NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Atelier to academy; or, are we there yet?

By Professor Jen Webb — I arrived in Australia in the midst of the Dawkins Revolution – a revolution that was the product of bureaucratic imperatives rather than community demand, and one that has radically transformed the culture of Australian higher education.

While it is positively associated with a significant increase in the numbers of Australians accessing higher education, its overall effect has been to embed the values of late capitalism within education, de-invest in higher education, and replace collegiality with managerialism. From being a sector at least discursively committed to what Angela Carter described as ‘a world of ideas’[1], the university has become an intrinsic part of the economy.

For academics in the creative disciplines, the effect of subsuming art schools and colleges of advanced education into universities was typically experienced as a restructure that failed to recognise the domain of art and its traditions and trajectories, and reduced higher education to vocational training. Within the new system, teachers’ own art training and practice – the qualifications that traditionally authorised individuals to train noviciate artists – were no longer deemed sufficient. The delivery of craft knowledge was eclipsed by the imperative to imbue graduates with generic skills and research training. And the research conducted by creative academics – for art, through art – did not satisfy national or institutional criteria. The Strand Report (1998) argued that creative academics now had to carry a double load: not only teaching, research and administration, but also community service (which all disciplines should do, but which is consistently the task of creative disciplines) and professional practice.

The requirement to engage in conventional research as well as professional creative practice was a direct consequence of the Dawkins reforms, which placed on art educators the imperative to produce research that met the specifications of the annual Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC), without adjusting HERDC to accommodate the sorts of work we produced. Yes, in 1994 and 1995 Category J, ‘other creative works’, allowed outputs such as fictional prose, performances, and exhibitions of visual arts to be reported as the products of research. But this recognition was fleeting: by 1996 the creative categories had been excised from HERDC and, as a result, reportable research was only the sort of output described by Christopher Fraying as research into art – art history, art theory.[2]

Consequently, in the early 2000s, there was evidence of both widespread discontent, and anxiety about the future of the creative arts disciplines. But the sector responded energetically. The peak bodies representing the interests of creative academics – ACUADS (established 1981); NACTMUS (established 1993), AAWP (established 1996), and ASPERA (established 2004) – lobbied government, hosted conferences, published research, and investigated curriculum and teaching practice. The Office of Learning and Teaching funded major investigations into performing arts, visual arts, creative writing and screen arts; the 1998 Australian Standard Research Classification included Division 410000 – The Arts (excluding creative writing), and the 2008 update provided Field of Research 19, which includes all the art forms; and then ERA: Excellence in Research for Australia explicitly included ‘non-traditional’ research outputs, when accompanied by a brief research statement.

As a result of the strategical and tactical moves that helped to construct this more welcoming environment, our disciplines have a solid foothold in the academy. Our degrees attract good student numbers, and our graduates report reasonable employment rates; our members deliver community service, are extensively engaged in research training and, as ERA reports show, make valuable contributions to Australia’s international research profile.

This status has not been easily won, and nor is continued recognition guaranteed. There are no obvious lucrative employment markets for our graduates, and so we must engage in sometimes torturous propositions about the ‘creative industries’. It remains very difficult to win research income for projects that rely on practice research, while arts funding is rarely HERDC-reportable. Research into or for art does not explicitly fit the national research priorities, so we need to align our work with health, security or the economy, rather than being able to aver the national benefits generated by creative practice. We have, as a community of creative academics, learned how to play the game pretty well, and we’ve come a long way. But – Are we there yet?


[1] Acocella, Joan (2017), Angela Carter’s Feminist Mythology’, The New Yorker  (3 March)

[2] Frayling, Christopher 1993/94 ‘Research in Art and Design’, RCA Research Papers 1.1

Distinguished Professor Jen Webb is Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra, where she researches the creative field, and is a book artist and poet. Recent publications include Researching Creative Writing (Frontinus, 2015), Art and Human Rights: Contemporary Asian Contexts (Manchester UP, 2016), and the OUP bibliography entry for Bourdieu (2017). Her poetry includes Stolen Stories, Borrowed Lines (Mark Time, 2015), and Sentences from the Archive (Recent Work Press, 2016). She is Chief Investigator on the ARC Discovery project ‘So what do you do? Graduates in the Creative and Cultural Industries’ (DP160101440).

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Jenny Wilson — Thirty years ago, in July 1988, the Commonwealth Government introduced a policy paper that was to reshape the Australian Higher Education landscape and introduce concepts and ideas that were to influence university operations over the following three decades.

The British Empire mandated the export of a democratic concept of the nation that made laws on the basis of voting or counting and suppressed forms of customary governance that operated across the planet. For the descendants of empire in the settler colony, the mechanism of “nation-building” suppressed our memories of global colonisation that established our economic and social structures.

In July 2018, DDCA Board Member Professor Kit Wise moved from Head of the School of Creative Arts at the University of Tasmania to take up the role of Professor of Art and Associate Dean of Art at RMIT. NiTRO Editor Jenny Wilson spoke to Kit about his move to Australia in 2002, his time at the Tasmanian College of the Arts and on the changes he has observed in Australian tertiary arts education.

The changes brought by Minister John Dawkins refashioned Australian higher education and its institutions. Over the course of a few years, the government ended free education and introduced HECS, turned an elite education system into mass education, made vice-chancellors into CEOs, and turned higher education teachers into both teachers and researchers.

The Dawkins moment began outside the university sector. For while diversity was hard to find among the traditional universities, it could be found in many other post-school education institutions.

Let me begin with a claim some will find problematic: creative disciplines have been wildly successful within the structure of a unified Higher Education sector. As counterintuitive as this sounds, it has to be admitted that the post-Dawkins reforms era has clearly demonstrated their value to the Australian university.

In the late 1990s I wrote about various directions of music institutions post Dawkins reforms … the main changes have been funding clusters, increased student contributions and the sector opening up to include more private providers … 30 years on since Dawkins, the tertiary music environment now involves many stakeholders (old and new), one in which total deregulation seems inevitable.

The very phrase “The Dawkins Reforms” evokes an image of Minister John Dawkins adding the flourishing touches to a paper that was, overnight, to disrupt the settled and contented life in Australia’s art and music schools, and send tertiary creative artists trudging in Lowryesque procession to the university ‘factories and mills’.

The 1998 Strand Report on Research in the Creative Arts was triggered by a decision of the then Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs to shrink the 22 categories in the national data collection, that determined the allocation of research quantum funds to individual universities, to just the “big four” and wiping the short-lived Design and Creative Arts research categories, “H” and “J”, respectively.

Going to Art School at the in the early months of 1980 was a shock. My previous life had to become over-ridden in order to embrace the new languages involved in manifesting and understanding art through many forms.

The period up to the mid-1980s was, for the technical and further education (TAFE) sector in Australia, a time of relative stability and consolidation. A national TAFE ethos began to emerge, with state TAFE systems working together to develop national consistency on curricula, statistics and credentials. At a Commonwealth level, education under the ministership of Susan Ryan remained relatively unaffected by economic rationalism. This was to change with the appointment of John Dawkins as Minister for Employment, Education and Training in 1987.