I’ve always been perplexed, and annoyed, by the tone of much of the conservative criticism of university education in the humanities and social sciences (I deliberately omit the words “logic” and “argument”). Either pundits, pollies and culture warriors extrapolate from some personal or anecdotal experience of a few isolated sociology departments from the 70s and early 80s and imagine an Althusserian circle of hell trapping innocent young minds in the cold dead hands of French structural-Marxism, or completely forget that teaching Australian literature and history was a radical thing to do in the 1960s, and one which many of their forebears opposed.
There never, also, seems to be any recognition that teaching history, “great books” or classics is something that the feared (and largely imaginary) academic left generally support, and that the evisceration of the teaching of these disciplines which are loudly trumpeted as essential to our nation has in fact been the work of managerialism and quasi-market funding mechanisms.
The story of redundancies and the failure to replace history, religion and classics staff at UQ, for instance, is a narrative not of insurgent postmodern hordes, but of the Vice-Chancellor’s creaming departmental budgets for “strategic initiatives”, and the creation of accounting models which allocate funding based on bums in lecture theatres rather than the intrinsic value of subjects and disciplines while seemingly always facilitating a proliferation of Pro-Vice Chancellors and a modicum of marketing staff.
The actuality of the situation is very starkly in view in moves announced by the Vice-Chancellor of QUT last week to close the School of Humanities and Human Services, where I was employed from 2000 to 2004.
Professor Coaldrake said the school was losing between $200,000 and $400,000 a year, which was unsustainable. He said the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Human Services had high attrition rates and poorer employment outcomes than other QUT courses.
Professor Coaldrake said QUT’s strength in humanities was its Creative Industries faculty at Kelvin Grove, which was internationally competitive.
“For us, that is the new humanities,” he said.
Peter Coaldrake, in another Courier-Mail report which doesn’t appear to be online, today defended his decision with reference to Julie Bishop’s diversity agenda in higher education. If students wanted to choose a liberal arts degree, he suggested, they could go to UQ or Griffith. It’s ironic that this “downsizing” comes at a time when Melbourne Uni is leading the way in re-valuing the humanities and a generalist undergraduate education.
It’s also ironic that QUT only began teaching humanities and social science in the early 1990s at the time that the amalgamation with BCAE took place. Under the Dawkins agenda, universities which originally had or had evolved from specialist roles (BCAE as a teacher education institution, QIT as a technological and technical college) felt that they had to replicate the classic model of a university.
QUT shifted away from this direction in the early years of this decade, when the Faculty of Arts was abolished, and replaced with the Faculty of Creative Industries. At one stage it was envisaged that many humanities and social science staff would transfer to the new Faculty, but decisions were taken by its Foundation Dean, John Hartley, which meant that this didn’t occur. Only cultural studies and literature staff moved across, and the Arts degree was left in a sort of limbo, existing outside any Faculty structures. Nevertheless, as I recall, promises were made that if research performance could be intensified and student numbers held, and the degree redesigned to be a “vocational” Arts degree in line with QUT’s branding, the School would survive.
Although there’d been announcements about a proposed restructuring, no one knew until last week that the degree intake this year would be the last, and that staff would be made redundant. It’s anticipated about 20 academic staff will go. My understanding from the information I’ve seen is that QUT will no longer teach political science, political economy, sociology, international studies, or ethics.
Some remnants of the School will be collapsed into other Faculties – languages (insofar as they’re relevant to business), and possibly geography and history to allow education students to have disciplinary grounding sufficient to teach SOSE and senior subjects. Some of the human services staff will transfer to the Faculty of Health, where a new social work degree is envisaged (strangely, here, the “duplication” argument doesn’t arise…).
I don’t want to cast any aspersions on Creative Industries – where I know and continue to work on research with a number of excellent academic staff, and whose degrees are very worthwhile. What I lament is the legacy of the original decision which sought to separate out CI from a broader Arts education. There’s no doubt, for instance, that media and journalism students could benefit greatly from instruction in sociology, politics and history. I just don’t think that the dichotomisation of “new” and “old” humanities responds to anything other than corporate branding, managerialism and academic politics at the top echelons of the University.
While Coaldrake can argue that students have options in Brisbane other than QUT for an arts education (he could have also mentioned ACU, a University where I also teach), this is quite misleading. It ignores the value of the research done by academic staff at QUT, which will now largely be lost to the academy and the community as people take redundancies. It also ignores the specialisations that do exist within the degree – for instance in electoral behaviour, social theory, sociology of religion, South Pacific studies, applied ethics, and a number of other areas where other Brisbane universities have less of a concentration of expertise and sparse or no subject offerings.
The cold calculation of numbers, OPs, and attrition rates demonstrates what University management actually prizes – performativity as Jean-Francois Lyotard termed it, and marketability, and vocational outcomes. Universities are prone to a logic of management fads and counting the dollars from clients. What can have a dollar value assigned to it is good, and what cannot so easily is “old”. QUT has just given an honorary degree to UQ Vice-Chancellor John Hay, who’s dismissed those who want universities to retain vibrant research and teaching programmes in disciplines such as philosophy and classics as sentimentalists.
While education ministers, culture warriors and pundits constantly proclaim the need for education to transcend vocational calculations, the hard reality is that the only notion of social value that university managements subscribe to is incredibly narrow indeed. Australian higher education has just taken yet another step towards intellectual aridity and impoverishment.