NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

From the Vice President: Are we in – or out – of the system?

There is an ever-growing number of doctoral candidates graduating with degrees achieved by engaging artistic methodologies. And yet many staff in creative arts schools in Australia struggle to produce research that is acknowledged by university processes as “ERA appropriate”.

By Professor Cat Hope

Most universities have aligned themselves with non-traditional research outcomes across performance, exhibition and the creation of new artistic work. There is an ever-growing number of doctoral candidates graduating with degrees achieved by engaging artistic methodologies. And yet many staff in creative arts schools in Australia struggle to produce research that is acknowledged by university processes as “ERA appropriate”. The sense of hope and enthusiasm for arts in academia of the early millennia has been consumed by funding cuts and an obsession with counting in the hope we might maintain our validity in the academy.

This is particularly exasperating in music, where the “craft versus concept” divide can be cavernous, creating systemic issues within performance disciplines that highlight a lack of interest in or support for innovation and new ideas from students and conservatorium trained staff. Many music programs in Australia are challenged by the delineation of music performance and performance research – in their curriculum, staff make up and student experience. Many creative arts academics continue to endure endless comparisons to books and other unrelated research formats by research offices, who default to commercial STEM based citation services for counting research outputs, yet can’t seem to find the enthusiasm to ensure the often complex creative arts publications are included in such services.

The measure of “quality” seems to vary from institution to institution, a situation that could be remedied if our sector were to come together, and define it for our research representatives. We need to support our peer review systems by guiding their terms of reference, as recent reviews of ERA exercises point to significant discrepancies between qualitative metrics and peer review processes in terms of judging excellence (Larkins, 2019). Not all benefit or excellence can be metricised or monetised, but that does not decrease its value or impact in communities that public Universities were established to serve.

The recent ANZSRC review into the Field of Research categories revealed that whilst researchers wish to clarify their discipline with finessed six digit codes, research offices look for high ERA ratings under broad two digit definitions where the desire to reach threshold risks homogenised research categories. The increasing trend of assessing research grants and outputs by non-discipline experts, and the lack of support for the networking once enabled by conference attendance risks stifling the advancement of discipline specific development.

Public demand for innovation in music composition and performance – where the research lies – is low. Julian Meyrick points out that since 2016 government arts and culture policy has been “a space where nothing happens, by design” (Meyrick, 2019). As the recent election results point to further cuts in both the education and arts sector, the end of a demand driven education system and a total lack of arts policy, creative arts in the tertiary sector are bracing for the worst.

What makes this so infuriating for creative arts academics is that some 98% of the community engage with the arts (Australia Council for the Arts, 2017). Despite clear evidence pointing to the impact of the arts on communities, the results of the recent ARC Engagement and Impact Assessment were rather hit and miss, perhaps as a result of each institution requiring to submit only one single case study for each 2-digit Field of Research (Sawczak, 2019). It is also unclear how the Engagement and Impact agenda interacts with the newly introduced National Interest Test (NIT). Industry grant income for performing arts is low when compared to other research disciplines within HASS – hardly surprising given the lack of investment in the sector more broadly – which presents challenges in a measurement exercise where commercial success is deemed an important indicator of Impact.

The situation is compounded for performance based practitioners, who are attempting to maintain active professional practice profiles in addition to their teaching and research so that they may remain relevant to their industry and visible for potential students. This is work often done outside their university employment, as workload service components fill up with administration, leaving little space for industry engagement of this kind. Many performing arts academics effectively retain two jobs – the academic one, and the artistic one, as the framing of research as a way to wrap them into a singular academic pursuit has not delivered what we had hoped.

These elements exasperate the efforts of staff and many current and potential creative arts academics are asking; are we in – or out – of the university system? If we are in, our research methods need to be acknowledged, our outputs demand reliable mechanisms to count them, our impact and engagement defined and acknowledged. Performing artists need space in their workloads to undertake professional practice as well as research in their craft. The sector needs to continue to lobby for recognition of and support for creative arts on the research agenda, at our own universities as well as on a larger, national and political platform. We have the data to continue a strong case for the value, rigour, relevance and benefit of artistic research to the arts sector and broader, arts engaged Australian community.


The Australia Council for the Arts (2017). Connecting AustraliansResults of the National Arts Participation Survey

 Frank Larkins (2019). Anomalies in the Research Excellence ERA Performances of Australian Universities.

 Julien Meyrick (April 10, 2019.). Arts and Culture Under the Coalition: A Lurch between Aggression and Apathy.  The Conversation,

Susie Robinson (March 31, 2019). Impact and Engagement Reveal, The Campus Mail.

 Ksenia Sawczak (2019)Assessing Impact Assessment – What can be learnt from Australia’s Engagement and Impact Assessment?

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