This week the Federal Government announced university funding restructures that made a clear statement – to prioritise ‘useful’ degrees.

This decision is significant for a number of reasons. First, it has further shifted the cost of a university education away from government and onto students. It has done so on the assumption that education benefits the individual more than the society to which they contribute.

Second, the government has nominated some courses of study as being more likely to lead to employment than will others. Somewhat paradoxically, the government is reducing the cost of study for those most likely to get jobs, while increasing it for those it thinks will struggle to find employment due to their ill-considered choice of subjects. ‘Cost’ is deliberately unrelated to ‘ability to pay’ – and requires those with apparently poor employment prospects to subsidise the education of their more fortunate peers.

It’s clear that the government hopes market forces will encourage more people to take on ‘useful’ courses of study. However, in a further ironic twist, the new policy relies on the fact that many people will not. Otherwise, the economics won’t work. Fortunately (for the policy) there will be limited places available for the study of ‘useful’ courses in nursing, teaching and agriculture. This means that some of the students who rationally seek a ‘good deal’ will be forced to accept their ‘second choice’ – even to the point of having to suffer through a relatively expensive ‘dead-end’ degree in the Humanities.

However, this piece is not meant to be an examination of the paradoxes of government policy. Rather, I want to look at a deeper issue – the underlying assumption that resources are best invested in ‘useful’ things.

Demonstrating ‘usefulness’

This thinking stalks my waking hours – as it probably does anyone running an organisation that is not immediately and demonstratively ‘useful’. For those of us working in the not for profit world, the word ‘useful’ is never used. In its place is the notion of ‘impact’. Conventional wisdom dictates that one must demonstrate impact – or die!

The thinking that drives a demand to measure, report on and invest in ‘impact’ is the same thinking that leads a government to focus its investment in higher education on supporting courses that lead to the ‘jobs of the future’. With limited taxpayer and philanthropic dollars to spend, why not invest in those things that can prove themselves most effective? It’s easy to argue that this is the rational thing to do… but is it?

What is the ‘impact’ of Bell Shakespeare staging King Lear? What is the ‘impact’ of the National Gallery of Australia hanging Blue Poles? What is the impact of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas? I think it impossible to trace the impact of any of these works. We can measure outputs – the number of attendances, mentions in the media, donations received, and so on. But these numbers don’t identify the ideas or experiences seeded in the theatre, a gallery or at a festival that germinate – perhaps years later – and change the world.

Ideas can change the world

We underestimate the value of things like philosophy when assessed over the long term. Nearly every branch of knowledge that we draw on today including science, mathematics, economics, medicine and psychology were thought into existence by philosophers.

People motivated by nothing more than a love of wisdom (philo-sophia) have changed the world. The original concept of the atom came from Democritus. Pythagoras brought us the role of constants in mathematics. The classification of species began from Aristotle. Thomas Hobbes ideated the modern nation state. Adam Smith brought us the free market and Peter Singer animal rights. With the benefit of hindsight, their impact is obvious. But few of the world’s great philosophers could have demonstrated ‘impact’ while working on their seminal ideas.

I understand the strong desire to measure impact, to invest in making a tangible difference. I understand why governments want to fund ‘practical outcomes’ such as helping people to secure future employment. However, there is something deeply irrational about turning one’s back on forms of education and endeavour that emphatically shape the world – but at a pace and by means we cannot easily measure.

If ‘impact’ is the only measure of something’s worth, then we might as well close down the arts, the humanities, and a whole lot more. However, this would be to deny a fundamental truth that has informed all great societies: some things matter not because of their impact – but in and of themselves.

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Impact is a dangerous word