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Liberal thinking

Simon Marginson on an Australian seminar that considered the local implications of the 'English experiment' with humanities funding

The withdrawal of public subsidies from humanities and social science programmes in English higher education has sent shock waves around the world. This is widely seen as a more significant precedent than the £9,000 tuition-fee cap or contestable markets at the top and bottom ends of the league tables.

The world still straddles the "two cultures": in the US and Canada, for example, they are combined into faculties of the arts and sciences. Subsidising just science-based areas fosters a lopsided "idea of the university" and offers a strange suggestion of what the academy is - or so it seems to many international observers.

But humanities and social science academics outside the UK also know that the old J.H. Newman certainties are wavering. Treasury departments across the world are watching the English experiment with interest. If the humanities lose students, this will be seen as proof that the classic disciplines have limited market appeal - and if they don't, it will be seen to vindicate coalition policy.

These forebodings are running through non-science circles in Australian universities at the same time as a government-appointed committee reviews public funding. The review is being led by Jane Lomax-Smith, a former Lord Mayor of Adelaide, and reports on 31 October. Its brief is to frame a new system of public subsidies by discipline and level, based on a defined public/private split of benefits.

This takes the review's work into difficult conceptual and policy terrain, and not just because governments are spooked by spending increases. Public benefits are hard to define and measure. This is not the same as saying that those benefits don't exist, but it renders especially vulnerable to underfunding those liberal disciplines that are dependent on assumptions about societal benefit.

It is clear that neither Australia's Labor government nor its Lomax-Smith committee will follow Lord Browne's English pathway through this terrain (although if the conservative parties were in power they might have done).

All the same, no one knows what the review will produce and academics in the humanities and social sciences are watching closely. For two decades they have been hurt by poor relative funding rates and low international student numbers, except in business studies. The review will shape the short-term economics and long-term trajectories of all disciplines.

These issues were aired at the end of last month at a University of Melbourne seminar on the public funding of teaching in the humanities and social sciences. The discussion - pithy, eclectic and sparkling - drew economists and political scientists together with historians, cultural-studies scholars, philosophers, university leaders, lobbyists and policy watchers (a reminder that liberal disciplinarians are not only good at talking but also good at explaining ourselves to ourselves).

There were no glib answers. After Stuart Macintyre, laureate professor of history at Melbourne, located the liberal disciplines in a narrative of nation-building, economists Peter Sheehan, John Freebairn, Bruce Chapman and Andrew Norton identified their private pecuniary benefits, private non-pecuniary benefits (for example, better health) and collective benefits, such as common culture.

It was agreed that policy assumptions about the public/private split are politically, not technically, driven; that non-pecuniary private goods and collective public goods are hard to pin down; and that not all that is valuable is measured.

There was disagreement about interpretations of graduate-earnings data by discipline, but agreement that collective externalities were discipline-neutral. Sheehan and Glyn Davis, Melbourne's vice-chancellor, noted that the policy rationale for the liberal disciplines was as much social and cultural as economic.

When the emphasis shifted to teaching and social and cultural rationales, answers became discipline-specific. Philosopher John Armstrong asked: "How do we get people to want the humanities enough to pay for them?" Literary scholar Stephanie Trigg and cultural experts Graeme Turner and Stephi Donald took the room from Chaucer to China. Barry McGaw, former education director at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, debunked domain-free generic skills.

The larger problem, referred to by former Labor finance minister Lindsay Tanner, is how these disciplines connect to the public in an era when the town hall meeting has gone, when cultural content and the democratic rationale for funding must find their way in the meta-network of focus groups, "shock jocks", tabloids, websites and blogs.

There was a strong feeling that the liberal disciplines were vital to all this - provided they could slot into the right policy framework. But is that the policy on offer?

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