Right now we need sociologists more than we need scientists. We need philosophers more than we need forex traders. We need activists far more than we need accountants. There has probably never been a more important time in human history than now to stop and have a good think about where we are going, as we begin to reach the environmental limits of our planet. How predictable, then, that our government should this year launch a renewed attack on universities, and in particular on those disciplines that might help us to do so.
Reflective thinking has, of course, rarely been encouraged by governments or the corporations whose interests they serve. Universities are fine as long as they are churning out lawyers, accountants and managers, grist for the mill, but philosophy and the humanities have long been viewed with suspicion. So when Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce indicates that he wants to make a university degree nothing more than a glorified trade certificate he is simply articulating the logical outcome of decades of tertiary education policies from both Labour and National.
University student bodies were centres of dissent during the heady ‘70s when many of our senior MPs were cutting their political teeth. The children of western affluence had begun to question the point of it all, to ask fundamental questions about what makes 'the good life'. Was material accumulation all there was? How many people would we sacrifice to maintain it?
Interestingly, a number of studies suggest that it was around this time or slightly earlier that economic growth in the west stopped correlating with increased well-being. Those hippies were on to something. For whatever reason though, and there were many, that momentum came to a halt. Politicians ever since have wanted to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The student loan scheme radically changed New Zealand universities. After 1990 students and policy makers alike increasingly viewed tertiary education as essentially vocational, simply in order to justify the graduate debt that accompanied it. The result has been a burgeoning of the business and law schools while humanities have been in decline. Clearly this isn't happening fast enough for the current minister, who now suggests that tertiary funding be linked to employment outcomes. This was a bad idea when it was applied to Youth Training Schemes (YTS) in the 1990's. It's an even worse idea applied to universities, polytechs and waananga today.
The most unconvincing element of all this was the minister's explanation.
"This will send a strong signal to students about which qualifications and which institutions offer the best career prospects - and that's what tertiary education has got to be all about," he said.
The second part of that statement is almost certainly his actual opinion, but to suggest that cutting funding to philosophy is the best way to let students know that they will earn better money from an LLB is just insulting.
Students are well aware of their career prospects, that's why most of them are getting a tertiary education in the first place. Let's be frank - this is about the minister wanting to influence what kinds of things get taught, despite his bald denials.
Which brings us back to the question of what is the point of a tertiary education anyway? Of course we need vocational training we need skilled doctors, teachers, electricians and plumbers. But we also need philosophers, historians, critical thinkers and questioners and to my mind we need them more urgently.
Humans have become extraordinarily good at doing all kinds of things, but we seem to have stopped asking why we bother. The fundamental economic rationalism that informs this government, that sees education and culture and the conservation estate for that matter - as valuable only insofar as they serve the economy, is a profoundly depressing philosophy. That it is out of step with the thinking of most New Zealanders should make the minister pause.