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Proposed university changes undercut value of education

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Scott Morrison and Dan Tehan's Coalition Government have resolved to change universities, for the worse (image via YouTube).

Large-scale changes for Australian universities, ostensibly an emergency move for COVID-19, look like politics and marketing — not a considered plan for Australia’s future.   

Australia needs at least one specialist college of liberal arts. If the fees scheme announced this week goes ahead, it might be productive if a few of the main universities closed down their "vocational" science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses and went for high-end intellectual quality.

Keeping the humanities alive

They would be keeping the projected high fee-paying humanities courses, and getting rid of science-based ones that can cost a lot to teach but will be bringing in cheapskate fees.

Such liberal universities would exempt themselves the practice of money being transferred out of humanities, to pay for half-funded STEM courses.

At least and at last, those liberal arts universities could afford both advanced digital learning and research, and small student-staff ratios. It’s something student surveys always support: a great way to learn is to go to those who know what you want to know.

Those universities’ offerings in mathematics and science would be for developing thought.

Jobs for graduates

Fear not for jobs. Students out of a high-fee college of excellence will fan out well into the economy, as graduates with a good degree in humanities do already. They can always add-on vocational courses where needed. We have a service economy in many fields. The core of liberal education, after all, is the idea that if you learn about something well, you can go on to do anything.

Having specialist universities, including ones in humanities, is not a new or lonely idea. The former Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, Glyn Davis, recently published a book about the Australian universities system on the theme that all of the universities try too much to do everything.

He mourned the loss of small independent specialist colleagues like art schools that were drawn into the greater university system. Against all that, he also managed to complete the book on tertiary policy with no more than cursory reference to theories of how learning occurs and what role academics play.

Young students entering the system think about such things they want to know. They make choices based on their competency and interests, and come out best-placed to get a job where they are best motivated.

That is, of course, a "humanities" idea: putting the human at the centre.

New scheme: Bad track record

On the other hand, pushing and cajoling students into STEM is based on a false assumption, some subterfuge. Such action has a bad track record.

The false assumption is the idea that STEM is practical and tough that will produce hardy engineers, Nobel Prize winners creating lucrative applications in science and a smart-economy cyber-genius brigade beating off the Chinese.

Where is the proof, at least the market research, to show this might really happen?

The last time they had such "science mania" was in the 1960s. The Robert Menzies Liberal Government led off with the first federal intervention into schools education, in its high school science laboratories program.

Recipe for a dole queue?

All that promotion still did not make science courses popular, especially as it turned out they did not lead to jobs. Bachelor of Science graduates can get jobs, but not all of them do. The jobs aren't abundant and if they force up the numbers in science courses there’ll be a dole queue.

Attempts to force up the numbers can threaten the actual quality of science which is taught.

It is not uncommon for universities to make courses like engineering an honours program for all, whereby they flatter themselves that the standard is high, while they collect more fees for the extra year of study.

Then the pressure comes on to make sure of the numbers by letting in students at a modest matriculation grade, who cannot perform at any level of excellence, so more pressure comes on, lowering the standard.

I've had occasion to find out about such deluded practices while serving on the governing council of one university. It goes on across the tertiary sector. Likewise, standards are jeopardised as universities jostle for "market share", and fees, in more jobs-orientated disciplines like education and nursing.

Marketing a new science mania

The construct, STEM, is itself a device from America, made for marketing science and maths subjects, which do not lead to a guaranteed job. Rather, they are supposed to get subordinated to engineering and IT, which do have jobs, most of the time.

Match them up and you can sell more courses.

How will the proclaimed up-ending of learning, industry, thought and society get marketed in the zone of political campaigns, prejudice and cheap rhetoric?

The Government should be careful. During the manufactured science mania in the 1960s, the prejudice had more kick in it, more political marketability, as in those days only a small minority progressed into the final two years of high school. Many missed out, unfairly.

There was plenty of anti-intellectualism and resentment against university students, especially perceived pansies and social parasites there to read books and paint pictures. After decades of much better educational opportunity, Prime Minister Scott Morrison may find it less easy to get up the same old level of hatred.

Attacking the arts

Humanities students are often accused of being there to campaign constantly against conservative interests, so there is a chance here to punish them. As many do study social issues, it is to be expected they will be well represented at the barricades, which isn't a reason to trash learning and thought.

In the realm of the angry government backbencher, the war on humanities is a war on people you fear and do not like, nothing at all to do with knowledge, learning, or preparation for jobs.

Contents of the "plan"

The "plan" itself wants to impose a regimen on universities where they will charge more than double the present rate for humanities subjects and give big discounts on the science side.

There’s an idea of pricing individual subjects, instead of having a set rate for all subjects within a whole degree course. It might encourage students to mix and match expensive subjects and cheap ones, "academic" and "vocational" ones.

The mixing and matching idea is not truly inter-disciplinarian; it is a crude recasting of the old and unproductive schism between the “two cultures”, sciences and arts. 

Overall enrolments numbers are to be increased with no funding growth.

A sounder idea might have been to put more into technical and further education (TAFE), and primary university degrees right across the disciplines, with vocational courses or TAFE to complete it. This would be a better way that would fit the abilities and interests of the thousands of extra students.

The university changes are meant to fire up the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 may provide opportunities and excuses for many other rash, reckless, unresearched "reforms" in the coming months.

Almost needless to say, the pursuit of knowledge has gone on over many centuries across the humanities, old observations too dreary to replay.

There has been a response from the Humanities and Social Sciences associations, patiently trying to explain to these conservative ministers the crucial economic and social value of their disciplines in these times. Humanities work is work that tells why; it reveals the context for all work, even all the great practical work they do in STEM.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

This article was previously published on Subtropic.

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