis call it – accurately enough – “the reverse Colombo Plan”: a scheme by which fee-paying international students provided “aid” to their Australian counterparts.   

The idea that the sector will now be able to suddenly, without massive disruption, refocus on domestic students is as absurd as telling tourism operators to forget about overseas visitors, and hardly less so than advising producers of iron ore about the wonderful possibilities of the Australian market. Of course, there are hopes for a prompt return of international students, but adjustments will be needed that greatly reduce the level of exposure of the sector to the risks that will be incurred. When I was working in Britain, the Australian university sector had a reputation for being a bit like the Wild West in its approach to things entrepreneurial. The story of the university vice-chancellor who opened a newspaper to find out that his university had a new overseas campus is surely an urban myth.

The most alarming aspect of this package might be the reduction of the government contribution to tertiary education. In the case of the humanities and law, it has almost entirely vacated the field. Tehan’s explanation that such students would still be paying less than their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom should be quickly recognised for the special pleading it is. The import of the new pricing policy is very simple; humanities graduates will be paying the fees no longer being paid by medical graduates, and they will be compensating, however incompletely, for the international-student fees no longer filling university coffers. We will not hear Tehan defending his package in these terms in the coming weeks.

Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we’ve just witnessed yet another misstep from a generation of politicians whose distinguishing characteristic – apart from the good fortune to be able to live comfortably off the intelligence, creativity and innovation of past governments – has been repeated policy failure.

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno is Professor and Head of the School of History at the Australian National University.

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