The promise and betrayal of arts and culture in regional Australia

Over the last couple years, declarations of a crisis in the humanities have started to become shrill. As Joel Barnes observed in 2020, in Australia such pronouncements are at least partly a response to the 115 per cent increase in the cost of student contribution to humanities degrees since the passing of the so-called Jobs Ready Legislation package 2020. Apart from a BA majoring in English or Languages, a Bachelor of Arts at most universities in Australia will now cost a student $45,000.

The pandemic didn’t help. It wasn’t just the loss of international student fees, which hardly affected arts and humanities enrolments: domestic students who were disengaged by the abrupt shift to online-only learning also left universities. In areas like the arts and humanities where the Socratic tradition of dialogue and debate forms a pedagogical core, the isolation and lack of sociability hit hardest. In the aftermath of the pandemic, after the student exodus and academic job cuts that saw the iceberg calving of whole areas of study, Melbourne University Emeritus Professor and public intellectual Simon During (2022) went further to pronounce in The Conversation a profound sense of ‘demoralisation’ amongst humanities academics and students.

Ken Gelder’s more measured response, published in Overland last year when universities were already on the post-pandemic rebound, is that the humanities are evolving rather than simply declining. This is at least partly true, and uniquely so in Australia. Just the other day, when I was asked to approve a student’s overseas exchange to a prestigious university in the UK, I was stunned by the limited offering and subject choices there, which seemed to me in many ways stuck in time. In Australia, relatively new post-disciplinary areas like cultural studies, gender studies, or Indigenous studies, and more recent trans-disciplinary hybrids like medical humanities, digital humanities, or environmental humanities inflect discipline areas in ways that reflect a shift from traditional fields of cultural value to new areas of perceived relevance which are growing. And, despite the media’s representation of university humanities programs as hotbeds of the culture wars, in most Australian universities of the twenty-first century, traditional areas of cultural value are taught in ways that can and do sit alongside more radical configurations. On this count, I agree with Gelder, when he writes:

Much better to broaden their domains and influence, to encourage the humanities to become more promiscuous, interdisciplinary, inter-faculty (think of the medical humanities, the environmental humanities, the urban humanities, etc), more creative, more (politically, culturally, socially, economically) engaged with the wider world.

Yet it would be wrong to paint an entirely rosy picture. Gelder’s riposte to During’s pronouncements of decline claims that the humanities more broadly defined appear to be thriving by all accounts at the University of Melbourne, where he teaches. Like all narratives and counter-narratives, the real truth lies somewhere in the middle. And I do not refer to the middle of Melbourne.

Australians who live outside the leafy enclaves of the University of Melbourne or any of Australia’s other major cities—in the suburban, regional, and remote regions of this country—are being underserved. Even as regional universities are regarded as engines of their community, regional university arts and humanities programs have been gutted by decades of underfunding, by a revolving door of institutional restructures and degree makeovers, by the internal funnelling of resources toward STEM and medicine, and by the broader government diversion of funding and resources to larger metropolitan institutions. This is a simple case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

As far back as 2014, in their report to the Australian Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, Graeme Turner and Kylie Brass noted that

the contingencies of managing institutions in a system subject to the demands of school-leavers have led to choices that have reduced the number of HASS offerings within the sector, and significantly reduced the presence of HASS offerings within regional campuses and regional institutions.

Less choice means fewer students means less choice. This seems to be the definition of a race to the bottom.

Yet during the pandemic, when online teaching and learning closed off positive prospects for study to some students, the same restrictions opened the possibility of studying online to others, in places that appeared to become newly accessible. For regional students who were unable to physically move to metropolitan universities, due to usual range of factors including family commitments and lack of resources, the nation’s richest cultural institutions suddenly became open. While the dust is still settling, metropolitan universities in the arts, humanities, and social sciences have gained students, and regional universities arts, humanities, and social science programs have lost them.

One narrative of this latest development is student choice. Students who can attend a more prestigious metro university will do so, and when regional universities have undergone a decade of clawing back course choice and subject offerings, the greater resources shored up in metropolitan universities would appear to offer the most choice—and not only in terms of course and subject offerings. Metropolitan universities are sleeker machines: they often boast better facilities as well as better systems for marketing to, recruiting, and enrolling students.

Here is where the fine print comes in, and why these universities are not always the best choice for students, especially from regional, remote, rural, or disadvantaged backgrounds. Data sourced from Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) Australia suggests that students in HASS programs at regional universities are not only markedly more positive about their overall student experience than students at metropolitan Group of Eight universities, by large measures and across many indicators—they also rate the support they received in these programs much more positively than students in metropolitan universities.

Regional higher education is a stated priority for Labor. The new Albanese government inherited a report called ‘National Regional, Rural, and Remote Tertiary Education,’ commissioned under the previous government to form a strategy which placed ‘equal opportunity and educational equity’ right ‘at its heart.’ Noting that there are fewer options available for tertiary education in Regional, Rural, and Remote (RRR) Communities—where individuals often face additional financial challenges and costs associated with study and are much less likely to undertake and complete tertiary education—the report observed that

individuals who grow up in RRR areas are 40 percent less likely to gain a tertiary level education qualification and less than half as likely to gain a bachelor degree or above by the time they are 35 years old, compared to individuals from metropolitan areas.

Jason Clare’s first commitment as the new Labor Minister for Education was to prioritise boosting the number of university students from under-represented backgrounds, including regional students, to attend university. But the sad truth is that most of these students and most of this funding will go to Australia’s already rich metropolitan universities, as Greg Craven noted in his scathing critique of the nation’s higher education policy published in The Australian last November, when canny recruitment drives undertaken by sandstone universities were offering new scholarships to disadvantaged students from regional areas.

Craven’s angry condemnation of these manoeuvres bears repeating in longform:

They [the policy makers who directed this latest catastrophe] miss the reality that it is universities of service [regional universities] that will educate most Australians, pluck them from social disadvantage, and focus research on their problems. Why not start with these engines of opportunity and social justice, rather than the university equivalent of a yacht club?

Now they are poaching socially marginal students from the regions and underprivileged suburbs, with scholarships and other sweeteners only rich institutions can afford. They do not actually want these students, given their historic rationale for existence has been to invite only the elite. But to enhance equity credentials, they will tolerate them, and politicians smile gullibly on their efforts.

Of course, these cynical initiatives merely spread equity over previously exclusive campuses. Total equity will remain exactly the same.

Worse, these newly privileged students will be academic cannon fodder. Sandstones have neither the interest nor the learning structures to cater for students beyond the ritzier suburbs.

The new National Cultural Policy announced by the Commonwealth government on January 30 was also partly informed by a prior report, entitled ‘A View from Middle Australia: Perceptions of Arts, Culture and Creativity.’ Aiming to capture the perspectives of swing voters in regions like Townsville, where I live, the report noted that ‘middle Australians’ feel disenfranchised by elite versions of the arts. They prefer the term ‘arts and culture’ because it reflects their broader understanding of arts that reflect their lives and their stories.

And there’s the rub. The promise of the widening of regional higher education under the Gough Whitlam government during the 1970s, which led to the proliferation of new colleges and universities in this country, was that the new system would be transformational and accessible to all. Indeed, in the era when university education was free and arts and humanities programs were booming, this was the case. And not just in the classroom: in research, as well.

At James Cook University, new history subjects and research areas inaugurated by Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos were partly inspired by their experiences of race relations in north Australia. Reciprocally, the engagement of locals like Eddie Kokoi Mabo in the university led to transformations not only of the discipline of history, but of the nation. This is an exemplary model of what regional higher education in the arts and humanities can do in ways that connect research and teaching to what matters in a community, in ways that reshape broader agendas and the public good.

Yet there is an increasing risk that a further division between an already existing divide between teaching-focused HASS programs in the regions and research-focused HASS profiles at sandstones will intensify in this environment. It has been regularly noted that the emphasis placed by national measures of excellence geared toward research performance disadvantages regional HASS programs, with only 4 per cent of ARC Australian Research Council grants in HASS fields awarded to regional universities.

As research by British higher education academics Sarah Hayes, Michael Jopling, Dennis Hayes, Andy Westwood, Alan Tuckett, and Ronald Barnett reveals, agendas for data-driven measures of research excellence that increasingly dominate higher education are underpinned by national policy frameworks that ‘virtually silence regional voices’ in way that furthers ‘a territorially agnostic discourse about universities, downplays institutional history and purpose, risks concealing innovative practices, and fails to tackle entrenched inequalities.’

In a post-Covid environment, where local responses to global problems have become front and centre, these academics raise the need for research agendas and university missions to re-connect with regional community.

Powerful arguments can and have been made against nationally homogenous higher education policy frameworks that overlook regionality. These arguments call out the ‘singular, generic concept of ‘excellence’’ as a driver of elitism in higher education, geared toward metropolitan universities. As the authors of ‘Raising Regional Academic Voices’ go on to note:

Universities are immersed in different regional contexts, local economies and historical backgrounds. They are interlinked with the communities, schools, industry, local dialects, culture, demographics, deprivation and affluence of the places that surround them. Competing simply to occupy a similar national space risks silencing these diverse voices, and overlooking varying needs, talents and opportunities in each region.

In a 2020 American report on the value of regional public universities to the regional and national economic output as well as social good, Celia Orphan observes that regional universities are particularly vulnerable to recession and must be protected from fluctuations in the economy. Regional students deserve choice, and regional universities are best positioned to offer it. Restrictions to choice force students not just into metropolitan universities that may not have the programs designed to support them, but also out of university entirely. These restrictions also mean these students are much less likely to see their lives and their stories mirrored in the work they study and produce, work that can otherwise transform their lives and the communities in which they live.

Under Gough Whitlam, the university system was greatly expanded in Australia. Arts and humanities programs flourished. In Townsville, Henry Reynolds, Noel Loos, and Eddie Kokoi Mabo met and collaborated under these circumstances. What better case can be made for the promise of the arts and humanities in regional Australia? Decades later, this promise seems to me to have been betrayed. As the national cultural policy was launched at the beginning of this year, I hope that it is a new beginning for arts and culture in regional Australia, in our communities and universities where there is a place for every story and a story for every place. I’ll be holding my breath until the budget announces institutional funding later in the year.

While Australia’s regions still offer affordable housing, and are in the midst of a skills shortage, one would think the government would be redirecting resources to grow the regions not just in terms of industry and regional arts grants, but also in terms of regional universities, remembering that these are powerful places of arts and culture too. These are great places to study, live, and work. They offer invaluable opportunities for community collaboration and collaboration with other units of the university.

But many of us based in regional Australia have been holding our breath for a very long time.


Image: flickr

Victoria Kuttainen

Victoria Kuttainen is an Associate Professor of English and Writing at James Cook University on the Bebegu Yumba Campus in Townsville, North Queensland. She chairs the Regional Humanities Community of Practice hosted by the Australasian Consortium of Humanities Researchers and Centres.

More by Victoria Kuttainen ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. A great article Victoria, and very timely for me. We have just moved our daughter from Townsville to Brisbane for University. As a recent year 12 graduate with a passion for the Humanities there was no other option for her and our family. There has been decimation of humanities courses at James Cook University, our local uni, as a result of a lack of resources from government funding AND the criminal fees charged for these degrees. So, as a scholar of the Humanities, my daughter must leave town – taking with her all her skills, talents and passion, not to mention the money she would spend in support of the local economy. Your point about Henry Reynolds, Noel Loos and Koiki Mabo is absolutely on point, without the vibrant history department of the 1980s at JCU, one of the nations most enduring court rulings could never have happened. Bring back funding and investment in the arts and humanities in the regions, and watch us thrive!

    1. Honestly, Claire, it’s so tragic. Regional unis have been doing so much, for so long, with so few resources… but at at certain point it’s time to call it. THIS IS NOT FAIR! The misbegotten funding of higher ed has to get fixed. She, you, they, we deserve better. This matters for regions, and not just for regions.

  2. I completely agree. As someone who was lucky enough to study at JCU when the History Department was thriving, I despair for my son, who cannot have the same opportunities here. When Humanities skills are so in demand in workplaces, it’s both short-sighted and criminal to excise them from universities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *