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University fee deregulation will not hurt the humanities

People will always want to know more about humanity: the past, the present and the future. Fee deregulation won’t change that. Flickr/Trey Ratcliffe, CC BY-SA

As I travel around the nation, it pains me to find much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth in the senior common rooms of our universities. The academic union reports that morale has never been lower. What is the cause of all this angst? Deregulation of tuition fees.

According to the received wisdom, deregulated fees will create a crisis for the arts and humanities. Driven by the fear of large debts, students will abandon English, philosophy and art for accounting, forensic science and sports management. English departments will disappear and history departments will themselves be history.

This would all be pretty terrifying, except for one fact. The humanities have supposedly been dying for decades. Curiously, the long slow death of the humanities seems to have little to do with the facts.

Last year, one in three Australian graduates received a degree in the creative arts, society and culture. (This is the government-approved title for the humanities and social sciences.) These enrolments increased 5% over the preceding year. And 29% of all doctoral degrees awarded last year were in humanities, arts and social sciences.

What has happened to these students? Defying the conventional wisdom, humanities graduates are not all serving hamburgers at McDonalds. In fact, humanities majors have lower unemployment than the national rate, as well as higher mid-career salaries than science graduates.

Of course, this could all change if university fees are deregulated. But I doubt it. The income-contingent loan system makes students largely insensitive to fee increases.

Payments are delayed to the future and collected through the tax system. Loan repayments seem more like a tax than a loan, and students act accordingly. This is why none of the previous fee increases resulted in students turning away from the humanities.

In England, which has a similar fee system to ours, the humanities experienced a one-year enrolment dip when fees tripled, but the next year enrolments started increasing again.

The income-contingent loan system also makes it possible for retired students to pursue degrees without much fear of debt. As they are not earning money, they are not required to repay their loans.

Retirees are the stalwarts of humanities departments. Every year at graduation, I encountered a queue of students of a certain age, waiting to receive their PhDs. I always asked them for their story. It usually went something like this:

All my life I worked as an executive in a big company but what I always wanted to do was study ancient history. Then I retired and I saw my opportunity. I enrolled in a PhD and here I am.

I heard the same story from those studying philosophy, poetry or art. I never once encountered a student who came back to university in retirement to satisfy a burning desire to do a PhD in accounting.

When working life wanes and it comes time to feed your soul, the arts and humanities are the necessary nutrients. Life, death, love, beauty, courage, loyalty - all of these are omitted from our modern curricula and yet, when it comes time to sum up our lives, they are the only things that ever really matter to anyone.

On Ash Wednesday, the priest admonishes the faithful to “remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”. This is a salutary reminder of what we all have waiting for us. In the meantime, like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, we spend our years trying to find some meaning in our lives. This is the job of the humanities, and this is why the news of our death is greatly exaggerated.

This is an excerpt of a speech to be given at the Higher Education Reform Summit this week.

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