Yesterday was my first day of the mid year break. After a particularly challenging first semester, trying to balance two history courses, caring for Dan and Covid 19 restrictions, isolation and all the stress and anxiety that entails, I was looking forward to a relaxing day. I didn’t have any firm plans in place, but catching up on some reading and taking it easy were on the top of the list. It was not to be. Instead I woke up to this headline:
HUMANITIES FEES TO DOUBLE
Like many across Australia, I am outraged and utterly disillusioned and dismayed by the ignorance and shortsightedness of this federal Government.
As a current humanities student my fees will not go up for the Bachelor of Arts that I am almost finished, but it throws any thought of further study into disarray. On the recommendation of one of my lecturers I was seriously considering Honours. And spare a thought for the current year 11 and 12 students. Not only have they had their learning disrupted by Covid 19, during one of the most critical times for secondary students, but those who were looking forward to studying in the humanities, have had their dreams cruelly smashed. If they choose to continue they will be saddled with years of debt.
It is clear the Government has very little clue about the value and importance of the humanities. I know that I am quite tired of the constant questions about where my Bachelor of Arts will lead. It is true that a degree in the humanities doesn’t necessarily enable graduates to be slotted into a ready-made job, not in the way that an education or nursing degree may, but that is the beauty of humanities. The possibilities are endless…history, anthropology, social science, Indigenous studies, social justice, archaeology, international relations, journalism, media, creative writing, legal studies, economics, philosophy…Minister of Education even, or Prime Minister. As noted by quite a few, four of our last eight Prime Ministers began their careers with a Bachelor of Arts.
I began my study in humanities because I was looking for a change. I worked in primary education for a number of years and while Dan was at school it was manageable. But well before Dan graduated from high school I could see the writing on the wall. What was Dan going to do once he had finished school? Remember, this was before the NDIS. Even with the NDIS, it still would have been a major challenge to combine a traditional kind of job with managing Dan’s life. At the same time I was getting frustrated and burnt out by teaching. I needed a change. I needed something more flexible; something that would work around Dan. I looked to the arts, to the humanities.
I have learned a lot from my humanities degree. I have learned about critical thinking, academic research and writing, history, culture, society, racism, patriarchy, misogyny, colonialism and white privilege. And maybe that’s the problem. When we become aware of structural inequality and entrenched racism, we want to change things. We want to create a better, fairer and more equitable society. That’s not welcome news to those who hold power.
I don’t disagree with encouraging students to consider teaching, nursing, science or engineering. We need teachers, nurses and scientists. But we also need historians, journalists, philosophers and writers. Education should not be one sided.
Writing in The Guardian, Ben Eltham refers to a speech given by Cardinal John Henry Newman during the 1850s in Dublin, in which he advocates that the role of universities is to teach “universal knowledge.” The aim of education was ‘to help students achieve a “real cultivation of mind” rather than a narrow technical skill.’ Eltham notes that some of the skills most in demand currently and expected for a rapidly changing world include “creativity, originality and initiative”, “analytical thinking and innovation”, and “complex problem-solving.” Sadly he predicts that the attack on the humanities in Australia will lead to our nation being “less knowledgeable and less equipped to deal with the challenges of our complex world.”
On the ABC, Virgina Trioli reflects on the skills that she acquired during her own Bachelor of Arts and the “sheer enthusiasm for new and challenging ideas” that it inspired. She neatly summarises the value of studying the humanities, noting that “our shared and contrasting human histories and experiences, our emotional connections to and understanding of the world, are almost entirely contained within the study of the humanities.” In a post Covid 19 world, some of the most important traits will be adaptability, resilience, negotiation and organisational skills, and critical and comparative thinking. These are the kinds of skills developed in the study of humanities.
In my study of history at USQ I have been given the “opportunity to understand the events that have shaped our world,… to piece together information from the past and apply it to current events and issues…and to examine many areas of history including world civilisations, historic and contemporary Australia, race relations in Australian history, European and American history and the 20th century.” (USQ website) I have also studied English Literature and the origin of many of the ideas and values that underpin our society. It has broadened my knowledge, challenged my perspective and helped me to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of what it means to be human in a complex world.
In Australia, a fair go is often quoted as one of our most highly prized values. Trying to persuade students to study an area they are really not interested in or have no desire or aptitude to work in simply because that degree is cheaper, is not really a fair go. A fair go means more than just economic prosperity. It is also about the opportunity to pursue dreams and achieve mental and emotional well-being and happiness. Punishing students financially for pursuing their passion for the humanities is not a fair go.
The plan to more than double the fees for humanities courses is also likely to have an impact on diversity. Traditional disciplines like history and philosophy have long been criticised for being the preserve of wealthy white elites, especially male. The humanities is the study of our “shared human experience”. We need to hear the voices that express the wide diversity of human experience. We need students from a wide variety of backgrounds to have the opportunity to study the humanities. The study of humanities should be within the reach of all, not just the privileged and the wealthy.
I am still outraged at the plan to double the fees for humanities students. It is not fair. But I am not dissuaded. In fact, I am even more determined than before. In the wake of the Government’s attack on the humanities, I believe it is even more important to stay our course, to continue our study and to put our critical thinking skills to use, speaking out for injustice and advocating for change.