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Don’t attack the humanities; they’re important for health too

Melissa Sweet writes:

Experts in the health sector have urged the Federal Government to abandon plans to increase charges for university students undertaking humanities courses, arguing that these studies make a vital contribution to health.

They also sounded the alarm about the impact of the changes upon the mental health and wellbeing of young people, especially those whose final years at high school have been hit by the pandemic.

Emergency physician Dr Clare Skinner says the social sciences have an obvious role in healthcare practice and policy – “these disciplines have given us definitions of ‘health’ and ‘healthcare’, and tools for evaluating the underlying causes of health conditions and the impacts of interventions”.

Dr Tess Ryan, an Aboriginal woman of Biripai country in NSW and President of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, highlighted the importance of humanities subjects in contributing to culturally appropriate and equitable healthcare, and raised concerns about the impact of the funding changes upon Indigenous Studies.  

Associate Professor Megan Williams, a Wiradjuri justice and health scholar, and a contributing editor and a director of Croakey Health Media, said the humanities are vital for community engagement, which is central to government policies including health, education, housing and even economics.

She said: “Humanities offer education on human rights and critical thinking. These are barely covered in health curriculum. They are essential to learn about for planning resource allocation, program design and delivery and evaluation.  Health curriculum barely covers program evaluation.”

Professor Fran Baum, Director of the Southgate Institute of Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University, said the humanities were vital for the work of public health, including for understanding the social, political and commercial determinants of health, and theories of political and social systems.

The law – another area where students are facing price hikes – was also vital for health, as the basis for understanding human rights and health and environmental legislation, Baum said.

Focus on jobs

Education Minister Dan Tehan last week announced a huge hike in student fees for humanities courses, citing projections that most new jobs over the new four years will be healthcare, science and technology, education and construction.

On that basis, students in nursing, the sciences and many other areas will pay less in fees, while the student contribution for law and commerce courses will increase by 28 percent, and by 113 percent for courses in the humanities, he said.

“We are putting more funding into the system in a way that encourages people to study in areas of expected employment growth,” Teehan told the National Press Club on 19 June.

The Academy of Social Sciences says the changes are short-sighted and problematic, while a joint letter to the Minister signed by more than 20 associations representing the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) said the move was “directly against the best advice and evidence that the skills provided by HASS study are increasingly important, in fact, essential to our future economy and society”.

The letter says:

Studying Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences equips students with highly valuable skills in critical thinking, creative problem solving, effective communication, advanced analysis and interpretation, and the ability to construct reasoned arguments and to question assumptions. These skills are important now more than ever as the world faces an uncertain future. The Arts and Humanities are the foundation of building a fair and prosperous society.

These changes you have announced will not help prepare the next generation for the future of work but will risk making the study of our history, society, culture and place in the world out of reach of all but the most wealthy students, at a time when this knowledge is more important than ever. Training in the Arts and Humanities must be accessible for all students, where equity, diversity and a plurality of voices are vital.

As academics who research, teach, and were trained in society and culture, humanities, and communications, we have seen first-hand the value of studying these fields to our students, and in turn to Australian and wider society. We note how many of our leaders across all sectors have HASS educations, including yourself and many of your parliamentary colleagues.

We condemn these fee increases and all that they represent. They are unfair and the greater burden you are placing on the next generation will only exacerbate widespread job insecurity for them…

We call on you to provide equitable access to higher education for all young people, no matter what they want to study, not least of all because the demand for HASS skills from employers has dramatically risen in the past decade. To not do so would be an unconscionable attack on Australia’s future.”

Meanwhile, a Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia statement says the decision to more than double the cost of journalism degrees “strikes at the heart of democracy in this country”, and is “reckless and short-sighted” when the industry is already under significant pressure.

The statement says:

This decision also effectively prices out some people from studying journalism at a time when there is a clear need to  have better representation in news of the full cross section of Australians.

JERAA calls on the Minister to draw on the critical thinking skills acquired during his own undergraduate humanities studies and consider the consequences of this decision.”

Professor Ian Jacobs, President and Vice-Chancellor at UNSW, says he is worried these fee increases will deter talented students who would otherwise study these subjects, particularly those from more challenging socio-economic backgrounds. 

He says:

Amid other concerns, I lament the stress that the prospect of extra fees will place on the already burdened shoulders of Year 12 students, whose efforts in tackling the Higher School Certificate have been derailed in so many ways because of the COVID-19 restrictions.

Many students in Years 11 and 12 have selected HSC subjects with a prospective degree in mind; courses whose prices may now be inflated. This same dilemma is true for Year 12 students who have made their preference choices – only to now be thrust into a different educational environment.”

This is the first in a series of compilation posts of health sector responses. Below are comments from Dr Tess Ryan, Dr Clare Skinner, Associate Professor Megan Williams, Professor Fran Baum, Amy Coopes, and Dr Toby Freeman. More responses will be published in coming days.


Undermining health and wellbeing

Dr Tess Ryan, President – Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association

Q: What is your view on the increased charges for humanities subjects?

It is absurd that the government would announce this during a time where students feel so uncertain about their future.  For those younger students attempting to finish in year 12 and move towards a university degree, they must feel incredibly nervous about future prospects. For students already attending at undergraduate level, this announcement acts as a signalling that their current course subjects may soon be largely redundant.  This will also have major impact on the University sector and Australian society as a whole over the coming years. It is disastrous. I know of many academics who have been left angry and saddened by this announcement and wondering if they will be able to continue their academic roles in the coming years if this policy goes through. 

Q: What role do the humanities play re the community’s health, healthcare, health research, practice, and policy?

The humanities subjects play a major role in this space, including that of culturally appropriate health care, equity and social justice which applies to most allied health and community settings. Not only that, but the health research currently being undertaken would suffer greatly in areas of emotional health and well-being and other holistic understandings of patients as complete people with lifestyle issues which factor into their health. Healthcare professionals without any education on historical factors which may have enabled a barrier to those accessing appropriate care is just one example of how this policy could have negative impacts. This also seems contradictory to so much research that has been done on not just an individual’s health condition, but other underlying factors which may encourage better management or impeded management of that condition. And as we know, health is not a one size fits all approach, and neither is across the board government policies relating to health delivery. It is hard to imagine what kinds of research will be undertaken in the future, or what policies could come of this, should this announcement be implemented.

Q: What will be the implications for Indigenous Studies and related courses at your institution or more generally?

I fear that Indigenous subjects will suffer greatly during this time we face as a pivotal moment in global history. Discussions relating to Black, First Nations, minority and ethnic peoples and how their histories have been ignored, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement and limited access to health care environments based on racism and discrimination and the justice system are all at the forefront in discussions I have had with students and researchers. Future students need grounding in the humanities space to fully form the language around what is happening right now, and not only for past events. These degrees won’t be available to students who are marginalised due to the high costs, and forcing them into choosing a different degree will only guarantee a lack of student attainment, which essentially goes against what the Federal Government says this policy would be for in the first place. What will happen to subjects that has strong connections to Race, Identity, Sociology, or the true history of Indigenous and First Peoples? And at a time when we need to see more Critical Race conversations occur, including the building and strengthening of such in the Australian academy, we could be facing a future where opportunities for such discussion are completely removed.

Q: Does a humanities background make any difference to students’ aptitude or performance in the health sciences?

An understanding of humanities can make a vast difference within the health sciences, assisting in building a comprehension of philosophy, history and society. While some may make snide references to why studying some theory is important, it is the building of knowledge in how institutions work for and against particular groups of people in society that can impact largely in health sciences. The health system also requires a large degree of communication to the public, so such degrees as Media and communications play a vital role in how best health professionals get their health messages across. If you consider the vast amount of health communication currently in the news relating to COVID-19, hiking up the cost of these degrees would suggest that the government does not see this as vital. What would the impact have been without the communication of these messages?

Q: What is your advice to the Government on the recent announcements?

Considering that most of those who are in high level government roles either obtained a degree before fees were introduced, or they themselves have Humanities degrees, this seems outrageous that they make this decision as a way to ensure students are ‘job-ready for future workplaces. I’d also suggest that punishing the Humanities portion of the University sector does nothing for student enrolments as a whole. A better way to prepare a future workforce is to prepare students for a better society which has a greater degree of ideological frameworks and how one must navigate through individualism in society. The government would be wise to consider far greater implications that economic benefit in the next year or electoral cycle, and genuinely ask themselves what kind of a future society they wish to see in Australia.

Q: Any other personal reflections to share on the role or the humanities in health education, or other comments you’d like to make?

For many First Nations students, this will effectively leave them unable to build their scholarship on understanding the Western system and how they must navigate through it. For many of us, we have seen everyday impacts of racism (both subtle and overt) which can impact on our daily lives. We see family sick and wonder why they don’t get the same levels of respect in their care when they visit a doctor, we see the amazing work done by Community Controlled Health services who work across numerous areas to assist community in managing their health. Often it is the Aunt who works in the Aboriginal Medical Centre who tells a younger person they need to go to Uni and get an education, so they can make something of themselves or help community when they return. Should this policy be implemented, it will have far reaching impacts on Indigenous peoples to build on that knowledge and assist community further.


“Short-sighted and mean spirited”

Dr Clare Skinner, emergency medicine physician, NSW

Q: What is your view on the increased charges for humanities subjects?

I believe that increasing fees for humanities subjects at university is short-sighted and mean-spirited. It demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of universities in society and is deeply insulting to many humanities graduates and academics who have gone on to make major contributions in fields which range far from the subjects they studied at university.

Q: What role do the humanities play re the community’s health, healthcare, health research, practice, and policy?

The humanities are all about exploring and understanding what it means to be human. The role of the social sciences in health care practice and policy are obvious – these disciplines have given us definitions of ‘health’ and ‘health care’, and tools for evaluating the underlying causes of health conditions and the impacts of interventions. It is difficult to lump ‘the humanities’ together, but each discipline contributes to human health by allowing us to get up close to the human condition.

Q: Does a humanities background make any difference to students’ aptitude or performance in the health sciences?

In my experience, students from humanities backgrounds thrived in graduate medical programs and in their subsequent careers. With analytical skills, critical thinking, and excellent written and spoken communication skills, many of my medical colleagues with a humanities degree are in leadership positions in health care and health policy. From my own perspective, my undergraduate degree in History, English and Philosophy has been relevant and useful throughout my medical specialist training and career in Emergency Medicine and clinical leadership. I draw upon the skills and experience acquired through BA(Hons) as much as my MBBS – and at strategic level, probably more. I consider my humanities degree my secret weapon in medical management.

Q: What is your advice to the Government on the recent announcements?

I ask the government to reconsider this unfair and poorly thought through decision. We need to keep the humanities strong, because understanding how human beings work is fundamental to health and every other human endeavour.

Q: Any other personal reflections to share on the role or the humanities in health education, or other comments you’d like to make?

Broad-based degrees are an entry portal to university for a diverse range of school graduates. They teach fundamental life skills and often become a pathway to further education, including vocational degrees. For me, a graduate from the local, comprehensive, government high school, medicine seemed out of reach, but a BA was the entry ticket to the world of higher education. We need to keep broad-based degrees accessible and affordable, to ensure diversity in the professions, and in public service and policy roles. 


The humanities are vital

Associate Professor Megan Williams, Wiradjuri justice and health researcher, contributing editor and director, Croakey Health Media

Q: What is your view on the increased charges for humanities subjects?

 This seems a biased decision with no evidence shown. It is not based on any clear projections, calculations, long-range forecasting. Therefore, the decision is ill-formed, ideological and ignores one basic point about several PMs themselves having humanities education.

Q: What role do the humanities play re the community’s health, healthcare, health research, practice, and policy?

Humanities are vital for community engagement, which is central to government policies including health, education, housing and even economics. This is barely covered in health education. Humanities offer education on human rights and critical thinking. These are barely covered in health curriculum. They are essential to learn about for planning resource allocation, program design and delivery and evaluation.  Health curriculum barely covers program evaluation. 

Q: What will be the implications for Indigenous Studies and related courses at your institution or more generally?

Most health faculties and schools fail to meet Indigenous staff targets. Indigenous health is frequently taught by non-Indigenous people, and in doing so risks excluding Indigenous peoples’ expertise, perspectives and nuances in models of care. Non-Indigenous people have a clear history of perpetuating deficit discourse about Indigenous health, and federal frameworks non-Indigenous people have made including Closing the Gap have seen health inequity worsen not improve.

Q: Does a humanities background make any difference to students’ aptitude or performance in the health sciences?

 Health professionals with humanities education are more skilled in program evaluation, including cost-benefit analyses – health education is inadequate about these and contributes to wasted resources.

Q: What is your advice to the Government on the recent announcements?

Over-turn the recent announcements. Reduce fees for humanities.

Q: Any other personal reflections to share on the role or the humanities in health education, or other comments you’d like to make?

As a provider of health education for the last 20 years, including a role in curriculum review and development, I have witnessed first-hand how poor research training is. Health sector workers are inadequately prepared to evaluate their programs, and cannot conduct economic analyses required to ensure effective and efficient services.


Skills for health

Professor Fran Baum, a Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Director of the Southgate Institute of Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University,

Q: What is your view on the increased charges for humanities subjects?

Deeply troubling. The humanities offer so much richness to society and assist understanding a range of social and health problems. For example, consider how much people are referring to historical pandemics (1918-19 flu) to learn lessons for the latest one.

One thing I’m not sure about is if social sciences are included under the term humanities. If so, that is even more troubling as social science is the basis of much understanding about how healthy societies work. Our CRE Health Equity rests on social science methods and theories. Understanding theories of political systems and social systems is vital to understanding health and its promotion.

Law is the basis for understanding human rights and health and environmental legislation – both so vital for health.

Q: What role do the humanities play re the community’s health, healthcare, health research, practice, and policy?

Huge role. Much of the understanding of social determinants comes from the humanities – important also to understanding and learning from past practice and mistakes. 

Literature teaches us much about understanding suffering and pain – whether it is in the form of poetry, novels or plays. (To be or not to be that is the question ……..)

Most of all the humanities and social sciences teach critical thinking and analysis skills – vital for so many other roles. Sociology offers insights in to the way society functions and what makes for health and how illnesses are socially reproduced.

Public health is multi-disciplinary and needs people who will focus (looking at pathogens down a microscope) but also needs people who look at how society works and how health is expressed in other cultures and learn from the comparison between them. Understanding the social, political and commercial determinants of health relies on social science and historical analysis.

Q: Does a humanities background make any difference to students’ aptitude or performance in the health sciences?

 Generally means they write well and have good critical analysis skills and are often better at constructing arguments than students from other backgrounds.

Q: What is your advice to the Government on the recent announcements?

Reconsider. Appreciate that a degree in humanities offers society a person with flexible and transferable skills and is likely to be well-prepared for an uncertain future where generic skills of critical thought and analysis will be vital to give Australia an edge in future societies and economies.

Q: Any other personal reflections to share on the role or the humanities in health education, or other comments you’d like to make?

My first degree was a single honour degree in history from the University of Wales where I focussed on 20th century social and economic history. As a working class kid I knew I was good at history but didn’t know what I wanted to do.

I never would have guessed it would have led to me working in a research institute with a focus on the social determinants of health. Yet my historical training prepared me very well for understanding the impact of social determinants – for example studying the impact of the industrial revolution on health and researching the impact of the Second World War on women and children (which was my thesis topic).

History teaches system thinking and the importance of considering all aspects of what is happening in a society in order to understand it.


Critical thought under attack

Amy Coopes, final year medical student, journalist and editor at Croakey

Q: What is your view on the increased charges for humanities subjects?

It’s hard not to see this through a very cynical lens as a form of social engineering targeting critical thought. Ironic coming from self-professed libertarians and proponents of small government 

Q: What role do the humanities play re the community’s health, healthcare, health research, practice, and policy?

As someone who works at the intersection of health and humanities, I see them as not only complementary, but in symbiosis. Life is much more than a biochemical process; the humanities are what gives this process meaning. Humans are social creatures, and creative ones too; why we do the things we do — including the myriad things that uphold or erode health — can only be understood through the humanities.  

Q: Does a humanities background make any difference to students’ aptitude or performance in the health sciences? 

Medicine is an art as well as a science, and it requires a repository of skills that go far beyond the STEM disciplines. As someone who has crossed from humanities into medicine, I do think it equips you with knowledge and experience and a perspective that helps you be a better doctor. You think about a person’s whole life and their whole context when you look at their health. You see that illness is often the confluence of complex factors in a person’s life, many of which are structural, and plenty of which are political. The cynic’s view is that this is precisely the reason a right-wing government would seek to disincentivise these two fields coming together – it is a threat to their agenda.  

Q: What is your advice to the Government on the recent announcements?

I’ve long abandoned the idea that this government listens to anyone except deep-pocketed lobbyists.


Adding to health inequities

Dr Toby Freeman, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Southgate Institute for Health, Society, and Equity, Flinders University

Q: What is your view on the increased charges for humanities subjects?

Lots of commentators have already pointed out the inequities that will arise out of increasing the charges to attend universities, and that targeting humanities will have a particularly gendered impact. Increasing inequities in education access can only further exacerbate already increasing health inequities in Australia.

Q: What role do the humanities play re the community’s health, healthcare, health research, practice, and policy?

Research has found that humanities makes people better doctors – more empathic, more emotionally intelligent, and less prone to burnout. People have also pointed out how many of our politicians have arts degrees. It is interesting to speculate if these reforms will impact our ability to have a diverse, intellectual pool of future politicians who can formulate public policy that shapes how healthy and equitable our society is. But mainly humanities gets at our very desire to live healthy, meaningful lives, and we will all be impoverished by any diminishment.

Q: What is your advice to the Government on the recent announcements?

These potential reforms need to be dropped, and a much more considered debate as the function our universities serve in our society needs to be had. This seems to further erode the funding and imagination for what universities are, constrained by a conservative, neoliberal myopic view of what a university’s role is in an economy.

Q: Any other personal reflections to share on the role or the humanities in health education, or other comments you’d like to make?

My undergraduate experience was a mixture of humanities (including philosophy and English) and health education (psychology). That has helped shaped my work throughout my career in very beneficial ways. We are all better thinkers, and better communicators for our engagement in humanities. Even politicians with arts degrees.

• More responses from the health sector will be posted in coming days

Further reading

How the pandemic response is undermining the public health sector

Comments 1

  1. Guy Gillor says:

    Rudolf Virchow, who helped lay some of the foundations to modern public health in the 19th century, is famous for noting that “medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale”.

    I studied for a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and in Geography, and an Honours in Political Science. The incredible breadth of scope of what I was able to learn in those years is immense, thanks to some amazing lecturers. From the final year of my BA, I knew I was interested in the political aspect of health and health services. When I got to my doctoral thesis, my interest and work became evenly split between social sciences and health, and I had one supervisor from each faculty. I have since worked in the areas of population health / public health / health policy, and I can’t imagine doing this work without the social sciences background I have.

    Those years enriched my understanding of the world and society in ways that shaped not only my future professional and academic work, but also deeply shaped my development as a person.

    Protect the arts and social sciences. Especially during a global pandemic. The significance of social studies during years of social and political turmoil becomes even clearer.

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