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Education: the Budget and the Humanities

Education - the Budget and the HumanitiesThe Federal Government’s May budget has been billed as an Education Budget. While more funding has been allocated to education, there has nevertheless been a national trend away from the Humanities and many Australian universities may drop studies and departments focusing on women and queer studies.

This year’s budget included the largest injection of funding into the higher education sector since the Liberals took national office. Key elements of their ‘Realising Our Potential’ commitments include $3.5 billion towards initiatives aimed at Australia’s areas of specific need, removal of a cap on full-fee student places and an unprecedented investment of $5 billion towards a University endowment fund, which will support capital works and research facilities.

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Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop heralded the budget in a statement, saying, ‘Realising Our Potential sets a framework for a flexible university system that is more responsive to student and employer needs. It acknowledges that our students are in the best place to judge what education path they wish to take.’

However, some student organisations have been critical of the reforms. National Union of Students (NUS), Western Australian President, Enrico Burgio told OiP ‘By making these drastic changes in the Federal Budget, the Howard Government is essentially transforming our universities into elitist institutions where students are not accepted on the basis of merit or academic ability, but on how much money they have.’

‘No amount of extra scholarships or minor changes to student income support will make up for the negative consequences that these changes will have for Australian students,’ Mr. Burgio said.

The Budget has also been widely criticised for its failure to pledge money towards humanities-based educational areas, such as women’s studies and sexuality studies.

According to NUS National Queer Officer Pete Johnson, ‘The scrapping of humanities based courses is a trend away from universities being vital centres of cultural and learning, and a step towards mere training grounds for those professions deemed profitable.’

The University of Western Australia, Murdoch University and Sydney Uni have all amalgamated Women’s and Cultural studies, whilst the University of New South Wales is currently reviewing their School of Women’s Studies.

Julia Horncastle, who is currently lecturing whilst completing her PHD at Murdoch University, believes that in the current political climate, courses which do not have high enrolments will be increasingly less supported as student are encouraged into other disciplines, jeopardising LGBTI students’ ability to study sexuality issues.

‘What is significant is that courses which have titles that include words such as sexuality, feminism or queer or gay and so on, attract such low numbers that even the politics of naming a unit is now very much part of the survival mechanisms for such “minority” subjects,’ she told OiP

And why the declining enrolment numbers? Natasha Stott Despoja, Australian Democrats Spokesperson on Higher Education, told OiP she believes, ‘there are a number of reasons why sexuality and gender studies might be suffering from declining interest. If you look at the history of this Government’s funding support you see an increasing focus on impact and on industry-related activity. This can set a tone within the system that makes it increasingly difficult for institutions to focus on providing courses that are not directly linked to one or more industrial applications, and as a result, units in disciplines such as social studies are not front-of-mind for students.’

‘It would be sad to see social sciences such as Women’s Studies disappear from the curriculum. While their benefit may be less tangible, they can play a transformational role to society in a way that the technical disciplines cannot.’

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