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In face of disinformation & democratic decay

In the face of disinformation and democratic decay, humanities graduates are more important than ever, Pearls & Irritations, 14 June 2024

By Michelle Arrow, Frank Bongiorno, Carolyn Holbrook and Joshua Black

As university history lecturers, we like to imagine that we are instilling in our students a deep interest in the subjects we teach. We want to foster a lifelong curiosity about the world, as well as the ability to pursue knowledge and refine understanding. Happily, these capacities also happen to be those needed in modern workplaces, such as being able to evaluate information, think independently and communicate effectively.

These are also increasingly vital qualities in the struggle to safeguard Australian democracy against the erosion we are witnessing in many countries around the world.

While it has complex causal factors, such as wealth inequality and grievance-driven populism, democratic decay has been assisted and accelerated by digitally-delivered disinformation and misinformation. With the rapid advance of AI technology, including so-called ‘deep fakes’, this problem will only get worse.

The Commonwealth government has become increasingly active in seeking to counter sources of disinformation, such as those sponsored by hostile foreign states. Regulation of online media is another area that it looks increasingly likely to tackle.

The government has also recognised the need to increase Australians’ currently inadequate civic literacy. The Strengthening Democracy Taskforce in the Department of Home Affairs is weighing options for a democracy education program, as is the inquiry announced in March 2024 into civics education, engagement, and participation by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

While these measures are important, we need to enhance the capacity of our own citizens to safeguard Australian democracy. This can only be done if we instil in young Australians the ability to discern the difference between accurate, evidence-based claims and those which are unwittingly distorted or deliberately designed to deceive and mislead. These are precisely the skills imparted by an education in the humanities.

Given the urgent need to educate literate, critically-minded citizens, we are concerned and dismayed that the federal government did not take the opportunity of the recently delivered Budget to reverse the Morrison government’s Job-ready Graduates package (JRG), whose introduction in 2021 more than doubled the cost of most humanities and communications degrees.

The Final Report of the Australian Universities Accord, released in February 2024, was blunt about the failure of JRG, and called for it to be scrapped. The report showed that the 113 per cent increase in fees for many Arts subjects – history included – had failed as a price signal. It failed young people by saddling them with more debt. And its assumption that humanities graduates were somehow not ‘job-ready’ was based not in evidence, but in ideology. As the most recent Graduate Outcomes Survey has shown, humanities graduates remain highly employable. The Australian Historical Association’s own research has revealed the value of a history degree in a wide range of jobs and professions.

Not only was JRG left untouched in the recent Budget, but the overall investment in higher education was cautious and tentative. The Accord Final Report made clear that its vision of a bigger, more inclusive and equitable higher education sector would ‘require a large investment from the Australian Government’ (p. 1). The budget papers propose to invest $1.1 billion over five years in higher education reform, the same additional expenditure involved in the revised Stage 3 tax cuts, and barely 5 per cent of the expenditure allocated to implementing the 2024 National Defence Strategy over the same period.

There are valuable investments in the Budget, including placement payments for some students and more regional study hubs, all geared towards increasing the tertiary education attainment rate of the working age population from 60 per cent to 80 per cent between now and 2050. But undoing the mess that is JRG must be part of the government’s purported desire to strengthen Australian democracy and increase workplace productivity.

It is also crucial to improving access to higher education, and the pathways to civic participation it provides for students from backgrounds that are under-represented amongst university students.  Many such students enrol in humanities degrees, and they are running up trails of debt as far as the eye can see. So much for the government’s commitment to democracy, inclusion and fairness.

Improving access to tertiary education for these students is not just important for Australia’s national prosperity and productivity, even though this is the way it is framed in the Universities Accord Final Report. It is crucial to maintaining a healthy and socially inclusive democracy. And it is about fostering the aspirations of all Australians, including their ability to pursue lifelong learning.

In her speech against the JRG package in 2020, Senator Jacqui Lambie declared:

“I refuse to be the vote that tells poor kids out there no matter how gifted, no matter how determined you are, dream a little cheaper because you’re never going to make it, because you can’t afford it.”

The Albanese government would do well to heed Senator Lambie’s words and scrap JRG as a matter of urgency. It is a scandal that it remains in place more than two years into the life of a Labor government.

About the authors:

Frank Bongiorno and Michelle Arrow are President and Vice-President of the Australian Historical Association, respectively, Dr Carolyn Holbrook is a member of the Association’s Executive Committee, and Dr Joshua Black is the Association’s Executive Officer.