#SaveArtsDegrees: Humanities is the H in HEART

An Australian Women’s History Network roundtable responds to the federal government’s proposed cost increase to degrees in the Humanities.

There is much joy to be found in Chaucer Doth Tweet, a Twitter account which pays loving homage to the early modern poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who most famously penned The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). As Chaucer Doth Tweet reminds us, in Middle English, HEART and STEM are indelibly linked.

By now we have all heard of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. But what about HEART?

The Australian federal government’s Friday 19 June 2020 announcement to overhaul undergraduate university fees and increase the cost of degrees in the Humanities by 113% has been met with a strong and swift rebuke. Many emphasise the short-sightedness of such a policy. Others note that Humanities, Arts, and Social Science (HASS) graduates have employment outcomes that are on par with – and sometimes even exceed – those in STEM fields, going on to have diverse and thriving careers.

One of the most relevant examples is Julia Baird. A political journalist and broadcaster, Baird is most widely known for her work with the Sydney Morning HeraldNew York Times, and ABC’s The Drum. Prior to this she was awarded her Doctor of Philosophy in history from The University of Sydney, which led to her first book Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians (2004). More than a decade later, Dr Baird penned an acclaimed historical biography, Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire (2016).

Her most recent work is the outstandingly beautiful Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark (2020). Countless individuals in Australia and further afield have found a sense of peace and solace in this work during the upheavals of COVID-19.

As Baird herself pertinently reflected on Twitter, a series of current Liberal Party Cabinet members – including the Minister for Education Dan Tehan, as well as Alan Tudge, Greg Hunt, Marise Payne, Michaelia Cash, and Christian Peter – alongside former Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and Malcolm Turnbull, themselves benefited from an Arts degree.

For the Australian Women’s History Network, the implications of these proposed policies are most clear for history degrees. But as we at VIDA blog wrote on Thursday 18 June 2020, only one day prior to the federal government’s announcements, restoring the public’s trust in disciplinary expertise “must not be a debate wherein some disciplines are pitted against others.”

And so we are united. A series of organisations have already responded to the federal government’s announcement with media releases, including:

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia
Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities
Australian Academy of the Humanities
Australian Academy of Science
Australian Anthropological Society
Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools
Australian Historical Association
Australian Institute of Physics
Australian Library and Information Association
Australia and New Zealand Communication Association
Australian Society for French Studies
Australian Society for the Study of Labour History
Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association
Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
History Council of Victoria
History Council of Western Australia
Indigenous Allied Health Australia
International Australian Studies Association
Professional Historians Association (Victoria & Tasmania)
The University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association
Whitlam Institute, Western Sydney University

Associate Professor Tamson Pietsch, Director of the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, has also been hosting The New Social Contract, a podcast which examines how universities will change under the effects of COVID-19.

Across the week VIDA: Blog of the Australian Women’s History Network will bring you the interdisciplinary voices of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, from historians to education scholars, legal scholars, and political scientists. Together, we assert the importance, the necessity, and the employability of humanistic thinking in these urgent times.

An Australian Women’s History Network Roundtable

It is difficult to imagine where I would be had I not studied the Arts and Humanities at university, because my life has been so profoundly shaped by that education. As a working-class student from the western suburbs of Sydney, a university education offered me the chance to pursue those areas that excited me – politics, literature, history, language – and, I hoped, to find a job in one of those fields. I could not have imagined what awaited me.

The Bachelor of International Studies that I undertook at Macquarie University not only provided me with a pathway to explore those passions, it also opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about and being in the world. I was able to complete a semester of study in Bordeaux, France – my first ever overseas trip, and only the second time I had been on a plane – and I was introduced to intelligent and thought-provoking lecturers and students whose own interests and perspectives encouraged me to think beyond my inner circle. The opportunity to explore different ideas and listen to the voices so often marginalised and left on the peripheries developed my sense of empathy and compassion. My degree taught me the importance of clear communication, of critical thinking, of asking questions where others would accept information, of challenging assumptions, of thinking outside the box to uncover new possibilities and new solutions. Through my study in the Arts and Humanities, I also discovered the area about which I became most passionate: gender history. I knew nothing of this field before I attended university, but it opened my eyes and clarified my way of thinking so profoundly, so absolutely, that I pursued an Honours degree and then a PhD in the field, guided by scholars who I am privileged to consider colleagues, mentors, and friends.

None of these possibilities would have been available to me without my Arts degree and training. The only people close to me who had undergone university education were primary school teachers; I knew nobody with a PhD, and certainly did not think that one was in my future when I began my tertiary studies. Yet here I stand: I have completed a PhD, written and published a monograph, and now hold a highly sought-after postdoctoral research fellowship. My Arts and Humanities study made this possible. All students – whether working-class, migrant, Indigenous, first-in-family – deserve the same opportunities to explore and push their intellectual boundaries, and to create a life shaped by a passion for new ideas and new ways of thinking.

Action by the federal government to increase the burden of history degrees upon students is both puzzling and troubling. This is the same government that continues to mandate the study of Australian history in schools via the Australian Curriculum, recently announcing the additional spending of $500m to the Australian War Memorial, and $50m towards commemorating the voyage of Captain James Cook to Australia in 1770.

While some might argue over what history is being commemorated and how, there’s no doubting its importance. So why the proposal to squash it with this "price signal"? If history matters so much, why is it deemed to matter less than subjects in STEM and education? What’s not "job-ready" about skills such as ethical understanding, critical thinking and communication – all outcomes highlighted in the current Australian Curriculum: History?

Meanwhile, the data from educational research unequivocally points to quality teaching being key to students' educational proficiency and success in schools. This is the troubling bit about Minister Dan Tehan’s announcement.

In other words, the best history teachers are historians as well as teachers – and that means access to disciplinary training and ongoing professional development. So where's the logic in slugging university history students (along with those in economics, politics, geography and legal studies), while offering significant fee relief in education degrees?

If fewer education graduates have disciplinary training in the humanities, the outcome will be less quality, not more, in Australian classrooms.

My professional life has been shaped by books. I would say simply "words," but the materiality of books has literally provided a buffer and a form of sound insulation while I've been broadcasting for ABC Radio National’s weekly program, The Bookshelf, from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reading, analysing, reviewing and talking to people about books – interviewing writers, specialists, academics, all sorts of readers – is a set of skills that emerged directly from my education in the humanities. A Bachelor of Arts with honours in History at The University of Sydney; a Masters of Applied (Public) History at the University of Technology Sydney; and a PhD on the history of press photography in Australia. All of this, I should add, was made possible for a child from a working class background, from Dapto High School, because of government support in a system that – should the proposed changes to humanities degrees go ahead – would have otherwise been impossible.

This combination of research, analysis, critical thinking, writing and history has had a direct bearing on my career, which has included academic research, television and radio production, book editing and – now – presenting a weekly books program. Crucial to all of this has been the communication of ideas to the public. This is an education and way of dealing with analysis that is, at its core, about sharing ideas, allowing for complexity, questioning, making space for curiosity, and facilitating the spread of research, art and creativity.

The relationship between cultural institutions – universities, museums, libraries and so on – has been crucial to my own life and work. It is a generosity of ideas and their exchange that, I believe, the humanities has always fostered. Long may it continue.

Decades hence, the proposed University reforms of June 2020 will be remembered as an ideologically motivated attempt to hobble the humanities and generally kick Australian universities further down the neoliberal path. The proposed changes will more than double the cost to students of degrees in some areas of Humanities, such as philosophy and history, while reducing the cost of studying Maths and Agriculture in particular, but also a selection of degrees ranging from IT and nursing to languages and English.

The principal public rationale for the changes is that they will "incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices." Yet the government-endorsed QILT survey reveals that, in recent years, graduates in the Humanities, Culture and Social Sciences have been more likely than those in Science and Mathematics to be in full-time (or indeed any) employment. Furthermore, the idea that the Arts is not where "real-world jobs" are found ignores the fact that the arts and culture sector is an economic powerhouse, generating $112 billion – 6.4% of GDP – in 2016/17. Agriculture, by comparison, contributes 2.7% of GDP. Looking forward, the Australian government’s own "Skills for the Future" website reads like a Humanities outcomes statement. Employment growth is expected to be greatest in health, medical and social assistance sectors, while agriculture is expected to further contract. The government’s own data strongly suggests that the "job-ready degree" pitch is actually just cover for other motives.

Since the announcement was made on Friday 19 June 2020, the outpouring of public support for the humanities – and testament to the value of humanities degrees – has been gratifying. For example, the Twitter hashtag #MyArtsDegree has emerged. Indeed, the changes will see the total funding per student in history and philosophy increase, representing – in a way – an increased valuation of those areas. The problem is that most of the funding will now come from the student, rather than the state. In the past, students’ choice of degree has been fairly insensitive to price, as the HECS system insulates them from the immediate effects of their choices. However, whether this will remain the case in the current nervous, indeed precarious, economic context is doubtful. Combined with proposed changes in terminology ("census date," for example, becoming "payment date") intended to foreground the cost of education, it seems likely that these changes will in fact dissuade many students from making Humanities their first major. Those coming from a less privileged background are likely to be most averse to accruing high levels of debt.

One of the very real risks is that even in the unlikely event that the decline in enrolments is made up for by the marginal increase in funding per student, it will lead to inequity and a detrimental narrowing of diversity among the Arts graduates who will be the changemakers of tomorrow.

Australia’s humanities sector makes a vital contribution to the prosperity of our nation. Australia has a predominantly service sector economy. Three of Australia’s biggest industries are tourism, higher education, and finance. As the 2019 Australian Academy of the Humanities (AAH) Future Humanities Workforce Consultation Paper demonstrates, Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) provide core knowledge for these areas. Key skills and capabilities developed through Humanities training include the ability to synthesise and articulate complex ideas; to appreciate multiple points of view; to communicate effectively and present a coherent argument in both written and oral form; to form judgements and make ethical decisions; to solve problems through critical and creative thinking; and to teach and train others.

These skills and capabilities align directly with what current literature on the future of work refers to as "twenty-first century skills" – those skills which support intellectual agility and professional mobility – and are foundational for a competent and agile workforce. This is further attested to by the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences' 2017 report The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as the 2018 Deloitte Access Economics and Macquarie University report The Value of the Humanities and the 2019 AAH Future Humanities Workforce Literature Review.

As indicated in the 2015 report Welcome to the Ideas Boom, commissioned by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, National Innovation and Science Agenda, such skills development is especially important in light of current projections that most Australian current high school students will have 17 different jobs and go through five career changes in their working lives.

At the most fundamental level, however, humanities training is vital for the development of citizens in a modern democratic polity. This is recognised in the second goal of The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration (2019):

All young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community.

Hence it is essential that citizens are able to think critically and, as media scholar Julianne Schultz recently put it, are capable of having grown up conversations about difficult subjects.

At a moment in time when there is a growing sense that democracy is under threat and public trust in democratic institutions is diminishing, it is vital and imperative these skills are carefully nurtured. This can only be achieved with increased government support and funding.

The federal government’s plan to more than double the cost of a Humanities degree has been defended on the specious logic that this field of study does not produce job-ready graduates. Although the value of the Humanities cannot be reduced to economic factors, Cabinet should consider that the Arts contributes nearly $112b to the economy. The decision to study the Humanities should not be guided by employment prospects alone but school leavers should know that graduates in this discipline find jobs in better numbers than their peers who study Maths or Science.

How many industry reports have found that the critical thinking and communication skills embedded into Humanities degrees are highly prized by employers? Creating a financial disincentive to study History and the Arts is poor economic management and poor national leadership. Ironically, no former prime minister would be more horrified to see students discouraged from studying the Humanities than Robert Menzies – who very deliberately chose the name Liberal rather than Conservative for his party in the 1940s. Targeting the Humanities is against the Menzian tradition but also, with further irony, against the recent protests from the political right that Australian history and "Western Civilization" – whatever that contested term might mean – is not sufficiently supported on university campuses.

The proposed fee hike will not fulfil the government’s stated purpose. Few Year 12 students who aspire to study History, for example, will suddenly find a passion for Maths. All it will do is ensure that those who study the Humanities are straddled with much more student debt, which will follow them deep into their careers. For those privileged enough to pay their fees upfront, the change will be minimal. For low SES students, despite the relative low cost of teaching a Humanities unit, a grim choice is presented and, tragically, some may abandon their plans to study at all.

I hope this government, full of ministers who studied the Humanities for minimal personal cost, reconsiders this punitive policy.

In 2008, the Bradley Review investigated the Australian tertiary sector to determine whether it was producing a strong and internationally competitive future workforce. The result was a broadening of opportunity for those from disadvantaged backgrounds through increased public investment in higher education. This led to palpable changes in the student cohort and a period of adaptation in teaching, driven less by any lack of skills or capacity for critical thinking in new students, and more by their lack of self-belief after years of being indirectly told that university is not for them – by families, teachers, or society itself. Importantly, student cohorts began to represent a broader range of both classes and cultures.

A diverse student body enriches universities, but it will also produce a diverse workforce, with more diverse interests, emerging from new, unexplored perspectives. Seeing students realise that their ideas do matter results in something very special – not only for them, or their universities, but for the future job market. As President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, Professor Joy Damousi, wrote in response to the proposed fee changes, "Evidence shows that the skills and knowledge from humanities and social sciences training – including critical thinking, communication skills and understanding the impact of change on humanity – are highly valued by employers and in the workforce." Australian society needs broad perspectives informed by the Humanities, especially from voices that we haven’t heard before.

The proposed fee increases for the Humanities essentially reserves the study of disciplines such as history, philosophy, literature and sociology for those who will not be adversely affected by prohibitively expensive degrees, or those who put themselves in unmanageable debt to study what they love or are good at. Many people who have been indirectly shown throughout their lives that Humanities spaces are not for them are now being told more directly to know their place and make themselves useful, or in the words of Minister for Education Dan Tehan, "make more job-relevant choices."

The Lilith Editorial Collective strongly condemns the Australian Government's plan to increase the cost of humanities degrees by 113% as they are supposedly non-"job relevant." This move, if it goes ahead, will likely deter many students from studying the arts and humanities.

As feminist scholars, we are particularly concerned this fee increase will adversely affect the crucial studies of gender, race, and class which advocate for women's rights and equal opportunity. Arts graduates are equipped with skills transferable to any discipline: critical thinking, interpersonal communication, and independent thought to name a few. Humanities graduates have the ability to interrogate where we have come from and how we can avoid repeating past mistakes. We need these urgent skills more than ever in our current world.

We urge the government to rethink this plan and ensure these studies remain accessible to all students.

The announcements put forward by the Minister for Education on 18 June 2020 propose a major redrawing of the social settlement attaching to universities. Since the introduction of the three-tier system of HECS in the mid-1990s, the amount a student paid for their higher education has been linked to their expected graduate earning capacity and the cost of their degrees. Those who studied courses that were more expensive to deliver (such as Medicine and Veterinary Science) or that were deemed to produce higher graduate salaries (like Law and Accounting) paid the most. These new proposals significantly redraw that arrangement. Under the new policy, the amount a student pays will be linked to the government’s assessment of what it thinks are the most likely areas of employment growth. And – according to Minister for Education Dan Tehan – those jobs won’t be in the Humanities, Communications and Social Sciences or, for that matter, Management and Commerce.

Elsewhere on this blog and across many other platforms, you can read refutations of the assumption that Humanities degrees do not prepare people for the world of work. But in thinking about these assumptions, we should not only be asking questions about whether humanities jobs exist. We should also be asking how work more broadly should be structured and regulated so that it is meaningful and sustainable for individuals, families and the planet. We should be thinking hard about who should bear the costs of the disruptions that are already upon us. And we should be interrogating what kind of knowledge and opportunity enables individuals to have a stake in the collective project that is the national story. There is no economy without society. There are no jobs outside the human community. What is up for grabs here is who gets to define that society and who gets to have their voice heard in the national project. And it is crucial – for all of us – that we get the answer to that question right.

In his Press Club speech Minister Tehan referred to the way, under Prime Minister Menzies, Australia "harnessed its higher education system to drive its recovery from World War II and make our nation stronger than before the war started."  Menzies did indeed harness the power of the universities, expanding the number of places, the number of institutions and increasing Australia’s research capacity. But Menzies’ transformation was led by government. From 1952-1975 between 75 and 80% of university revenue from all sources came from public sources. Contrast this to 2017 when public sources constituted just 38% of all university income (if HECS is considered a private contribution). The new plans would mean that amount drops even further. In 1952, remaking Australia was a public project and we need it to be one again.

Australia does need a new relationship between universities, society and the state. But it needs one based on principles that are very different to those laid out by the Minister.

To say I owe my life to an Arts degree in Gender Studies isn’t an overstatement. I went to university, enrolled in Arts/Law, thinking I wanted to become a barrister or judge. But, this wasn’t to be. It was a serendipitous timetable clash in my first semester that meant I swapped an economics subject for a women’s history course. This is where I first came across Judith Butler and Joan Scott, two scholars who opened me up to thinking about, and embodying, gender and sexuality in new ways. Feminist and queer scholarship provided the intellectual scaffold I needed as a gay man to contest the stigma surrounding my sexuality and "come out." In Gender Studies, I was engaged in rich conversations about intimacy, belonging, identity, and community. My capacities to think critically and empathetically were strengthened through discussions of theoretical texts, political forms, and popular culture that were grounded in everyday social experiences and political realities, not abstract hypotheticals.

These skills complemented my law degree. I could better understand the cases or statutes I was studying by putting them in a social and political context. Some of my teachers in law school thought that writing about how NSW’s Civil Liability Act 2002 discriminated against women who disproportionately bear caring responsibilities or how the criminal defence of provocation is based on patriarchal assumptions was "highly novel," even though, having done Gender Studies, it just seemed obvious. When I began working as a policy advisor on same-sex family recognition in NSW, I was able to draw on critical feminist work to talk about how assumptions about "ideal family structures" were based on ideological beliefs about what it means to have a mum and a dad. This work was crucial to securing the ability of same-sex couples to adopt children in NSW.

As an academic lawyer now, my research in LGBTI rights and my law reform advocacy work owes its depth to the knowledge (in critical theory) and skills (reflective analysis, dialogue facilitation, creative argumentation, critical empathy, etc.) that I cultivated through my Arts degree.

When I started my PhD in history at the University of Melbourne, I had on occasion visited the women’s toilets in the union building. In the cubicle someone had written, above the toilet paper roll, in a black permanent marker, "Arts Degrees please take one." The BA has been the butt of jokes, derided, and devalued, for decades. Perhaps we academics have not sold our work to the wider community, as many in the general public thinks Arts degrees are about sitting around and discussing gender/identity/social justice/race, the singular they, and toppling statues. I am the first in my family to finish high school and go on to higher education. My grandmother was unable to read or write, and my great grandmother on my father’s side signed her marriage certificate with an X. Mine was not a family that valued education, indeed I had to fight for mine. One family member described an Arts degree (my Arts degree) as an outrageous waste of time and money. However, my BA is the foundation on which I have built a not insubstantial career. Arts faculties need people from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

I believe in the humanities and the value they bring to society. I watch in horror each year as the conservative reactionary media, and others, carefully go through the Australian Research Council (ARC) funding list and ridicule some of the grants awarded. These are never STEM grants, they are always something in an Arts faculty, philosophy, history, and even anthropology, seen as absurd by the wider community. I am not in the least surprised that the Federal government has announced a short-sighted policy and attack on the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) sector, positing that studying humanities does not provide a student with job ready skills. This is patently nonsense and, according to a 2017 government funded Graduate Outcome Survey, employment for graduates of humanities, culture and social sciences courses, at nearly 84% was higher than that of maths and science graduates. At my own institution the employability rate is 88%. The skills that are developed in a BA are essential for rapidly emerging private and public industries. HASS graduates provide critical thinking, creativity, and innovation. Perhaps even more than that they can write, they can communicate and convey complex ideas and concepts.

I want to illustrate the importance of Arts skills to Australian society with a short example from my own disciplines. A few weeks back Rio Tinto destroyed ancient, 46,000-year old rock shelters rich in Aboriginal heritage. When this site was being lived in, 46,000 years ago, there were no modern humans in Europe. We know this because of the research of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians – research and teaching that take place in Arts Faculties. The federal government’s proposed changes to university Arts funding will effectively silence our capacity to know, communicate, understand, and recognise our nation’s history, culture and cultural development. We will all be poorer for it. Had Rio Tinto executives studied HASS, perhaps a 46,000 year old site might still be standing.

HASS students are the future leaders of our world, and there are certainly many politicians with an undergraduate Arts degree. The skills they learn, too often labelled "soft skills," are resistant to economic downturns, their employment prospects are strong and adaptable. A Bachelor of Arts provides ethical, sustainable and innovative skills for the future, and we must fight to save it.

I initially enrolled in a Bachelor of Psychological Science when I was 17. Though I was absolutely miserable I stuck with it for one and a half years, filling up my electives with Arts courses to keep me sane. Yet it just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t enthusiastic towards what I was learning. I wanted to transfer to a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Gender Studies, but was unsure because of the attached stigma. Thanks to the guidance from my Arts professors, I ended up transferring into a BA majoring in Gender Studies and minoring in English Literature. I absolutely loved it, as I had finally found my passion and my calling.

I went on to do my Honours, double majoring in Gender Studies and Political Science, and have recently finished my PhD in Political Science with a heavy focus on gender and feminist issues. As I read about the cuts that Minister of Education Dan Tehan is proposing, I wonder whether I would have made my decision to transfer if I knew my fees would double? I’m not sure, but I do know that it would have been an even harder decision than it already was. A major reason why I never did my Masters was because they are so unaffordable and I did not want to increase an already growing HECS debt.

The anger I feel about Minister Tehan’s proposal is that it is largely directed at women-dominated fields (Table 1) and it further cements the idea that the Arts are useless and for “the elite.” The number of times I’ve been ridiculed for doing a degree in Gender Studies – or “basket weaving” as it’s often referred to by its denigrators – or being told “yes I would like fries with that” because the topic of my PhD. But this is the narrative that the government has been pushing for years as it’s just another part of their anti-intellectual “culture wars” on critical thinking, knowledge and social inquiry – where academia, particularly the humanities, is constructed as anti-Australian “elites.” The Murdoch press and the IPA, which both continuously pushed this narrative, would be absolutely proud.

Insidiously, in the same month when Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrongly claimed that there was “no slavery in Australia” and there is outrage at protestors tearing down racist statues memorialising and celebrating colonisers (while staying absolutely shtum about Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000 year old Aboriginal site), the Coalition government want to make it harder for students to study our history, politics and culture. It is this, more than anything else, that angers me the most.

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