As the only member of our family to ever attend university, I was recently tasked with accompanying my younger brother to his first Degree Expo at the University of Sydney. Beginning our tour with the leadership quotes and ranking statistics scribbled across Eastern Avenue, we were first shepherded through F23 and into the world of Medicine or Engineering. As we walked, I felt James drift towards the magnetic albedo of the bright white Science Hub tents jotted along the Quad Lawns. It was not long before we ran into one of his high-school friends, who was entranced by the elegant calligraphy of a STEM degree.
“Do you go to uni here?” she asked me in an attempt to make small talk.
“Yes, I do. I’m in my third year,” I replied.
“Oh wow! That’s so cool”, she mused. “What do you study?”
“Arts. History and International Relations”, I said.
She made a face and the conversation strained. When I asked James later what he thought of her response, he quipped: “I don’t know. I guess no one wants to do Arts. I certainly don’t.”
The writing was on the Great Hall’s walls. Here were two young people who, through no fault of their own, could only associate a worthwhile degree choice with a Bachelor of Science. They had just seen some of the University’s most prestigious buildings erase any mention of the Arts subjects they teach. They were enticed by a staff member’s casual mention of the comparatively low cost of Biology units. The pair returned to the Quadrangle twice more that day because they could not believe the diversity and accessibility of the 40 science majors on offer. I only noticed the Arts demonstrations on my way out, tucked away in MacLaurin Hall.
It would be easy to dismiss these moments as verbal or written ephemera, coincidental and otherwise inconsequential to the story. It would be easier still to deploy them as reasons why the Arts should be elevated above STEM. But to do so would be to reinforce the harmful disciplinary hierarchies already limiting young people. It would ignore the University’s deliberate reproduction of these hierarchies across its Open Day. Above all, it would forgo any chance to expose these narratives and rewrite their wrongs.
Each time I raise these concerns with James, he responds with perhaps the most quintessential concern of all young people today: “I want a job at the end of it, don’t I?” Each time, I remember the moment I learned that the Morrison government’s Jobs Ready Graduate Program would double the cost of my degree, all while subsidising the cost of STEM degrees. This was the first time I had ever truly reckoned with the concepts of “employability” and “debt”; I had only ever wanted to write, job or not. Yet amidst a recent 7.1% HECS indexation, and the federal Labor government’s refusal to repeal the Program despite concerns raised in the Universities Accord interim report, these corporate narratives have never been more pressing.
Like many of his peers, James’ decision to undertake Nursing is undeniably one of genuine passion and excitement. As his older sister, I am overwhelmingly proud of him: he wants nothing more than to help others, and I cannot articulate how lucky our community is to have him. His choice of such a traditionally “feminine” degree, one which has been chronically underfunded by consecutive state governments, disrupts the sexist logics associating STEM with “masculinity” and prime campus real-estate. I am also thrilled that his friends, mostly young women, are excited to work in STEM and close the industry’s 18% gender pay gap.
But I also taught James how to read and tell stories. I remember sitting with him at the dining room table, watching him paint and draw, before he could talk. More recently, I know that he very nearly chose to pursue a career in Education; his need to see the effects of his work first-hand could have easily pivoted to another discipline. As an Arts student, I am deeply saddened that I cannot pass on a culture where he feels this creative passion is supported.
And yet, as I stood in the middle of the Quadrangle that dewy Saturday morning, I realised that I had never felt more unsupported by this corporatised University. I lack a clear path and I fear my life-long career will be limited to a museum or local politician’s office. I am writing in a context where discipline-specific Honours seminar units in the Arts are being continually reduced or removed, and there is no longer a guarantee that I can pursue the work I love.
Of course, this starts with structural change in government policy and the University’s messaging. But it relies just as much on us: on the narratives we write for ourselves and what we hope our younger siblings, cousins and friends will read. I do not expect F23 to showcase every degree in its four walls at the next Degree Expo, nor do I want to see faculties rotate their positions each year. What the kids need — what we need — is a language to express equality, cooperation and solidarity between the Arts and STEM. And it must be written, big and bold, on every corner of the Great Hall’s walls.