NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

“When the USA sneezes, Europe catches a cold … ” A letter from a blighted Blighty

It’s probably not a good time to be using flu symptoms as a metaphor for the grim circumstances that envelops us all. But being the good scholar I aim to be, if I am going to use it then I’d better use the right source. It was, in fact, not an American politician but the Austrian diplomat, Klemens von Metternich, who first coined the snappy phrase “When France sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold.”

By Professor Paul Gough

It’s probably not a good time to be using flu symptoms as a metaphor for the grim circumstances that envelops us all. But being the good scholar I aim to be, if I am going to use it then I’d better use the right source. It was, in fact, not an American politician but the Austrian diplomat, Klemens von Metternich, who first coined the snappy phrase “When France sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold.” Metternich used the words in a negative sense as he witnessed the seismic changes that wracked Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.

Instead we employed one of your less celebrated ex-Prime Ministers as an international trade advisor: the one that ridiculed climate change and talked of turning the boats back. Ideas germinate though, so across the creative arts sector we are hyper-vigilant, ready for anything.

What’s this to do with our current challenges? Well, it’s become something of a truism of UK higher education policy that whatever Australia does, England will do a few years later. Think back to the issue of student fees and loans schemes, or the pilot studies in measuring research impact (remember the RQF anyone?) and more recently, the debate about capped and uncapped student number control. Australia’s experiments in higher education were watched keenly from the UK.

I guarantee that Minister Tehan’s urgent call for more health professionals, engineers and scientists will have been heard with sympathy in Whitehall, even though its offices are now unpeopled and the watercoolers sport a layer of algae. In London it’s clear that the message could gain traction, sharpen in emphasis and double in potency, not unlike the exponential growth in fees soon to be charged in Australia for creative arts, humanities and cultural courses.

Sobering indeed. But will the Brits buy it? Possibly not in the present climate. Despite the Conservative government’s historic claim that the “magic money tree” was exhausted, its leaves depleted, roots impoverished, and acorns squirreled away, the current Tory government has been doling out readies by the billion, running up a huge national debt not witnessed since the Second World War.

However, dark clouds loom over horizons near and far. HM Treasury is already expressing concerns that there are “too many creative arts graduates” and the possibility of differential fees lingers in a sub-committee somewhere.

To mimic the Australian scheme of selective expansion and lower fees for more “desirable” disciplines, would require a fundamental overhaul of our student loans system to be affordable. In Australia, your graduates pay back their debts more quickly than here in the UK. So the ones whose program costs – and presumably their loans – your government want to double, are the ones in the UK who take longer to pay back and earn less in the out years of their graduate employment. By contrast the fees that Australia wants to reduce are the very ones here that are alleged to prop up the whole system. That said we had a bevy of rather gullible Tory MPs who thought the Australian scheme a tip-top idea.

Thus far, these ideas have not found their way to our shores. Instead we employed one of your less celebrated ex-Prime Ministers as an international trade advisor: the one that ridiculed climate change and talked of turning the boats back. Ideas germinate though, so across the creative arts sector we are hyper-vigilant, ready for anything. Demand for our courses is still high, though slowly fraying at the edges. Last year in 2019, 42,307 students took A level Art & Design; this year 570 fewer did so. But fortunately we’re at the tipping point of a demographic rise in 18-year-olds, so we could see a change for the better.

Photographer: Paul Gough

Photographer: Paul Gough

However, dark clouds loom over horizons near and far. HM Treasury is already expressing concerns that there are “too many creative arts graduates” and the possibility of differential fees lingers in a sub-committee somewhere.

Yet, are we downhearted? No, not quite: our arts, media and design students are proving resourceful and robust; our staff endlessly ingenious in keeping the practice-based learning alive via computer screens and through carefully choreographed face-to-face sessions. I know it’s early days, it’s massively challenging, there’s a media frenzy out there; but my university, a specialist arts institution with outstanding student satisfaction scores and a global reach, is riding the storm.  We’ve launched a new Strategy, achieved through widespread engagement with our staff, stakeholders and students, and we’re facing outwards and forwards.

I learned a lot from my six years at RMIT in Melbourne, and a lot from the spirit of colleagues across Australian HE and VE arts education– resilience, adaptability, and sheer bloody-mindedness to make do and make good. That should keep us going through these benighted times: of that I’m absolutely convinced.


Professor Paul Gough is Vice-Chancellor and Principal at Arts University Bournemouth, having moved from a role as Vice-President of RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

A painter, broadcaster and writer, he has exhibited internationally and is represented in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, and the National War Memorial, New Zealand. In addition to leading roles in national and international higher education and global research assessment, his research into the imagery of war and peace has been presented to audiences throughout the world. In addition to an exhibiting record, he has published nine books, including monographs on the British painter Stanley Spencer, Paul and John Nash and several comprehensive studies of art from both world wars. He worked in television for ten years and is currently writing his second book about the street artist, Banksy.

More from this issue

More from this issue

Regional tertiary students learned alternative skills in performance when after just two weeks of face to face acting classes, we were forced to undertake all teaching and learning online via Zoom due to the pandemic. Emergency remote teaching offered in response to a crisis such as COVID-19 is different to well-planned online learning experiences.

My friend, Kate Daw, died from cancer on 7 September. Kate was Head of the VCA School of Art, in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, at the University of Melbourne. I first met Kate in 1994 when I was a third-year undergraduate student in Sculpture at the VCA. I saw her one day just outside the Sculpture yard and I approached her to introduce myself. From that moment we stayed within each others’ psychic radar.

The arts publishing industry in Australia is remarkably vibrant and resilient, offering a platform for a range of voices and serving the interests of multiple demographics in a nation built on the virtues of cultural diversity and equal opportunity. In this ecology, the running of a nationally distributed arts magazine can be a complex, albeit highly rewarding endeavour.

The current and projected state of Creative Arts, in the context of an ongoing global pandemic, can be symbolically represented by Aesop’s fable The Lion and the Mouse. This fable refers to power balances and how these can be inverted, regardless of the implied strength or magnitude, which ultimately indicates that even the smallest being – in their creative resourcefulness – is capable of assisting a greater one.

On 28 September, Currents, a new post-graduate arts research journal, was launched through the Centre of Visual Arts (CoVA) at the University of Melbourne by editors Kelly Fliedner and Jeremy Eaton. This new initiative, established between CoVA and the School of Design, University of Western Australia, draws on a broad range of arts-based research to form an interdisciplinary, supportive and valuable platform, which highlights the rigorous inquiries being undertaken by emerging scholars.

Winding through ARM (Ashton Raggatt McDougall) Architects’ 2001 design for the Garden of Australian Dreams at the National Museum of Australia Canberra, snakes an impressive architectural interpretation of the Boolean string rising and plunging like a rollercoaster. This bold element is intended to conceptually embody the past and future of our Australian history, within which we are entangled.

2020 has waged a remarkable and sustained attack on the ranks of the glass half full creative practitioner. As the consequences of COVID-19 have leeched through every fibre of our industry, trying to identify anything that might signal a bright, or even brighter, future could be seen to be the preserve of a strange cabal of tin hat wearing creatives.

2020 has brought major changes that have, and will continue, to impact upon higher education and tertiary creative arts in particular. But as our contributors remind us, these upheavals have brought resilience and innovation to the fore in creative arts.

If we can look up and away from the ongoing challenges to both the arts and tertiary sectors, we may see some opportunity. Ways of doing things differently, working together in new ways, trying methods we may not have previously, looking at sustainability in different ways.