Simon Birmingham said he rejected academic projects which were of “wrong priorities”. Picture: Kym Smith
Simon Birmingham said he rejected academic projects which were of “wrong priorities”. Picture: Kym Smith

Unis deserve better than this cheap shot

DO YOU remember those bumper stickers that asked, "If you can read this, thank a teacher"?

As a social science researcher in the humanities, I always wanted to see one asking, "If you can think objectively, thank a humanities teacher".

I recalled that last week when Australia learnt how the former federal education minister Simon Birmingham unilaterally kyboshed 11 research grants awarded to humanities and social science scholars in Australian universities.

The 11 grants totalled $4.2 million - a sum making a huge difference to a university department's ability to teach young minds but a drop in the ocean compared to other public expenditure. Remember the Howard Government splashing $850 million to advertise itself, and WorkChoices, between the 2004 and 2007 elections?

To date, Birmingham - who holds an MBA and is now minister for Trade and Tourism - has not explained his decision but merely tweeted an unsurprising defence: "I'm pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like "Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar'."

Birmingham seeks to adopt the role of custodian of public moneys - a perfectly legitimate function. But the minister let the cat out of the bag in the second part of his tweet: "Would Labor simply say yes to anything?" - a concession this is less about public austerity and far more about demonising Labor, and exploiting cheap anti-intellectual prejudice, as we approach the next election.

La Trobe University Vice Chancellor Professor John Dewar were among those who condemned the process of grant rejections. Picture: Stuart McEvoy for The Australian.
La Trobe University Vice Chancellor Professor John Dewar were among those who condemned the process of grant rejections. Picture: Stuart McEvoy for The Australian.

All Australians will be affected - and should be shocked - by Birmingham's decision regardless of whether they attend, or have attended, university. First, higher education is Australia's third largest export earner, with international students funnelling $28 billion into our economy last year. Australian higher education - almost exclusively built on public investment in public universities over 150 years - is of a platinum international standard, and that excellence reaps huge dividends for every Australian.

But Australia's high standard - and our export revenue - depends on how much governments support universities. Yet governments of both political colours in recent years have treated universities as annoying burdens which, they insist, must increasingly obey market forces. It's ironic the Morrison Government doesn't subject the Australian Institute of Sport to those same forces, having just awarded this body an extra $50 million for the 2020 Olympics. Exactly what economic return do Australian taxpayers get for that investment?

Second, we should all be alarmed at how the minister interfered politically in a long-established and independent due process conducted by a panel of experts who do more than read a project's title. With about 80 per cent applicants failing each year, research grants are incredibly difficult to secure. Only the top scholars get them, and they're awarded on extremely tight criteria. Rest assured that, should a grant be awarded, the project will be completed to a high level of expertise, and its findings will add to our understanding of the world.

Simon Birmingham said he only rejected grants he believed were being of the wrong priorities. Picture: Bianca De Marchi
Simon Birmingham said he only rejected grants he believed were being of the wrong priorities. Picture: Bianca De Marchi

Third, and perhaps most alarming, is what appears to be a government attack on the humanities and social sciences - law, politics, history, archaeology, literature, religion, languages, literature, the arts - as subjects somehow less valuable to industry and society than the physical sciences. Yet numerous surveys show how employers love humanities graduates because they tend to have higher communication skills, can work collaboratively, and can problem-solve via innovative thinking.

More critically, the humanities (teaching us to weigh arguments objectively far away from personal bias) and the social sciences (measuring human behaviour) are essential to the maintenance of any healthy democracy. Indeed, a world where only numbers and formulae are used to organise people can lead to only two types of society: either a dangerously anarchic collection of individuals viscously pursuing self-interest, or a fascist state where all are controlled by a bean-counting chief.

Yes, it's the humanities scholars over the centuries who drew the intellectual road maps from tyranny to democracy. Such works as Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1689), Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws (1748) and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) are just a few examples of humanities research that directly shaped the democratic Australia we all enjoy today.

Ultimately, the personal value of a university education extends far beyond the potential to earn more money. Research also finds exposure to tertiary education increases a graduate's propensity to volunteer, to be more tolerant of those who are different, to take a more active interest in public affairs (and therefore keep governments accountable) and to enjoy better health and personal happiness.

It's easy to be cynical of public investment in a public good. It's also a little dumb.

Dr Paul Williams is a senior lecturer at Griffith University's School of Humanities.



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