education minister dan tehan
Minister for Education Dan Tehan

For weeks, the government has been urged by business and media cheerleaders not to waste the crisis engendered by the pandemic, and implement a hardline neoliberal agenda.

While so far it has resisted the impulse in industrial relations and tax out of concern about the political reaction, the government today will announce it will crack down on humanities education, dramatically increasing the cost of humanities degrees in an effort to force students into more vocational subjects such as STEM, agriculture and nursing.

The “reallocation” of funding comes on top of the government’s refusal to assist the university sector cope with the loss of billions in revenue from foreign students due to the government’s border closure and urging foreign students in the country to return home.

The government previously attempted to significantly increase fees for all university courses via a deregulation agenda pushed by then-education minister Christopher Pyne in 2014, which was eventually narrowly defeated in the Senate. That would have led to fees of over $100,000 for some courses. Under the reforms flagged by Education Minister Dan Tehan, four-year courses in areas such as law and commerce will cost over $50,000.

Under a standard neoliberal economic model, education is to enable an individual to maximise their economic value as a worker, entrepreneuer or consumer, and it should be funded by a user-pays mechanism of some kind, given individuals are the primary beneficiaries of their education. Education should also, where possible, be delivered by for-profit private providers, who can do so more efficiently than public sector providers.

The Australian version of this — under both sides of politics — has centred around requiring students to take out loans to fund their tuition, encouraging universities to compete for students, lift their international rankings through emphasising research over teaching, and starve institutions of funding to encourage them to rely on foreign students to subsidise domestic ones and generate economic growth and exports.

Under such a model, the generalist critical thinking and analytical skills acquired through humanities, law and economics degrees count for little beyond their value in enhancing a worker’s skills set for employment, with more nebulous benefits around civil society, democracy and public discourse having no economic value.

Indeed, public funding of courses that encourage individuals to question systems of distribution or neoliberal policy settings are not merely wasteful but actively damaging to the market economy.

For the Coalition, the tertiary sector is particularly problematic because education, along with the public service and health, remains the most heavily unionised sector of the economy, with around a third of employees a union member. The tertiary sector union, the NTEU, has grown substantially over the last two decades and has been adding new members at a rapid rate in recent weeks.

Universities are also centres for climate science, to which large sections of the Coalition are hostile, and most major universities are engaged in fully or partly divesting from fossil fuel investments, to the fury of Coalition MPs.

In 2014, the entire government, from Tony Abbott down, cheered on by neoliberal newsletter the Financial Review, went to war with ANU over its divestment from Santos (criticism petered out after Santos’ share price fell over 70%, rendering Abbott’s description of ANU’s divestment decision as “stupid” rather embarrassing).

As Crikey noted earlier this week, universities pay virtually no donations to political parties, meaning the tens of billions in export dollars, and quarter million jobs the sector has, are moot when it comes to policymaking — no matter which side is in power.

The dramatic increases in fees for students wanting a humanities, law or commerce degree represent still another front in the ongoing war on Australia’s young people, who already face systematic bias on multiple policy fronts across housing, health funding and climate action.

However, hardest hit will be students from low-income backgrounds, and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom the dream of a university education will be pushed further out of reach unless they’re prepared to sign up to tens of thousands of dollars in debt even before they attempt to find housing, or take a subject not because they have any interest in doing it, but because the government of the day has decided it should be a priority.

But they will merely be collateral damage in a war on universities undertaken by a government determined to not miss a chance to go after its enemies.

How will the government’s decision impact the future of universities — and is this a death knell for humanities in Australia? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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