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Issue #1929      August 24, 2020

Politics in the Pub Report – Perth

Against the fees hike for Arts and Humanities degrees

In the wake of the announcement on 19th June 2020, by Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan that the government would halve the fees of some STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses whilst doubling student fees for courses in the arts and humanities, the Communist Party of Australia WA Branch decided to hold a Politics in the Pub on the proposed fees hike.

Cardinal John Henry Newman in a famous series of lectures given in the 1850s, argued as part of the idea of the university itself, it should be about, “teaching universal knowledge”.

Federal Employment Minister Michaelia Cash was also part of this push to “save” the tertiary education sector which had been reeling from the loss of international students and suspension of on-campus classes as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event was chaired by Party member, Seamus Carey.

The first speaker was Richard Hamilton, National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Branch President and Senior Lecturer at the University of Notre Dame, who said the initiative by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison was an ideological attack appealing to the notion that the average “Joe the Plumber” cannot be expected to fund the arts and humanities, or expected to care about these fields.

However, for Hamilton, these fields and the aesthetic aspect of learning itself are fundamental to human social existence. Hamilton added that with the rapid pace of technological advancement and obsolescence, many courses that are currently on offer may not have jobs at the end for them. In the space of 20-30 years many computer programming positions, long touted as future-proof careers, have already become obsolete.

However, that is not the case for the arts and humanities. The Graduate Outcomes Survey funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment found total employment for graduates of humanities, culture and social sciences (i.e. Arts) courses in 2019 was 83.9 per cent while for science and mathematics it was 82.4 per cent.

It is not as simple as saying the argument about the value of education can be reduced to Arts and Humanities vs Science. Hamilton mentioned how the US Defence Department gives their scientists a whole lot of money and asks them to come back with something as opposed to operating under a grants system which is tied to a specific project or funding outcome being achieved.

The Chancellors of the major universities went cap in hand three times to the Federal government to ask for additional funding to keep universities going after the fallout from COVID-19 and three times the government said no.

The next speaker was Sam, a student activist studying teaching. Sam also suggested the move to double fees for arts and humanities courses was an ideological attack. Sam added that mathematics or science alone does not teach compassion or comprehensive critical reasoning and that we need both arts and STEM education. Sam said it was not only in Australia where right-wing conservative governments were attacking the arts and humanities education and cited the example of Brazil where the right-wing reactionary government of Jair Bolsonaro had cut thirty per cent of funding to all public universities and all funds to arts and humanities courses. However, this does not mean that there won’t be those courses on offer – they will continue to be offered, but by universities funded by large right-wing religious institutions who support the ideological world view of the current government. Sam added that in many cases the public funding of STEM subjects has public universities doing the research for the private sector – such as mining companies – for free.

The next speaker was Dr Christopher Crouch, writer and former cultural studies academic who opened with a plea to encourage the mass education of populations around the world as it would give the masses knowledge and the opportunity to plan change.

Opposing greater access to the masses is capitalism which at its core seeks to reduce human relationships to economic relationships. By putting barriers on the accessibility by people to education, capitalism seeks to control the rate of social change – keeping people stuck in the exploitative systems they currently face. However social change happens constantly, even under capitalism.

The notion that studies in liberal arts and humanities was a good thing was taken up by the Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman who in a famous series of lectures given in the 1850s, argued as part of the idea of the university itself, it should be about, “teaching universal knowledge”. All branches of the human intellect should be taught to help students achieve, “a real cultivation of the mind”, rather than that which could be obtained from a narrow technical skill. The point of an education was to turn out students with the intellectual capability, “to have a connected view or grasp of things.”

At the time, continued Dr Crouch, bourgeois culture was revolutionary in its own way, challenging the role of the monarchy, church and industry. The profit of knowledge is that it enriches us all culturally and can effect change. There is then, a community benefit to us all having an education. The 20th Century Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin himself, rallied against economic-reductionist views. The ideal comrade – the tribune of the people – was one who was able to learn how to empower themself and to empower others. The university should be a tribune of the people likewise.

The chair of presentation, Seamus Carey, concluded by asserting, “liberating peoples’ minds is as important a liberation as liberation from their material bonds.” The forum was then opened up to a lively Q & A in which there were many contributions from the nearly thirty people who had turned up to the event, including a number of people who had enjoyed the benefits of an arts or humanities degree, and a few students currently embarking on such a course of study who were horrified not only at the financial burden the government is seeking to impose on them but also the consequences of the narrowing of the aims of society and democracy itself.

The Communist Party of Australia condemns the move by the Liberal government of Scott Morrison to significantly increase the cost of arts and humanities degrees while cutting the cost of STEM courses on the assumption that students who studied STEM courses would be more job ready than arts and humanities graduates – when their own data does not support that proposition. The CPA calls for the reintroduction of universal and free education from primary school to university.

Next article – Port Jackson talk US marines out of Darwin!

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