education minister dan tehan
Minister for Education Dan Tehan

The proposals for a new form of university funding announced by Education Minister Dan Tehan last week have been described as many things, but they are, above all, very, very curious.

They are a market-oriented attempt to restructure course demand and supply, which goes against all of the standard research on how prospective students choose courses, and how universities make decisions on what to offer.

They are an attack on the humanities, an attack that does as much damage to traditional subjects as to the alleged “red bases” of social science they seek to limit.

As both actual policy and culture war, it is a blundering and ham-fisted one.

There seems little doubt now that they were done on the fly. The tenacious reporting of Richard Ferguson and others in The Australian (and elsewhere) has established that the new funding mix — which lowers some courses’ fees from about $3000 to $6000 a year, supplemented by commonwealth subsidy, and raises other courses to $15,000 a year, which is close to their teaching cost — makes it more lucrative to offer humanities courses than the courses that Education Minister Dan Tehan wants to encourage.

Why? Because the job market rewards any degree better than no degree, there is more demand than supply for all places, and so there will always be enough people ready to pony up a few grand extra, deferred to a future repayment scheme.

To offer more engineering and other places means more fulltime staff for high-contact hours courses, more buildings and equipment, more necessary on-campus teaching. To add more humanities students requires, at a pinch, more bandwidth for online lecture attendance, and sessional fees for extra marking, and that’s pretty much it.

Tehan and his doltish team have created a formula for expanding the humanities and they are now desperately announcing “new measures” to force universities to offer the courses they want.

So, having applied market mechanisms to steer by incentives, they are now going to try and rule by direction — which will in turn distort the market they’ve set up. Genius.

But of course, there was never any guarantee that the proposed new funding arrangements would steer course choice in the way they wanted. As Andrew Norton has noted, all research shows that this isn’t how students choose courses, and that course preference is relatively rigid.

The real mess is in the humanities. Three core streams — English, modern languages and creative arts — have fees at the lower level, based on some fairly spurious assumptions about employment-by-discipline.

So, to do an arts degree composed entirely of history, philosophy and social science majors would cost you $45,000 for three years. But to do a course with an English major that takes up 60-70% of the course, and supplement it with other high-price subjects as a minor, will cost you about twenty grand in total (a one-semester English subject will cost you $460; a one-semester philosophy subject will cost you $1800).

If your desire is to do an arts degree that allows you to think and read and hangout and dissect — ha — Foucault on the cheap, you do an English major, a one-year minor in a language, and a two-year minor in creative/performing arts. That will get you an arts degree for about twelve grand total by my reckoning.

Make it an English-languages-psychology degree, and it’s under ten grand.

So one would expect English, drama and visual art faculties to be swamped. Languages less so, because you have to do them. As Norton has noted to me (in guiding me through these funding finagles), there is no government supervision of subject definition for the purposes of billing at the university level.

So the process will run like the billing department of a US hospital — a lot of horse-trading and redefinition. This is really primo higher education policy at work here.

The obvious attack is on the alleged “woke” social sciences — yet all humanities are damaged by the assault.

It’s an old “tenured radicals” model. The right believes that social sciences are little activist factories turning out statue topplers, and that philosophy and history departments have been captured by the left. Their aim is to limit the numbers of a certain type of student — one passionate about social change, and who orients their course choices to such. They’ll manage to exclude some people from asset-poor-families. The bougie woke (shout out to my homies) won’t be dissuaded at all.

But what this new proposal really cuts off access to is philosophy, the classical world, and straight history. You can get to Foucault on the cheap from multiple faculties, but Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, the Greek-Persian wars, Jewish and Hebrew studies, the rise of Rome, the history of Christianity, the European middle ages will all cost you two grand a semester, and there’s no back alley to them via cut-price routes.

These subjects, it should be obvious, are what the right says a humanities degree should be. Yet a degree composed of this — necessary if you want a firm grounding in the matter — will max you out at $45,000.

The type of student this will winnow is the working-class, Indigenous, rural, or lower-middle-class student, who is drawn to and passionate about such culture, but who just decides with regret that they can’t come into their twenties with $50,000 of debt.

Since it is these types who have given much of the drive to such scholarship — because they came from a background where they couldn’t take it for granted — Tehan’s proposals seem to me to be about as effective an assault on the transmission of “Western civilisation” as one can imagine.

Possibly it’s deliberate — to create a vacuum to be filled by an expanded scholarship program by the Ramsay Centre, and their microwave, ready-to-eat Western civ courses (an early supporter is Wollongong VC Paul Wellings, the first VC to wave a Ramsay Centr program through).

As I say, a very curious proposition. Even if it passes the Senate, it would achieve little of what it sets out to do in the courses market. And it has the curious effect that studies in statue toppling are Commonwealth-subsidised — through, say, a course in the psychology of racism — while the study of Greek and Roman sculpture attracts no subsidy at all.

That would seem to make higher education more woke, not less.

Looks like a sloppy proposal from a minister in a hurry, because he needs to be. The pushback will come from all quarters. Has Desperate Dan given the Morrison government a fight it doesn’t need for outcomes it doesn’t want? Worthy of study.