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British Studies and the Humanities in Australia

British Studies in Australia is in trouble in two senses – in a technical sense, which perhaps turns out to be not so very troubling, and in a larger, existential sense, which is much, much more troubling than most realise.


In the technical sense, you would be hard pressed to find any course in any Australian university described these days as “British History,” let alone as “British Literature,” “British Politics,” “British Law,” or “British Cultural Studies.” I write in fact as the last convenor of the Australian Modern British History Association’s (AMBHA’s) conference – and that was in 2007. The term in the context of Australian higher education simply reeks too much of an earlier time when British matters were seen to take up the space where Australian (or Indigenous or Pacific) matters might have been.


This technical death, though, does not seem to me to be especially tragic (and I am a self-identified historian of Britain). This is because the study of British power and culture actually thrives among Australian scholars today—it’s just that few will term it as such. Instead, Australians excel in what they prefer to call settler-colonial studies, postcolonial studies, constitutional studies, democracy studies, migration studies, Indigenous-colonial encounter studies, or studies into nineteenth-century Australia. Each of these fields centres British sources and would have been labelled British Studies in a previous era. (In 2015 I co-wrote with Leigh Boucher an open-access mini-history of recent “Antipodean” scholarship on Britain.)

 

I guess at one level it’s a shame that this move has occurred, since it does in theory cut out many profitable avenues for connection. Most of the scholars involved argue that their insights would challenge and improve discourses about Britain if absorbed by its interlocutors. But, at another level: maybe not. Australian scholars have evidently found more productive conversations by connecting with others via theme or interest than via geography. The decades-long struggle for Australian scholars of Britain to be listened to or remembered in the UK or in the NACBS has proved harder than it has been to find new friends in different spaces. I see no compelling need to reclaim the term “British Studies” in Australia.


There is a different story to tell, of course, when thinking about British Studies in the existential sense—that is, in the larger context of the humanities in Australia. In this scenario, Australian scholars of Britain, like all Australian humanities scholars, face giant hurdles. Big-time trouble. We share the predicament that Asheesh Siddique identifies elsewhere. A recent survey suggests that humanities subjects (broadly defined) account for 60% of the degrees held by tertiary-educated Australians, 52% of the tertiary teaching faculty, but only 16% of the research funding available. Data also suggests that around half of that research funding comes from the federal government, with both the amount and the proportion consistently declining per year.  


If Siddique identifies in the US a new move towards a “social justice” criteria over a “curiosity” criteria for research funding, in Australia the trend simply follows a centuries-long tendency to favour utilitarian projects which are ever more dictated by industry. In both places, the response from humanists has been to split between those who play the given game (show social justice angles; show utilitarian value) and those who fight for the right to be curious. My twenty-odd years of observing this split has convinced me that both tactics are needed. As I wrote in another piece in 2018, what I’ve learned about lobbying for the humanities is: don’t be precious. 


Don’t take a utilitarian angle and explain the economic knock-ons to cultural investment. Don’t take the high moral ground and screech that culture has intrinsic value. Don’t accept the label of handmaiden and simply assist science communication. Instead: do all these things.


I gained experience in these activities before I got my first academic job. After my doctorate I worked for two years (2004-06) in the secretariat of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

An old color poster shows a stopwatch with a map of Australia printed on the face. The Poster advertises for the Trans-Australian Railway.
A Commonwealth Railways poster advertising the Trans-Australian Railway, c. late 1940s. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The AAH is a learned council, established by government, to showcase, to explain, and increasingly to defend the humanities to the country. In many ways, it does what Siddique calls for: strategically seek investment in the humanities research enterprise. It's aided by the Australian Academy of the Social Sciences and the Council for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. And, over several decades, it’s had some notable wins – convincing the government to include humanists in the Prime Minister’s science council, reversing some ministerial torpedoes of humanist grants, adding the humanities to National Research Priorities, and influencing official proposals in higher education, foreign affairs, Indigenous affairs, infrastructure, and the research sector.


But the history of the AAH shows that no victory is permanent. Ministers change, governments change, economies change. The thing about “coordinated field-wide strategies” is that they can never end; they must be ever-vigilant.


At this current stage in the debate, too, when the losses are now outweighing the wins, one more tactic is necessary – to target the national culture itself. The incumbent government in Australia is putatively left-wing, but it long ago calculated that issues around universities and the “Arts,” as Australians prefer to call the humanities, are not vote winners. Half of all ministers (and half of all shadow ministers) have Arts degrees but you will never hear them defend their education. They believe it wins no supporters, and might even cost them a few. As such, the present Labor government has done nothing to reverse the last government’s devastating Higher Education Act (2020), which increased the cost of studying humanities by 113% but lowered the cost for nursing, education and STEM by up to 61% (updated here).


The only way to change political minds is to change elector minds. First among the damaging myths held by Australians at large is that the humanities do not lead to jobs. This strawman persists even when research disproves it over and over again: the latest data shows that 72.9% of humanities graduates are employed within a few months compared to 72.5% of science and math graduates. That humanities figure, for sure, has only recently gone up, but importantly by the exact same margin as it has for science and math (see 2017 figures here).


Humanists should deploy the specific evidence that will help change the minds of specific decision-makers. These may include university leaders, ministers, and philanthropic organizations, but they should also involve those who power such types: donors, parents, and electors. British Studies scholars investigate culture, above all – and, what’s more, a culture that has famously changed over time according to the people’s influence. They are in an excellent position to understand that policies, beliefs, prejudices, and outright blind ignorance can be altered. They should know that it requires critical knowledge (over endless critique), charismatic persuasion (over cynical attack), an arsenal of different approaches, and an immense dollop of good luck.   


 

Kate Fullagar is professor of History at the Australian Catholic University and Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. She is the author of The Savage Visit: New World People and Popular Imperial Culture in Britain, 1710-1795 (Berkeley, 2012), The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire (Yale, 2020), and most recently Bennelong & Phillip:  A History Unravelled (Simon & Schuster, 2023). 


 

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