NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Creative graduates and the Terminator

There is a grim temporality to much policy-engaged research on the Creative and Cultural Industries that reminds me of the closing dialogue in the first Terminator film … Sarah Connor drives into the desert to prepare for the struggle that lies ahead. At the petrol station a young boy points to the dark clouds and says a storm is coming. Sarah sighs and says, ‘I know’.

By Associate Professor Scott Brook

There is a grim temporality to much policy-engaged research on the Creative and Cultural Industries that reminds me of the closing dialogue in the first Terminator film. Having defeated the T800 sent from the future to stalk her, Sarah Connor (Laura Hamilton) drives into the desert to prepare for the struggle that lies ahead. At the petrol station a young boy points to the dark clouds and says a storm is coming. Sarah sighs and says, ‘I know’.

It is a heroic and perhaps kitsch metaphor for Walter Benjamin’s subject of actionable knowledge – that is, the bearer of knowledge that has been addressed to someone who can do something with it, what we would perhaps describe as ‘Impact and Engagement’. While this comparison does not reflect the tedium of academics struggling against the funding implications of new policy regimes – however deadly and relentless they might feel ­– it most certainly fails the significance of the themes referenced in that terrific franchise (single mothers escaping violent men, the automation of work, network society, and, most recently, border policy).

It has always been cause for regret that the catalysing question for the field concerned how creative practice might be counted as research, rather than a more fundamental question … what kind of research does the sector need?

Nevertheless, the field of university creative arts education is certainly an emerging ‘agent’ to which debates can be meaningfully addressed. Brought into being through the incremental ‘future proofing’ work of a number of discipline-based peak bodies and organisations (such as the DDCA), the field was catalysed in the post-Dawkins era by debates around research funding. This assumed capacity for action was a strikingly explicit premise of Esther Anatolitis’ keynote address on Engagement at the recent ACUADS conference. After a rich and at times devastating talk about the history of the Bauhaus, Anatolitis drew participants’ attention to not only the necessity, but also the tools for arts academics to engage in the political end of the policy field.

It was noteworthy that ‘engagement’ here was not discussed as a question of research metrics. That agencies such as NAVA would reach out to academics in the context of sector cuts and the undermining of peer review in the sector is a signal opportunity, and warning. It is a minority position, but I think it has always been cause for regret that the catalysing question for the field concerned how creative practice might be counted as research, rather than a more fundamental question of local research priorities: that is, what kind of research does the sector need? 

The Creative Industries policy formation – a future-oriented program of policy and research energised by a reformist optimism typical of New Labour governments – looked towards a coalitional politics in which the interests of the cultural sector might be articulated to the strengths of a new economy, as exemplified by new inclusions such as advertising and software. While such a proposal stretched the aesthetic register of ‘cultural value’ beyond its comfort zone to include the sorts of domains of research and teaching more familiar to industry-oriented media and communications scholars, the CI agenda evolved to focus on creative skills as the unifying input across the workforce. This led to a new account of creative skills as not only supercharged by a content-driven digital economy, but also, and in a rare moment of new humanism, as being resistant to automation.

That there are public benefits to graduates above-and-beyond employment outcomes is well established in the economics of education.

As the recently announced Performance Based Funding Measures are implemented over coming years and place pressure on creative disciplines to account for graduate employability, I suspect the otherwise traditional account of the transferability of graduate skills – parsed in the CI literature as ‘embedded creativity’ – will become increasingly important. That such a claim is consistent with the nineteenth century pedagogic arguments concerning the general and transferable value of culture for human development is testimony to the strength of this strategy. While the object has changed, from the exemplary ethical capacities required of liberal citizenship to the ‘protean’ skills required of a volatile labour market, I’d argue the contours of the educational argument remain sufficiently consistent for it to meet the needs of stakeholders.

At the same time, normative policy rationales for the university vis-a-vis their contribution to the cultural life of the nation need to be recalled and articulated to the value of creative graduates. The Higher Education Support Act (2003) seeks to support a higher education system that “contributes to the development of cultural and intellectual life in Australia”, and “the education of persons, enabling them to take a leadership role in the intellectual, cultural, economic and social development of their communities” (2-1; a) ii., & b) i.) That there are public benefits to graduates above-and-beyond employment outcomes is well established in the economics of education. What these benefits are and could be for creative graduates is something we need to learn about. For instance, what model would be appropriate to understanding the locations of ‘cultural and intellectual life’ and ‘community leadership’ in 2019 is far from clear.

I know I have strayed from my opening metaphor. So let me recall that the hero of that film was studying at college too (while working), before her life changed to prepare for a future she ‘already knew’ at one level, as well as the fact it was still open.


Scott Brook is an Associate Professor of Communication in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT. He is currently Lead CI on an ARC Discovery Project researching graduate outcomes in the CCIs in Australia and the UK. He has been active in the cultural policy and arts sectors in Australia, having undertaken cultural planning studies for local government, given evidence at a Senate Inquiry into Commonwealth arts funding, and received project funding and commissions from a range of bodies, including SBS, CAL, and the Australia Council.

More from this issue

More from this issue

What does the ARC Engagement and Impact framework have in common with the Bauhaus? This was the framing question of Engagement, this year’s ACUADS Conference, offering a productive way to contextualise social, intellectual and political engagement within the most impactful creative legacy the world has ever known.

How can learning to make things in glass assist a student’s broader creative and social development? Can glass working foster social awareness?

Art, being art, is never straightforward: to expect or to demand precise things from it is, perhaps, a fool’s dream – and one that can be counterproductive. Over the past century, some of the most politically and culturally engaged art movements and schools … have emerged from chaos, tragedy, disaster …

It was a windy afternoon in Melbourne when I was gifted a small monopoly house by artist Ceri Hann … Over several years, Hann made and gifted objects from a fictional casino – symbols of economic value and exchange that were hacked and hijacked to provoke the receiver to think and talk. While these objects have no real economic value, they point to the invisible yet essential currencies that fuel the art world.

There are two significant factors that combine to undermine creative outputs being classified as new research internally in many Australian universities … These two issues, complexity of creative research methodologies and research staff turn-over, can result in creative academics feeling undervalued and sometimes under siege.

Is engagement a dirty word? It’s one of the dirtiest words I know. Like many words that have come before it (synergy, impact, interaction), it has been taken up as a buzzword, stretched to such levels of generalised abstraction it can stand for almost anything.

Aligned with the 2019 Australian Council of University Art & Design Schools annual conference on the same theme, this edition of NiTRO will focus on the meaning of engagement for the creative arts: across disciplines, nationalities and cultures; but also with industries, communities and the world at large.