Soft skills, soft target
Dan Tehan’s university reforms look short-sighted
The university reforms announced by Education Minister Dan Tehan confirm (if more confirmation was needed) that the Morrison government is using the pandemic to prosecute a culture war on its perceived enemy: small-L liberal elites. Aimed at creating an additional 39,000 places for domestic students over the next three years, the package announced today is budget-neutral, and in Tehan’s National Press Club speech he insisted that this was not a repeat of the Coalition’s earlier attempts at fee deregulation, and it was not about introducing $100,000 degrees. By proposing to double the cost of humanities and social science degrees while discounting degrees in teaching, nursing, agriculture, STEM subjects and IT, and by pushing for more short courses and micro-credentials through the $900 million National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, the federal government has picked a “soft target”, according to Monash University dean of arts Sharon Pickering, and is ignoring abundant evidence that the kind of soft skills taught in those degrees are highly desired by employers.
“If we are to go to the evidence regarding the utility of arts-based education in our universities, we see very high levels of employability with our graduates,” Pickering told the ABC this afternoon. “In fact, they are on par with those graduates coming from STEM. We also see very high levels of recognition that the capabilities and skills that students do receive in humanities and social science degrees are precisely the skills that employers are looking for into the future. So-called soft skills, but skills which are resistant to automation and skills which are resistant to economic downturn. We have seen this evidence time and time again … the government’s own ‘skills for the future’ paper detailed a range of skills which are all at the heart of humanities and social science degrees … We are the providers of these skills and of these graduates that are in high demand. It is most regrettable that they have sought to shift the burden of payment, a cost shift to students, precisely at the time our employers are demanding our graduates.”
Asked how the government planned to get the reforms through a potentially hostile Senate, Tehan cited the imperative of the COVID-19 recession. “I will consult with them, I will put the case,” he said, “and my hope is that they will understand that this is going to be really, really important for how we, as a nation, deal with the coronavirus pandemic and growing our economy out of that pandemic.” The minister will have to sharpen his lines, because at the moment his argument is relying on waffle about “aligning the cost of a degree with the contribution that both the student makes and the Commonwealth makes”. This doesn’t ring true, because you’d think humanities and social science degrees were relatively cheap to deliver. Asked where the $900 million for the new industry linkage fund was coming from, given the overall package was budget-neutral, and specifically whether it was coming out of university’s teaching and learning budgets, Tehan obfuscated by saying the government would “lock in CPI-indexed growth”, which sounds like there’s a magic pudding somewhere. Actually, there isn’t, as Monash University vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner tweeted. The policy effectively reduces the overall government contribution to degrees from 58% to 52%, with student contributions lifting from 42% to 48%.
Tehan, who got an arts degree (with honours) majoring in politics and international relations from the University of Melbourne, was put on the spot about a reform package that denigrates the value of a humanities degree. He defended the policy by saying he regretted that he hadn’t studied a foreign language, and his decision almost (but didn’t) cost him a job at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where he worked for six years as an adviser and diplomat. As journalist Julia Baird pointed out, the Morrison government is flush with arts graduates, including not just Tehan but also ministers Alan Tudge, Greg Hunt, Paul Fletcher, Marise Payne, Michaelia Cash and Christian Porter, and she threw in former prime ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcom Turnbull, as well as former Opposition leader Bill Shorten, for good measure.
The package does nothing to help a university sector that’s facing a $16 billion revenue shortfall. It is dumb policy, and it will no doubt prove to be dumb politics as well. Labor leader Anthony Albanese summed it up, tweeting: “I was the first person in my family to go to university. I know the impact that a good education can have on your life. This government gave us $100,000 degrees and cut $3 billion from TAFE. They want to deny the power of education to those who need it most.”
“Frankly, I’m not going to criticise him for the language. It was a private text message. If you can say hand-on-heart … that you haven’t used bad language in private, good luck to you but that’s not the reality for most adult Australians.”
“We acknowledge that any increase we award which is less than increases in prices and living costs would amount to a real wage cut … We have decided to award a substantially lower increase this year than that awarded last year due to the marked change in the economic environment and the tax-transfer system and other changes which have taken effect in the current Review period which have benefitted low-paid households. The increases we have awarded are likely to maintain the real value of the wages of [the National Minimum Wage] and award-reliant employees.”
“The twin anchors of Nirin, of course, are the physical beauty and the political imperatives of the art of Australia’s First Nations people, whether rural or urban. And what links their works to an international multiplicity of cultural expression across the biennale is a steely focus on history, a simmering rage and a palpable sense of solidarity between artists.”
“Earlier this year Professor Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, published an essay in which he warned that Australia’s public universities should heed the fate that befell the monasteries in England under Henry VIII. Like the ancient monasteries, he wrote, universities are places apart, places that can become preoccupied with their own concerns. It is easy for them to forget that tradition does not protect them from politics. They, too, are vulnerable to worldly power, and to survive they might need to find new ways of serving their communities.”
“If they had given me a choice in who I’d want to haunt for the rest of their mortal life, it would have been a toss-up between a celebrity – a real celebrity, although I don’t really mind which one, they all kind of homogenise after a point – and my spinster aunt. I can see myself floating around her sprawling Federation cottage, dressed in a romantic, billowing white dress, doing kind and lovely things like leaving flowers on the windowsill, or gently rustling the curtains as she drinks tea and thinks about her poor niece, dead at 32, such a shame, so young, so beautiful, what a tragedy.”
Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.
The university reforms announced by Education Minister Dan Tehan confirm (if more confirmation was needed) that the Morrison government is using the pandemic to prosecute a culture war on its perceived enemy: small-L liberal elites. Aimed at creating an additional 39,000 places for domestic students over the next three years, the package announced today is budget-neutral, and in Tehan’s National Press Club speech he insisted that this was not a repeat of the Coalition’s earlier attempts at fee deregulation, and it was not about introducing $100,000 degrees. By proposing to double the cost of humanities and social science degrees while discounting degrees in teaching, nursing, agriculture, STEM subjects and IT, and by pushing for more short courses and micro-credentials through the $900 million National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, the federal government has picked a “...
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