This is the latest development for a sector caught in the escalation of the culture wars. The government changed the rules to its $130 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy three times, in order to ensure no university could claim it. Smashed by a decline in international student revenue due to coronavirus travel restrictions, universities face a difficult future without government assistance.
It’s clear, though, that sympathy isn’t forthcoming. Many members of the government harbour suspicions of “tenured radicals” stalking the corridors of academe. Conservatives have come to think of universities as incubators of progressive thinking and so-called political correctness.
But what will be the effects of education policy being conducted as culture war politicking?
It’s tempting to see this as a step towards a university system aimed at cultivating “quiet Australians”. Before and after last year’s election victory, Scott Morrison spoke of these compliant compatriots: hard-working people in the suburbs who neither campaign in the streets nor follow the political news every day, and are happy for politics to happen without them.
These are the very opposite of the kind of people who are formed through a liberal arts education. Students of the humanities and social sciences are taught to ask questions about power and democracy. They’re trained to be critical, curious and to think for themselves. They’re trained to be active citizens who won’t just faithfully leave it to others to govern without scrutiny. By discouraging students from the arts, the government makes clear it doesn’t see the virtues of a certain kind of citizenship.
This proposed fee move also shift things further towards a model of universities as job factories. Universities are being tasked with churning out degrees for the purpose of directing labour into the job market. It’s a crude view of education. Surely, there must remain a place for pursuing knowledge for its own sake. We must see education not as an extended exercise in economics, but essentially as an exercise in civilising the mind.
At the same time, an arts education is too often derided for not being “job relevant”. The opposite is true. Just ask our political leaders. Seven of the last nine Australian prime ministers were arts or social science university graduates: Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser, Gough Whitlam. Were their degrees not “job relevant”?
There remain many uncertainties about these proposed changes (which will first need to make it through Parliament). It’s far from clear whether hiking course prices will change student preferences. But if there is some impact, one possibility is that, in the future, only those from affluent families will feel comfortable enough to study the arts, humanities and social sciences. Were that to happen, it would seriously diminish our public culture.
Either way, the message of this week’s announcement is clear. The traditional liberal arts education provided by universities is under challenge. The civic purpose of universities is being fundamentally contested. And it’s all because of this now perpetual culture war that defines our national politics.
Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and professor at the University of Sydney.