OPINION

Opinion: One of the most ill-considered, anti-intellectual 'initiatives' seen for decades

Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the university changes as a fait accompli. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the university changes as a fait accompli. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Occasionally you comes across a minister who really grasps the detail of their portfolio. Passionate, intelligent, and committed to introducing positive change; reforms for good. Sometimes, however, a politician understands that they don't really grasp the complexity of their subject. This doesn't matter, because public servants do - and sometimes (as long as they treat the portfolio with respect and care) incremental alterations are just as good as wholesale reform.

Then there's Dan Tehan.

He's absolutely correct about one thing - our tertiary education system needs reform. Unfortunately his attempt at this necessary improvement is right up there as one of the most ill-considered, anti-intellectual government "initiatives" we've seen for decades. What really elevates it to a level of transcendental incompetence, though, is that it won't manage to achieve the one thing Tehan claims he wants to achieve: boosting science and productivity. It has all the fascination of watching a terrible car crash unfold in slow motion, or a child pretending they can fly accompanied by the watcher's tragic knowledge that they can't.

Let's begin, first, with the startling timing of this announcement. We haven't yet emerged from the COVID-19 recession (which has hit universities harder than any other part of the economy than tourism), and we're at the point right before high school students are about to sit their exams. Bam, bam, a double hit. No warning; just sending sudden shock waves through the sector like a child playing in a bath.

Has there been careful modelling of the effect of these massive changes? No, actually, none. Not a whiff of how it will affect the institutions, those employed in the sector, or the students about to transition to further study. Tehan's introduced his simple "price signal" with all the finesse of a restaurateur who suddenly doubles the cost of every chicken dish before standing back to admire the ensuing chaos.

Bad luck if you took a gap year before starting to study humanities.

So no research, no planning, and no preparation. Now examine what Tehan must have thought was the tactical brilliance of the announcement itself. The minister is not entirely self-unaware. Deep down inside, he must have dimly known he'd quickly look incompetent as soon as he came under sustained investigation. That's why the announcement was timed as a fait accompli (sorry Dan, foreign words, you'll need to look them up) before the six-week winter parliamentary break.

The key to understanding the scale of Tehan's blunder comes with this realisation. He doesn't quite 'get' the whole point of education, let alone creating knowledge and harnessing the benefits of interdisciplinary knowledge.

This breathing space is in fact space for hostility to the changes to grow and spread. From a "feel-good" start - of course we understand the need for maths and science - the inconsistency and arbitrary nature of the "solution" is rapidly becoming apparent. By the time Parliament resumes, the hapless Tehan will be ripped apart. He's given opposition a chance to coalesce in the community, and for Labor to get its lines straight. When it finally arrives, the blowtorch will ruthlessly eviscerate the shoddy thinking and guesswork that underlies the changes.

Now look at the detail. Study a subject as part of an arts degree (shudder) and the fee doubles. Study exactly the same course as part of teaching, and the cost drops. The eventual HECS debt to students will depend on their ability to arbitrage. Maths and logic are intimately related; today biology is revealing new epistemological truths: why shouldn't philosophy simply reposition itself as science? Indonesian history: bad. Same subject, rebadged as language and society, a quarter of the price. University shifts from being about knowledge to names; from ideas to branding. This is, actually, fortunate, because it will offer institutions the chance to save some academics by simply changing the designation of subjects or emphasising particular aspects of the courses.

Far more importantly, however, the changes bear no relationship to something normally beloved by intelligent conservatives - market forces.

Tehan is introducing a Cuban model of education, where the cost of running a course is completely divorced from any economic considerations. It's based, rather, on a simple ukase (again, Dan, look it up), completely unrelated to cost of delivery or perceived outcomes. Why do an arts degree here when you can pick one up overseas at a fraction of the cost?

It's difficult not to believe that Tehan's proposal represents a carefully planned attempt to demolish our fourth-largest export earning industry, while here at home even conservatives wanting to study theology will be outraged.

Today's column was actually meant to be about the marvellous innovation occurring within universities. Last week, the ANU's new Entrepreneurial Professor Owen Atkin held a wonderful, interdisciplinary hackathon, dealing with a major issue for Australia: the increasing difficulty of growing crops on a dry continent. Note the formulation - not as climate change (which would have generated predictable outcomes), or salinity, or soil-type, but rather as the sort of problem that would warm the heart of even Scott Morrison: boosting agricultural productivity.

It's brilliant because it opens up new ways of seeing the problem and new paths to resolve it.

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The university is creating knowledge to resolve real issues, not simply training people to solve other people's problems. It's exactly the sort of thing a university should do. It's about getting people from all faculties who are on a strong research trajectory and assisting them in developing solutions that will improve the real world.

The key to understanding the scale of Tehan's blunder comes with this realisation. He doesn't quite "get" the whole point of education, let alone creating knowledge and harnessing the benefits of interdisciplinary knowledge.

In his ideal world, young people would be sitting in lecture halls, earnestly taking notes and preparing earnestly to solve problems so as to act as cogs in the great, bureaucratic machine that is the economy. This is vital. Pride in a trade - whether carpentry, accountancy or journalism - is a critical need for building the individual and the nation. But education is, or at least should be, about something far more than job-training.

Broader concepts, like understanding the importance of freedom and what constitutes happiness, are essential. They don't bring in the money, but without them life is meaningless.

Education should be about meaning and not simply how to make money.

There's a remarkable degree of intellectual arrogance underlying this package. Tehan thinks he can improve on a process that's developed, incrementally, over a thousand years. He apparently doesn't understand that the real aim of education is not simply to churn out answers to exams or how better to work for other people; the truly vital skill is working out the question that needs to be asked in the first place.

  • Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.