This is an Outpouring: An Open Letter to the Education Minister

Artwork: Milly Yates
Edits by Rachel Chopping

To Dan Tehan, the Education Minister,


You have deemed it permissible to increase the student contribution for the humanities by 113%. That is why we find ourselves here, rallying our anger and thoughts into these words. We ask that you stop and listen. 


In congratulating yourself for benefiting 60% of young people entering universities, you are failing to include the remaining 40%. As a representative in our Federal Government, you have a duty to 100% of students who choose to enter tertiary education. 


A 113% hike in fees actively disadvantages future students by enforcing a monetary blockade to their desired education. You are signalling to past, present and future arts students that their degrees do not hold value, that employment opportunities for arts graduates will be dismal, and that young Australians should reconsider their pathways. You reinforce a state of psychological turbulence. You tell the 40% of university applicants that their degree is of lesser value to society and therefore they must pay this difference from their own pockets. 


COVID-19 has been an incredibly taxing period for all. A myriad of studies highlight the concerning effects of isolation on mental health, particularly amongst young people. Rather than kicking young Australians while they’re down, you need to support and enable them to excel in the areas that they are passionate about, not those that you have deemed valid. 


You are fixated on the economic value of jobs. In multiple government releases, you have asserted that this decision is vital to Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19. The assumption that Arts degrees and economic growth are incompatible is flawed and wholly unsubstantiated. As a 2019 Graduate Outcomes survey reveals, Arts students are more likely to get jobs than Maths and Science graduates. This study shows that three years after graduation, 91.1% Arts graduates were employed compared to 90.1% of Science and Maths graduates. Three years out, Arts graduates were on average earning $70,300 to the $68,900 of their counterparts with Maths and Science degrees. 


You refer repetitively to a toolkit of skills, asserting that the fee changes will “provide our young Australians with the skills they need for the jobs of the future”. Here you imply that the skills taught in Arts degrees are not those of the future. Yet an analysis of your own government’s publication of the ten attributes that employers of the future will be demanding throws these statements into serious doubt. Amongst these skills are creativity, originality and initiative, analytical thinking, complex problem-solving and emotional intelligence. These skills form the backbone of Arts degrees. These are the skills which prepare students for a future where technological advances, shifting knowledge landscapes and globalisation ground work spaces within endless uncertainty and fluctuation. Moreover, these skills are transferable between professions and industries. As a 2018 Deloitte Access Economic report reveals, transferable skills are the key to the future, where Australians are projected to have 17 different employers, and five to seven career changes over their lifetimes. What future workplaces demand, Arts students will supply.  


Evidently, the rhetoric around this new policy has been purely framed in economic terms. Yet in making this argument, you forget that tertiary education centers around the flow of knowledge. With your suggestions and its consequences, this flow has been hardened, an economic transaction now replacing the once fluid interactions between a university and its students.  


You yourself must know and cherish the role of the Arts, having studied this degree at Melbourne University and later pursuing further studies in foreign affairs and trade. Without it, any understanding of the world is rudimentary and obsolete, a testament to humanity’s devolution, not its evolution. But you seem to have forgotten its intrinsic value to our society beyond a monetary figure.


Let us remind you.


Driving, walking or biking to university and work, we listen to the news, audiobooks, music and podcasts. We engage with global and diverse voices, listening to their thoughts and absorbing new information which shapes our understanding of an ever-shifting cultural, political and social landscape. In snatches of free time, we devour books and avidly consume TV-shows. These are physical and digital channels of the Arts that have been a vital component of getting millions through lockdown periods across the nation.


We sit in the tutorials, or more recently, tune in over Zoom, to debate with and listen to our fellow students. Together we navigate the cavernous intersections of politics, economics, international affairs, defence, all ensconced within an ever important subtext of gender, class and race.


During Parliament Q&A or watching the 7:30pm news, the knowledge grounded within our Arts degrees helps to explain the complex and changeable power dynamics of parliament of the seats that you hold and of the trust that our society places within you.


Raising our signs during a protest, joining thousands in a social movement, we question this power that you have been gifted. It is only through the Arts that we can challenge failing institutions and policies, resulting in a better understanding and connection to all the diverse individuals who call this place home. 


Sitting across from culturally and linguistically unique people, whether it be in a restaurant, library table, family dining room or Zoom tutorial, the Arts underpins the basic empathy and understanding we need to honour Australia’s multicultural society. 


Travelling overseas to our neighbouring countries, the interconnections and relationships that we study in our Arts degree are key to building long-lasting and genuine connections to our neighbors in the Indo-Pacific, and to cement Australia’s role as a global leader in this region.


The Arts enables us to question the mundane, the everyday, the norms taken for granted within society. It informs and nourishes. That is why we exist within a functioning society today. It ultimately encompasses all foundations and functions of our society; history, culture, politics, the fine arts and this, we argue, should be accessible to all. Not just the few. A future where 40%of students risk losing this accessibility is no future at all. 


We ask you to propose policy that seeks to unite rather than fracture our society. 


We ask you to propose policy that recognises the value of an education in the humanities. An education that fills the demand for transferable workplace skills and supplies our society with vital channels of criticism, debate and empathy.


We ask you to propose policy that looks beyond an economic lens, beyond a vision of universities as generators of productivity and money. We ask you to acknowledge that Arts degrees exist not only in terms of economic transactions, but within thought and cultural economies. 


We ask you to propose policy that listens to our criticisms, absorbs our demands, and addresses our deep-seated concerns.



Two Arts students studying at the ANU and Melbourne University




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