Lee Duffield

Edited by Lee Duffield
Freedom and Truth

Blitz on the universities – road to anywhere?

Large-scale changes for Australian universities, under thin cover as an emergency move for COVID-19, look like politics and marketing – not so much a thought-out plan for Australia’s future.

Australia needs at least one specialist college of liberal arts.

If the fees scheme announced this week goes ahead, it would certainly be productive if a few of the main universities closed down their ‘vocational’ science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses and went for high end intellectual quality.


They would be keeping the projected high fee-paying humanities courses, and getting rid of science-based ones that can cost a lot to teach, but will be bringing in cheapskate fees.

These liberal universities would preserve their integrity by not transferring money out of humanities, to pay for the STEM courses – a rancid and corrupt rip-off bound to take place in the STEM-burdened academies.

At last, and at least, with the high fees, students in humanities would be guaranteed good access to their intellectual mentors and teachers – the lecturers and tutors – in small-group or one-to-one situations. Students whenever asked, survey-after-survey, consistently say they want that, as a key way you get to learn – you go to those who know what you want to know.

Those liberal universities could also expect to have ample funds for advanced digital learning and research.

They would of course run courses in mathematics and science, but on a basis of developing thought, working towards excellence, not entry level jobs as the main goal – possibly moving on to curiosity-driven, rather than applied research.


Fear not for jobs.

Students out of a high-fees college of excellence will fan out well into the economy, as graduates with a good degree in humanities do already; and they can add on vocational courses as needed, as they do already. It is after all a service economy in many fields. The core of liberal education after all is the idea that if you learn about something well, you can go on to do anything.

Having specialist universities, including ones in humanities, is not a new or lonely idea. The former Vice Chancellor of Melbourne University, Glyn Davis, recently published a book about the Australian universities system on the theme that all of the universities try to do everything, and it’s a great waste. He mourned the loss of small independent specialist colleagues like art schools that were drawn in to the greater university system. Against all that, he also managed to complete the book with no more than cursory reference to theories of how learning occurs and what place lecturers and tutors play in the scheme of things.

Young students entering the system think about such things as what they want to know. They make choices based on their competency and interests. As graduates in fields where they are best motivated, they are best positioned to get a job. That is of course a ‘humanities’ idea – putting the human organism at the centre.


On the other hand pushing and cajoling students into STEM is based on a false assumption, and some subterfuge, and has a bad track record.

The false assumption is the idea that STEM is practical and tough, feet-on-the-ground stuff, that will not only produce engineers in white safety helmets, but a legion of Nobel Prize winners working up things like new metals, all licenced to Australia, and a cyber genius brigade, creating the smart economy, beating off the Chinese like nobody’s business.

Where is the proof, at least the market research to show this might really happen? Where is the reassurance that the investment and extra fees will be a better bet than placing something on the first try-scorer at the footy?

The last time they had a science mania, in the 1960s, the Menzies Liberal government led off with the first federal intervention into schools education, with its high schools science laboratories program.

It was a hunch they had, that you could force a STEM-ish future, and it was a world-wide thing. An outstanding case was the British Labour PM, Harold Wilson, with his visionary speeches about the “white heat of technology”.


All that promotion still did not make science courses popular, especially as it turned out they did not lead to jobs. B Sc graduates can get jobs, but not all of them, the jobs are not abundant, and if they force up the numbers in science courses there’ll be a dole queue.

Already attempts to force up the numbers studying in that field have been posing a threat to the actual quality of science which is taught.

It is not uncommon for universities to make courses like Engineering an Honours program for all, whereby they flatter themselves that the standard is high, being ‘Honours’, while they collect more fees for the extra year of study.

It is a chimera, as also they will let the students in at a modest matriculation grade, to make sure of the numbers. Those let-ins cannot be expected to perform at any level of excellence — so the pressure comes on to lower the standard.

This writer had occasion to find out about such deluded practices while serving on the governing council of one university. It goes on across the tertiary sector. Likewise in the jobs-orientated disciplines of Education and Nursing the battle for numbers and “market share” which happens, must also put the pressure on to lower the standard.


How about the new science mania; will things get even sillier?

The construct, STEM, is itself a device from America, made for marketing. science and maths subjects, which do not lead to bulk jobs, but are supposed to get subordinated to engineering and IT, which do have jobs, most of the time. Match them up and you can sell more courses.

So much for reasoned talk here, about this latest attempt by government to re-engineer learning, industry, thought and society. Consider it now at the level of prejudice and cheap rhetoric.

Read STEM as hard-headed, practical stuff – philistines’ idea of what Aussie should mean. Read humanities as weak, girlie, lazy, artsy and useless.

It is how Liberals are talking, thinking, starting to campaign (not to mention the mooing and baa-ing in the Nationals pens) — and how they think workers, being voters, think.

At the time of the manufactured science mania in the 1960s, the prejudice had more kick in it, more political marketability, as in those days only a small minority progressed into the final two years of high school. Many missed out unfairly. There was plenty of defensiveness, anti-intellectualism, jealousy, resentment against university students, especially perceived pansies and social parasites there to read books and paint pictures. After decades of much better educational opportunity, Scotty from Marketing may find it less easy to get up the level of hatred.


Not only that, but humanities students are accused of being there to campaign all the time against conservative interests, so there is a motive to punish them. As many of them do study social issues it is to be expected they will be well represented at the barricades — not a reason to trash learning and thought. In the realm of the angry government backbencher the war on humanities is a war on people you fear and do not like, nothing at all to do with knowledge, learning, or preparation for jobs.

In this particular social set, pricing up the old BA is a great plan, a retro blessing; make it available most especially to those who have Trump-like dads with the wherewithal to pay. So, let’s have perhaps a new-look Bachelor of Marriage for young bourgeois womanhood – some English literature, a language here and there, bit of biology, art, dance, ‘easy’ stuff. Price out skanks who want freedom and no climate change.

Looking at the sketchy ‘plan’ from Canberra , and listening, so far, in vain to hear a whole argument from universities management; it takes you back to other times, as when, it was said, the worst thing you could say to somebody in Australia was “don’t be smart.”


The ‘plan’ itself wants to impose a regimen on universities where they will charge more than double the present rate for humanities subjects and give big discounts on the science side. There’s an idea of pricing individual subjects, instead of having a set rate for all subjects within a whole degree course – and so it can encourage students to mix and match expensive subjects and cheap ones, ‘academic’ ones and ‘vocational’ ones.

The mixing and matching idea, which actually was popular at universities in the 1970s, is a contradiction in the case of the 2020 plan. The overall thrust of the plan is not inter-disciplinarian, it is a crude re-casting of the old and unproductive schism between the “two cultures”, sciences and arts. Expect Nobel laureates in science with Year 10 credentials in humanities, arguing incompetently, bemoaning an inability to convince everybody about the beauty of science; expect in return innumerate history dons, and the like.

Overall enrolments numbers are to be increased with no funding growth. A sounder idea might have been to put more into technical and further education (TAFE), and primary university degrees right across the disciplines, with vocational courses or TAFE to complete it – a tried way that would fit the abilities and interests of the thousands of extra students.

In some way not demonstrated, the university changes are meant to fire up the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 may provide opportunities and excuses for many other rash, reckless, unresearched ‘reforms’ in the coming months.

Almost needless to say, the pursuit of knowledge has gone on over many centuries across the humanities, old observations too dreary to replay. There has been a response from the Humanities and Social Sciences associations, patiently trying to explain to these conservative Ministers, the crucial economic and social value of their disciplines in these times. Humanities work is work that tells why; it tells the context for all work, even all the great practical stuff they do in STEM.

Published by Lee Duffield in Subtropic.