Barely a week after prime minister Scott Morrison was caught out making the false historical claim that “there was no slavery in Australia”, the government announced a significant shake-up of higher education, including massive fee increases for those wanting to study – among other things – history. The student contribution to fees for a three year humanities degree will rise under the proposed changes announced on 19 June from $20,400 to $43,500 – a whopping 113 percent. In some cases, National Tertiary Education Union president Alison Barnes told the ABC, “students will pay more than their degree costs”.
The effect of the government’s drastic fee increases will be to further deter students, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds, from enrolling in these courses. The lack of job prospects for arts graduates relative to other areas of study was already disincentive enough. According to the government’s 2019 Graduate Outcomes Survey, only 64.3 percent of students in “Humanities, culture, and social sciences” reported being in full-time employment four months after graduation. This compares with an average of 72.2 percent across all study areas, and a high of over 90 percent for degrees such as medicine and pharmacy. For creative arts, the figure was even lower, 52.9 percent.
The question facing many students now is, why enrol in these courses if you’re only going to end up with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and no job? For the government, of course, this is exactly the point. If, upon graduation, you find that employers don’t want the knowledge and skills you’re offering, then something is wrong. Not with employers, of course, but with what you’ve been taught. On this logic, it makes sense to increase the barrier to entry to these degrees by raising the price. Where there’s an oversupply of graduates, the numbers of graduates should be cut.
If the leading lights of Australian capitalism had their way, we would already have shifted much further towards the kind of user-pays, business-oriented and highly stratified higher education system that exists in the US. Organisations like the Business Council of Australia have long pushed for a higher education overhaul to cut areas of study they regard as frivolous indulgences, and refocus on producing graduates more tailored to immediate business requirements. Reflecting this, the government’s proposals are being pitched as the “Job-ready Graduates Package”.
Previous changes, carried out by both Liberal and Labor governments, have already transformed our universities into little more than degree factories. The new package will take the system another step down this path, further eroding any remaining pretence that higher education should, for all but the select few, be about anything more than producing the next generation of “human capital” for a lifetime of wage slavery.
The philistine spirit of the ruling class’s vision for universities is enough to send a shiver down the spine. They may not actually be holding “degenerate art” exhibitions like the Nazis did in their time, but the effect is basically the same. Our rulers see no need for anything more in the way of creativity and imagination, or history and philosophy, than can be successfully commodified and monetised by a capitalist class devoid of any purpose other than the accumulation of wealth. Anything surplus to requirements should, in their view, be liquidated.
The attacks are the public policy equivalent of the insult often hurled at protesters: “Get a job!” The message is: don’t engage too much. Don’t question. Don’t criticise. Join the ranks of the “quiet Australians” and accept that your highest calling in life is to be exploited and help boost the already bloated profits of the wealthy few.
Courses like creative arts and humanities won’t be scrapped altogether of course. A few talented artists and performers are required to produce over-priced status symbols to adorn their mansions or provide aesthetically pleasing backdrops for all those corporate luncheons and other high society gatherings.
Similarly, a few people with some genuine knowledge of history, philosophy and other fields of the humanities are needed for the more complex roles in the upper echelons of government, media and big business. These positions, however, can more than adequately be filled by the more “sensitive” among the spawn of the rich.
The idea that young people from working class backgrounds should be able to access a decent education, especially in the humanities, has always been distasteful to conservatives. As they see it, working class people, if they insist on studying at university, should enrol in something practical like nursing or teaching. The proposed reforms make this clear: while fees for degrees in creative arts or humanities will increase, those for more vocational courses like nursing and teaching will be lowered.
Marxists aren’t among those who would write paeans to the innate value of the humanities, without noting how the primary function of such education has always been to train a section of the population for careers as the managers, administrators and ideologues of the status quo. As has been widely noted, many of today’s politicians and senior state bureaucrats, including Liberal Party education minister Dan Tehan himself, studied arts at university.
Right-wing culture warriors may paint a picture of arts faculties as hotbeds of revolution, but the reality is that the vast majority of what students are taught in today’s arts degrees is quite adequately fitted to the requirements of capitalism.
Lamentably, most people who study arts in Australian universities today don’t become revolutionaries. There was a period in the 1960s and early ’70s, at the high point of the student radicalisation centred on the campaign against the Vietnam War, when the whole nature of the capitalist university was brought into question, and other, more genuinely free and liberatory models of education were widely discussed and, in some cases, demanded.
Those days, unfortunately, are long gone. Today, while no doubt many students will gain, in the course of their arts degrees, a working knowledge of the theories of Foucault or Derrida, or even (heaven forbid) Marx, those attempting to put any of this radical theory into practice are few and far between.
This doesn’t mean, however, that attacks on the humanities from the right are acceptable. However degraded the standard of Australian universities today, there can be no doubt that some knowledge of history, philosophy and so on is better than none. The philosopher Raimond Gaita expressed this well, with regards to the study of history in particular, in a 2014 piece in the Conversation: “Critical engagement with the past helps us to establish the kind of distance from the present that is necessary if we are even seriously to try, without self-deception, to resist becoming merely children of our times, in the pejorative sense of that expression ... Dictators know this, which is why they rewrite history to suit their political ends and deny their subjects independent access to their past”.
Conservatives like Morrison are no doubt suspicious of the humanities partly because the existence of people who have actually studied history in some depth prevents them from exercising full control of the political and historical “narrative” in the way they would like. They would prefer if we were all “children of our times” in the sense that we just accept the version of history peddled by the loudest voices – which happen, of course, to be theirs and those of their allies in the corporate media.
For example, instead of reading up on Australia’s hidden history of slavery, or Indigenous resistance to colonisation, they would much prefer that we just buy in to the “official history” – of the glorious spirit of adventure and discovery of Captain Cook, of mateship and egalitarianism, of the heroic sacrifice of the Anzacs and so on. That’s why Morrison and his like are so enamoured with statues celebrating Australia’s colonial heritage. They would prefer we got our history from there, rather than actual history books detailing historical events in all their messy, and in Australia’s case, genocidal reality.
The same applies to fields of study like philosophy. No ruling class in history has been a fan of critical thinking. Exposing people to a range of different views on life’s fundamental questions – of ethics, morality, politics and so on – will always, from the perspective of those who want to preserve the status quo, be regarded with suspicion. Socrates found this out the hard way when he was sentenced to death in 399BC for corrupting the youth of Athens. Historically, ruling classes have received a degree of protection from the fact that the study of humanities, and particularly philosophy, has really been an option only for the children of the rich.
The expansion of higher education in the 1960s and ’70s however, gave increasing numbers of students from working class backgrounds the chance to enter such fields for the first time. Today’s ruling class, it seems, would like to see those gains wound back. Where philosophy departments haven’t already been wiped out by previous cuts and efficiency drives by universities, they are to become, once again, the more or less exclusive preserve of the rich.
Marxists have a clear interest in seeing wider layers of people engaging critically with history and society. What limited space remains within universities for anything resembling free thought and inquiry should be defended, as should the ability for students from working class backgrounds to access it. Our aim, however, should go well beyond the mere preservation of humanities in their current form.
We’re a long way, in Australia today, from the spirit of student rebellion that existed in the ’60s and ’70s. However, if and when that spirit returns (and, looking at the impact here of the explosion of struggle in the US in response to the police murder of George Floyd, we have ample reason to hope that it will), our task will be once again to bring that rebellion into the lecture halls and tutorials, to envision, to demand and to construct an education system that can prepare us, not for a life of dreary wage slavery, but for the building of a better world.