As we gathered on our university’s oval for a student picnic, the sweetness of home-cooked contributions cut sharply against discussions of the treatment of marginalised students by academic philosophy. Undergraduates considering majoring in philosophy ask us if things will get better, or if we have any tips for making it through combative classroom debates – questions that are almost always soundtracked by the background chatter of dispirited postgraduates harping on about grim job prospects and publication rates.
These questions are particularly pressing for us in our capacity as members of Minorities and Philosophy (MAP), a chapter at the University of Melbourne that is dedicated to addressing questions of minority representation in academic philosophy. As we approach our second anniversary, still battling many existing institutional challenges, we are confronted with yet another barrier to change.
If carried through, education Minister Dan Tehan’s recently-announced plan to roll out a new funding package for Australian universities this will see enormous changes to the cost of undergraduate courses. The intended consequence of the overhaul is to create 39,000 new places for students by reducing the overall amount that the government pays for each student.
The government would not be proportionately increasing its financial contributions. Rather, these funds would be sourced partially through increasing the cost of degrees across different disciplines. Specifically, students can now be expected to pay 113 per cent more for a degree in the humanities. Such reforms should be put in the context of other drastic changes to university funding. In 2018, there was a $2 billion reduction in research funding, with an additional $300 million reduction in December 2019.
Raising the cost of degrees comes alongside major reductions in the price of degrees that produce ‘job-ready’ graduates. Nursing degrees are set to decrease in student cost by 46 per cent, while degrees in mathematics and agricultural studies will decrease by 62 per cent. While the government assures us that the package aims to increase student enrolment without pitting the humanities against vocational and STEM degrees, it seems that this one-sided battle is unavoidable: the price difference between the degrees naturally provides a financial incentive for students certain courses instead of others. Humanities degrees are simply too costly.
Prior to these announcements, we would have told incoming minority students that, despite its problems, academic philosophy is worth their while. Things are now made bearable given supportive faculty and the on-going project of disrupting oppressive philosophical norms. Persevere and you might just be able to crack into a profession that does a hell of a job trying to keep you out. However, the advent of these price hikes reduces the confidence with which we would offer such advice. Is it really fair of us to recommend to minority students that they enter into an academic field with so many ceilings to break?
Academic philosophy has a minority problem. We can understand it as three distinctive systematic failures. Firstly, academic philosophy fails to substantively research minority philosophical topics, such as the philosophy of race, class and gender. Secondly, academic philosophy fails to strategically employ minority philosophers, such as women, people of colour and those from low income backgrounds. Thirdly, academic philosophy fails to provide minority students a stable pipeline from high school education, to undergraduate studies, and then to postgraduate research. One might secure a postdoc only if they are lucky.
It will be no surprise to learn that these problems are interrelated. By failing to provide a clear path enabling minority philosophy students to move confidently through educational stages ensures that there are fewer minority philosophers to hire and thus that there is less minority philosophical research produced to challenge dominant philosophical traditions.
The introduction of higher costs for degrees in the humanities, in which philosophy is implicated, will not just obstruct the flow of this pipeline, but it will redirect this flow through other channels. This should be concerning. Obstructing minority students from entrance into philosophy and redirecting them to other disciplines involves distinctive wrongs.
Increasing the cost of humanities degrees will erect further financial barriers for students from low-income backgrounds. Such barriers mean that those struggling with financial hardships will need to factor in their social position when making a decision as to which course they will undertake. We should be worried about making humanities courses a risky investment for students from low-income backgrounds. Philosophy must not be reserved for the wealthy. Privilege must not beget privilege.
The humanities already keep out low-income students on the basis of the stereotypes we have about academics in these areas. In particular, philosophy is often seen as a rich white man’s game, and justifiably so. We need only look to major figures and theories in the philosophical canon to get a sense of who has dominated academic philosophy. If minority students, who fail to fit the criteria of the stereotypical philosopher are directed away from philosophy and toward ‘job-ready’ degrees, such stereotypes will become further entrenched, and even more difficult to dislodge. Consequently, it will be even less likely that students in the margins will see philosophy as a fitting educational path.
There are further concerns. Decreasing the presence of minority students in philosophy means that certain standpoints will be less represented. When minority representation is almost invisible, those minority students who are able to beat the odds and manage to make their way through financial and social obstacles will still have to contend with imposter syndrome, stereotype threat, pernicious norms, precarious job markets, insecure jobs, in addition to the problems they face in their personal lives.
In the event that these funding reforms get passed, what might MAP and university faculty tell the undergraduate who’s asking whether things will get better? We’re not sure. The advice we can offer those minority students is that they will face yet another barrier, without knowing how steep it will turn out to be.
The authors are founding members of the Minorities and Philosophy chapter at the University of Melbourne.