Pragmatism and ‘fundamentalism’ on the funding of the humanities

While clearing out my office earlier this month I found lots of old media clippings. Compared to the early 2000s, the higher ed debate now seems less ideological. I’m not sure exactly why, though the NTEU‘s lower profile in policy debate is probably part of it, along with the arrival of a Labor government, which attracts less heated opposition than a Coalition government.

But sometimes the old style of debate re-appears, as it did in this swipe at me in today’s Age for being a ‘market fundamentalist’, written by University of Melbourne English professor Ken Gelder.

He was responding to this article, which was a pragmatic analysis of higher education funding politics, based on a presentation I gave to a seminar on the public funding of the humanities and social sciences.

My argument was that given Australia’s political and economic arrangements the chances of significant increases in public funding for the humanities and social science were low. Smaller university English classes aren’t likely to win out as a spending priority against the many other pressing political demands. Labor and Liberal governments have behaved in quite similar ways on higher education funding, because whatever their ideological differences they face the same political imperatives.

There is only one group of people with a significant interest in higher funding for the humanities and social sciences, and that’s the students themselves. Despite all the jokes about arts degrees, despite all the critiques of postmodernism etc, and despite the pretty ordinary employment outcomes of arts graduates, demand for arts courses is not just resilient, it is growing.

More speculatively, following John Armstrong (also dismissed as a ‘fundamentalist’ by Gelder), I suggested that students might pay more than they do if arts degrees were better than they are (though Gelder does not quite understand the point I was making, as his opening paragraph indicates).

But if you have willing customers, surely they are a better prospect than governments that have consistently shown themselves to be unwilling funders? What looks like common sense to me is ‘fundamentalism’ to Gelder.

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Gelder also remarks:

[Norton] said that arts faculties at universities were seeking “big increases” in public funding. Nothing could be further from the truth. [emphasis added]

But in their submission to the base funding review, the Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and the Humanities call for government funding to be lifted to the OECD average, which would be a very large increase.

  1. A nice corrective to a misreading of yourself! Andrew’s essential point is sound: my own relatively new liberal arts faculty in a venerable Japanese university charges substantially more than other faculties in the same institution. Yet it attracts plenty of good students because of the distinctive curriculum. We will have a nice test in an environment closer to Australia’s with AC Grayling’s ‘Bloomsbury experiment’ that will create a premium ehumanities institution in London.

  2. At the private, not-for-profit, Bond University the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences has made a consistently higher financial contribution when compared to other areas …

  3. Rafe’s roundup, August 21 at Catallaxy Files - pingback on August 20, 2011 at 11:59 pm

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