By Professor Marie Sierra
Now that the Federal election is over, we can likely expect the next ERA to be 2021, instead of some later year. While it’s an enormous amount of work for what some deem a “beauty pageant”, more infrequent ERA exercises mean having to manage a larger, more unwieldy data set. And it’s all about the data.
What has been particularly exercising minds at time of writing is the opportunity to suggest changes to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (ANZSRC) Field of Research (FoR) Codes for the next ERA. For those of us working primarily in the two-digit code 19, there has been some like-mindedness in suggestions, and some divergence. 
Many agree that 1904 needs reconsideration, particularly around a more fine-grained representation for Music, and similarly for Creative Writing (190402), which could perhaps have its own code under FoR 19. More radically, some advocate for Creative Writing to move out of FoR 19 to FoR 20 (Language, Communication and Culture). However, this would disassociate it from creative practice and deny its entwined relationship with performative art practices, and would most likely do neither any favours. Like many suggestions for radical changes to the FoR codes, it’s a case of being careful for what one wishes.
Within FoR 19, it seems to be that 1902 Film Television and Digital Media, with its current subsets in Computer Gaming and Animation (190202), Electronic Media Art (190203) and Interactive Media (190205), causes some concern around to being too broad. In free-ranging discussions in ACUADS, for example, some have contemplated whether a separate code for Digital Arts would be advantageous.
However, although the data parsing we all perform for the ERA means we’d like to feel certain where to put things, there are some advantages in overlap – and even ambiguity – when dealing with practices that purposefully cross boundaries. Where a university has lower volume in a field, a little wiggle room can go a long way to taking a FoR code over the volume threshold. As Charles Robb of QUT has pointed out, quota can be difficult to make, particularly now that several ACUADS member institutions have fewer than seven staff producing ERA outputs. Volume is a key driver in the future viability of a discipline within a university, and those compelled to advocate for finer and finer grained FoR codes should bear in mind how this may affect viability, due to a volume threshold having to be met before a university can report into a FoR code. Our colleagues in Design around the country certainly feel this issue strongly; their interdependent relationship with architectural practices means this creative discipline benefits from being located in the often voluminous FoR 12 (Built Environment and Design). Yet it’s also important to recognise that beyond the ERA, the fine-grained six-digit codes are used to select assessors for ARC grants, meaning very broad codes may result in grant applications being assessed by those outside the discipline.
Also, consideration to the work we may make for ourselves in future needs to be taken into account, because if FoRs are significantly adjusted, in the next ERA many outputs lodged in the 2018 round would have to be re-coded in the future round, which would be an enormous amount of work and expense for all universities.
Take this hypothetical: Digital Art gets its own code. What happens next?
It will need a cascade at the 6 digit level, which is going to have what – VR? Holograms? Digital sound? AI art? Would we want to recommend such parsing in art forms that champion blurring what technologies can produce, and often engages all of them simultaneously?
The above cascade will only reduce, not increase, the volume – and volume is one of the drivers of being able to pull forward the good results into the 30% reviewed. That is, if you only have a few things in the hypothetical code “19030X Virtual Reality”, it will pull down the 2-digit result, even if those few things are brilliant.
In many instances a change to name, rather than a new or altered FoR code, would clear up where ambiguity is not helpful. For example, 190203 “Electronic Media Art” could be renamed to “Digital Art”, a far easier solution that perhaps would reduce current confusion without unintended perverse effects.
ACUADS has noted that over the past decade, the number of institutions producing outputs into 1905 in particular has reduced, with many former art and/or design schools being subsumed into some larger division. In some cases, this threatens or even “disappears” disciplines, courses and programs. The work of consolidating representation from the sector that both ACUADS and DDCA performs has therefore never been so important, working against of tide of university structures to become more “efficient” and often, generic.
 The author was the lead for the FoR 19 across UNSW in the 2018 ERA, and is a member of both DDCA and ACUADS Executives, which shared information on their views of what suggestions to put forward to ANZSRC.
Professor Marie Sierra is the Deputy Dean at UNSW Sydney, Faculty of Art and Design. She researches nature as a social construct, and addresses these concerns as a practicing artist and as an arts writer. Examining issues around consumption of both goods and natural resources such as water, she has held numerous solo and group exhibitions within Australia and overseas. She has been the Head of two of Australia’s leading art and design schools (UNSW and UTas), and has been awarded two Australia Research Council Grants, an Australian Office of Learning and Teaching grant, and five Australia Council Grants.