The Federal Government announcement of $1 million in grants to help universities save their arts and humanities courseshas stirred the Opposition.
"If Dr Kemp really cared about the future of non-vocational courses in Australia's universities he would end the commercialisation of the sector and reverse the 1996 funding cuts. Grants of $1 million are no more than a drop in the bucket" according to Mark Latham, Shadow Minister for Education and Youth Affairs. Not to be too negative, of course, "The release of Labor's education policy in the forthcoming campaign will contain a series of initiatives designed to end the commercialisation of education in Australia and restore the viability of the arts and humanities in our universities."
We seem to be in tall-order territory. Not the Northern Territory, where according to Mr Latham, ceramics, sculpture and cartography courses have been cut and the English Department closed. Nor at the University of NSW with cuts in sport and leisure studies, applied arts and performing arts and "the closure of an entire campus" covering teacher education. The story is similar across Australia, including our own ANU losing Russian and "downsizing of philosophy, history, linguistics and sociology".
So what's the real story? And what should a good government be doing about the arts in universities?
Professor Chris Healey, Dean of Arts at the Northern Territory University explains. An English Literature Major is no longer offered in Darwin, beyond a part time tutor to assist some students using correspondence courses. Ceramics, sculpture and cartography have gone. How? Because Federal Government funding is tied so closely to student numbers that the administration finds itself forced into making cuts in areas with few enrolments which can't immediately justify the cost of staff. There is no room for cross-subsidising less popular subjects from funds generated by more popular areas.
The issue is more complex - and this is where the politics comes in. Tight government funding in itself is not the cause of the arts missing out. Because potential students have been imbued with the belief that they should not take intrinsically interesting courses, but only those that are seen as employment related, the enrolments in arts areas are reduced - and the funding follows the enrolment pattern. The cuts in the arts become inevitable - and once they are made, reversal is unlikely, since potential students' attitudes seem to be confirmed by the cuts. A very vicious circle indeed.
Will $1 million do the trick? Our man in Darwin, pointing out that the universities have not yet received official notice of the grants, thought that little would be left for the far-flung regions after the great eight universities have had their share - and $1 million divided by eight is not going to make any real difference even to them.
But even many millions of dollars might not help unless the political culture changes. Professor John Niland, Vice-Chancellor of University of NSW, speaking at the National University of Singapore in June, on The Challenge of Building World Class Universities in the Asian Region, began with "universities, where, as the Irish poet and educator W. B. Yeats so famously observed, the process of educating young minds is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a bucket". "The Spirit of Inquiry," he said, "as with the Olympic Flame, passes from one generation to the next."
Professor Niland praised Singapore for fostering original, indigenous research so that it can become a science and technology producer, rather than merely consuming knowledge created elsewhere. "That is also what we mean by the idea of Australia becoming the clever country (not just the lucky country)". It is rather ironic that a poet, no longer available for study in Darwin, should begin Niland's speech about knowledge which appears to be defined as science and technology. It is also relevant to note that his academic colleague Donald Horne used the title "The Lucky Country" in a satirical sense in an era when "she'll be right" was the common philosophy.
As President of the Australian Vice-Chancellor's Committee, Professor Niland needs, it seems to me, to be more careful that the correct political message is sent to potential students. And indeed he made a point of the value of his university's College of Fine Arts, which sends a large team of students and staff to the Singapore International Design Forum and, in defining a world-class university, he continued the Olympic analogy by saying universities are "decathletes - a competition run over 10 events, not one - but for university reputation building the distances are set at the level of a marathon - many marathons in fact!"
So the ALP is right that $1 million will not dent the losses to the arts in universities and the commercial employment-fodder philosophy of the Government is an additional cause of the narrowing of universities which will prevent them from being world-class. All we need to know now is how the ALP proposes to solve both the financial and attudinal problems which are beginning to look intractable. And we do need to know now, rather than later, before too many demoralised staff have been lost and the arts traditions sink forever.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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