A visiting traveller from overseas meandering around the boondocks of Ireland once asked a local, “What is the best way to Dublin?” The local answered, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here…”
Much the same could be said of higher education in Australia, national policies relating thereto, and potential ways out of the pickle. Whatever needs to be done to put awful things right, you wouldn’t want to be here as your starting point.
Higher education is a classic case of – if only government and governments weren’t remotely involved. But, alas, with our hybrid system of government and market involvements with and in our universities, state intervention is inevitable, and so better, more enlightened government policy must be part of the solution.
The latest piece of government bastardry comes in the form of a decision to double the fees for an arts degree while simultaneously offering discounts to nursing (!) and IT students, among other disciplines deemed currently to be useful to the State or deemed by the State and its overreaching bureaucrats to be useful to the economy. One doesn’t know whether this decision is utilitarianism or philistinism, or both. The culprit is the Victorian Liberal politician Dan Tehan. I would normally here say “the overrated”, but I am not aware that anyone of consequence has ever rated him highly. I certainly do not. But, to be fair, he is by no means the first government minister to blunder into higher education policy, giving the impression of an Inspector Clouseau. Perhaps he is related to the mercifully now retiring Graham Ashton of VicPol.
Inevitably, there is a backstory.
It all started, alas, with Robert Menzies. Either our then much younger and far more respectable universities were not growing quickly enough for the then Government’s liking, or they decided , on utilitarian grounds, to grow our educational capacity with boosted funding, and, inevitably, more central government control. And so it began. Whitlam, wanting to dabble in university policy as in most things, made higher education free, begging for trouble but doing it all for noble reasons. As we know, policy made from good intentions generally leads to disaster.
For less noble reasons – getting the unemployment numbers down – Hawke Government Minister Susan Ryan, sadly placed for a time in charge of our universities, determined that a massive opening up of higher education places would be wise. At least Whitlam wanted to increase access to higher education for the working class, a perfectly reasonable objective even if the policy instrument chosen was the wrong one. Whitlam’s Labor successors merely wanted to open the floodgates for all comers, including, as it transpired, for absolute ninnies who have no place being seen anywhere near a university. Even a modern university.
Over time, the desire to let all comers in led to the magic figure of 40 per cent spouted ad nauseum by that later radical feminist education minister, Julia Gillard. That is, without any reference to reality, to the capacity of either the individual student or of the university to house him or her, or to anything else, the target for the proportion of the population getting a university degree suddenly was deemed to be little under half. It was a target literally pulled from the then minister’s fundament, or to be strictly accurate, from the fundament of Professor Denise Bradley, commissioned by Julia Gillard to review Australian higher education in 2010. One of the many tedious and useless reviews of Australian higher education.
The floodgates opened. Have a guess what happened to standards. Who’da thunk?
Suddenly every second Johnny and Julie, or Johnny who became Julie, was rocking up to a university, on the promise of getting a massively higher income for life simply because he or she was a “graduate”.
Then higher education became an “industry and “students” became “customers” under a corporatist model”. (Worse, higher education also became an export industry, with floods of overseas students here only to obtain permanent residence, where the favourite game at every campus soon became “spot the Australian”). And easily more than half of university employees were no longer academics but “admin” staff. Yes, more than half. And vice chancellors of truly gnomic ability were paid typically seven figure salaries, with bonuses.
No longer were universities a “community of scholars” seeking “the truth” of things. Oh, by then, we had dispensed with “truth” on campus as well.
In the meantime, we had doubled the number of universities (as the result of a decision by another of Hawke’s Ministers, John Dawkins, in the late 1980s) by turning every tin pot teachers’ college and tech college into a “university”. Have a guess what happened to standards.
There is insufficient space here to tell the whole story of the decline of the secular university. It is just too complicated. Those with access to Connor Court’s publications can find my own history of the decline in my paper “The Sad Universities We Have Become”, written when I was a working academic. I found at least twenty-five things gravely wrong with our universities, and I was scarcely getting warm in hitting twenty-five.
Or at academia.edu, a website that I thoroughly recommend:
Several years and many education ministers ago, two other cynical academic colleagues, Peter Murphy (then of James Cook University) and Greg Melleuish (of the University of Wollongong), and I visited the then shadow minister for higher education, Senator Brett Mason (LNP, Queensland), to discuss the wrongs and wrongs of Australian universities. We were very politely received, and our analyses of the problems and our arguments for solutions made clear headway with Mason. Tellingly, he asked why he didn’t normally get told these home truths. The bleeding obvious answer to the Senator’s question was, and remains – you only ever listen to vice chancellors. That is why you never hear about the real issues of our universities. And how crap they are. All the overpaid vice chancellors ever say is – give us more money. Funding funding funding.
As soon as Tehan announced his bizarre new policy, I immediately anticipated how some normally wise people, especially those loosely on the right of politics, might see it as a good thing. And sure enough …
But won’t doubling the fees for arts degrees help reduce the numbers of woke social justice warriors emerging from our bastardised, ideologically driven humanities departments, you ask? It may, but to claim that such a potential outcome of this policy justifies it is to completely misdiagnose the problem and mis-assign the solution. It is, alas, to make a category error about the purposes and the uses of a university education.
It is, indeed, BOTH philistine AND utilitarian. Politicians should not toy with something as critical as educating young minds. They do so at their peril.
Curtailing wokeness at the university level is both impossible (for governments) and too late (for students) anyway. If that is what the Tehan pitch is actually about. Universities are now corporations, so that wokeness is embedded, not merely in humanities departments but right across the institution. Once leftism was confined to the minds of particular academics, even many academics. Now it is policy. Reducing humanities graduates will not remotely reduce wokeness. Moreover, the place to address dumb wokeness is at school, not at university. By the time youngsters get near a university, it is too late.
As Charles Murray argued in his brilliant short book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality, (2008), where you inculcate the critical thinking skills and the content that needs to go with it is at school, NOT at university. Murray had many observations to make about education deficits in the USA, and four specific strategies for addressing the problems. But the point is that were school graduates to be better imbued the capacity to think, they might be better placed to challenge those who at university might try to tell them WHAT to think, when they get to university.
In any case, not all students of the humanities are exposed to neo-marxist claptrap, many study languages and other less ideologically driven subjects, and not all humanities faculties are as bad as the rest. There are things wrong with humanities departments other than ideological teaching – for example, the narrowing of expertise among academics which massively affects what is taught and teaching quality, and the sequestering of the best scholars away from teaching to focus on undertaking waste-of-space, taxpayer funded research. In any case, many students do indeed see through all the leftish bullshit they are taught and prosper both from having been exposed to it and from the non-ideological.
The bigger problem with ideological teaching in humanities departments is that universities are now filled with dumb students who shouldn’t even be there, and students who will do anything to pass, and in doing so get that elusive ticket to high incomes for life, or so they see it. The former class of students simply are not up to the critical thinking needed to push back against leftist teaching. The latter class of students don’t care. They are cynics who will argue the party line in order not to be marked down. The two categories of student may overlap.
Mark Lopez even wrote a book about this, The Little Black School Book. He advised students how to pass at school and university by pandering to their teachers’ ideological prejudices.
Lopez’s cynical book ironically brings home the argument made by Charles Murray. Reduce the impact of having left wing ideologues running humanities departments by equipping students to deal with it. No, it will not eliminate strategic studentship. But it will help reduce the number of non-thinking students going to university. (And it is a good idea anyway to have thinking school graduates. In an ideal world, far fewer youngsters would want to go to university anyway. They would emerge more fully formed intellectually from school, and would then seek either serious university study or, better still, vocational training that would actually equip them for life in the real world).
A much sadder outcome of the tilt of humanities towards ideologically driven subject matter and teaching methods is what is now missing from what used to be far broader humanities curricula taught by well rounded (even if leftist) scholars who knew the whole damned picture, and from whom much learning could be achieved. Old left academics like the Australian historian Manning Clark knew their stuff, and were great teachers. Just ask Geoffrey Blainey. Today’s humanities students miss out on much. This IS something to be addressed, and good policy well thought through could be employed to help.
If governments wanting to tinker with humanities departments’ problems, there are both other problems to confront and other, far better means of addressing them.
Yes, there is a case to be made for not making taxpayers fund the study of Foucault (a French postmodernist theorist) in case those who study him should start destroying statues. This is a great line from Adam Creighton, a cute line, but this time, for once, Adam ain’t on the money. This is simplistic thinking, ideologically satisfying perhaps for bomb throwing on right-of-centre social media, but nonetheless simplistic and totally missing the point.
And yes, I am normally the first to argue that most rightist types simply do not understand the culture war we are in, that the enemy means business and is well resourced and very, very focused on outcomes, and that the way to fight back is to fight. Isn’t that exactly what Tehan is up to? He may or may not understand the ins and outs of the culture war, and the ways his decision on fees might help in prosecuting this. Frankly, I doubt it. But no, turning universities even more totally into job-seeking study factories serving “society’s” goals is not the way to prosecute the culture war.
There is another question here, in relation to Tehan’s university play. It is this – why the hell should government ministers be deciding what subjects universities offer, who goes to university and what subjects they should be studying? The very last person you would want mucking around with university offerings is a politician.
A bigger problem with Tehan’s (and Creighton’s) approach to draining the humanities swamp is their apparent lack of appreciation of the fact that in an uncertain world, indeed a VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, a humanities education, even an imperfect and corrupted one, is, ironically, a far better preparation for a constantly changing labour market than is a narrowly, vocationally oriented education.
This is why business leaders love philosophy graduates, with those much bellowed about but little understood “twenty-first century skills”.
As Nicholas Miller has noted:
Attacking the humanities is really dumb policy, superficially appealing to some but begging for unfulfilled promise and unintended consequence.
Ironically, Tehan’s policy short-sightedness will only help breakaway liberal arts schools like Campion College who charge high(ish) fees for a first class foundational education. Campion’s pitch to prospective students is, indeed to undertake a broad, cohesive, classical liberal education to understand the world, and how to think, then make your vocational educational choices. Doubling the cost of inferior arts degrees at secular universities will make places like Campion a much more competitive option. Silver lining.
Similarly, institutions on board with the controversial Ramsay Centre model of a classical education focused on the now sadly unfashionable Western Civ approach may well prosper also, especially if Ramsay lands at some point on a workable delivery model for its philosophy.
Government education policy at all levels of government and at all levels of education ceased long ago to be concerned with what should be the core concern of policy – encouraging excellence. This is THE problem. The word “excellence” has almost disappeared totally from the education policy handbook, to be sure. It has been replaced by other words – “equality”, “caring”, “respect”, “diversity”, “choice”. And the rest. Just look at any school campus advertising sign that you might drive past.
Once I had the great honour to deliver the keynote speech on prize giving day to an audience of highly intelligent secondary school students at an upmarket private school in country Victoria. This is what I told them – I explain here why excellence is important. And they seemed to get it.
Whatever the appropriateness or otherwise of micro-managing ministers tinkering with university subject offerings, if governments did wish to boost skills in particular industries, then levers designed to influence which three or more year-long degrees to study would not remotely be the right levers to pull. Not very agile that, in a fast changing twenty-first century labour market. By the time students entering these preferred courses actually emerged as graduates several years later, the whole labour market would almost certainly have flipped, possibly more than once.
Much more promising in this connection would be the greater use of the rapidly emerging micro-credentialing techniques for training students. That is, short courses, imparting up-to-date approaches and content, often delivered online, taught by industry experts, and subject to industry feedback and market responsiveness. And there is a place where this is best done. It is called TAFE. This is not what universities are for, not what they are good at.
But even universities are now seeing the sense of micro-credentialing.
The other way of boosting industry skills in an agile way, of course, is 457 visas.
No, this is not the answer to any of the literally dozens of problems we have with the current state of our universities. Yes, the state of the humanities is a problem. But … Let us think about these, and design policies that might, just might, make a difference to that problem. Not half-arsed, on-the-run stuff like that which emerged this week.
And the Tehan push will create more new problems. Philistine ministers making utilitarian university policy should take John Stone’s old and sage advice – don’t do something, just stand there. It would be a start. And no, nursing and much of information technology NEVER belonged in a university.