By Professor Julia Prendergast and Professor Jen Webb
Professor Cat Hope (2021) considers the potential benefits of an Australian Academy of the Arts. She asks: “How do we get a voice to government on behalf of the broader creative arts community that incorporates the nexus of industry and education in the creative arts?” (Hope 2021). It’s an ACE question.
We asked ourselves this question when we wrote to Minister Tehan and, later, the Committee Secretariat, Senate Education and Employment Committees, regarding the (then proposed) Job-ready legislation. Who read our letters? We know the executive committee and advisory members of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP) read and responded. Beyond that, who knows? And who knows if our voice would have been more audible if, as Hope suggests, we had lobbied as a broader group, “art and education […] as a singular voice” (Hope 2021).
In our letters we suggested that while, in principle, we support measures that ensure Higher Education Providers (HEPs) can deliver outcomes that facilitate positive outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and regional and remote students, as well as curriculum that facilitates job-readiness, the draft legislation and Explanatory Memoranda did not provide real clarity about the framework within which HEPs are to be held accountable for the outcomes they deliver. Given that each HEP is established under an Act, we sought assurance that any new legislation was consistent with the functions, values and responsibilities of HEPs, as formulated within those Acts; and that any additional accountability is aligned with those individual Acts.
There was no response. Is it the case that our questions fell on deaf ears, or that our rationale and parlance were not on the agenda? Do we speak in a language that policy-makers and legislators cannot hear?
Still, some speech makes it through the barriers. In 2019, the University of Western Australia (UWA) announced the closure of UWA Publishing. What followed was intense public outcry from the literary community: “petitions, lobbying and open letters”. As a result, “the university decided not to close”. How can we facilitate that kind of change-making on a vast transdisciplinary scale, through a collective community of practice of artist academics and industry representatives?
The initial decision to close UWA Publishing is a pre-COVID example of the hollowing out of academic culture that continues to bite at the heart of universities. Across the past weeks, we have heard from colleagues from a range of institutions who describe processes of “restructure” and plans to “refresh”: terms whose positive affect disguises the quite devastating impact on the careers and lives of creative academics and on their disciplines, as is evident in the descriptors they use: it’s feeling very sad; like a bloodbath; a visceral clash between personal values and policies and processes; all my colleagues are disappearing; it’s inhumane; hollow.
Hollow; it’s such an apt descriptor for a sector that is being gutted. And in a hollowed climate, it’s important to consider how we can cooperate to trouble this process of evisceration. The demands of the current climate mean that many of us are necessarily focused on the present and relentless stream of tasks that require immediate attention. Yet the work of the Executive Committee of any peak body requires us to think more broadly about our situatedness, about the future of our disciplines, and about how to negotiate government interventions.
We are yet to see the impact of the Job Ready Legislation and the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) funding clusters. But their potential impacts are complicated by the fact that creative arts offerings are delivered in vastly different formats across diverse umbrella disciplines, through various departments and faculties, across Australia. It’s not clear how their clustering will be implemented, or how standardised or equitable this will be.
In our letters, we suggested that the proposed changes run counter to the Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS) and other reference sets. The proposed increases and decreases in cost and funding to individual study areas are not aligned with current statistics regarding the employability of graduates from the various disciplines, and bear no reference to possible future careers: a dangerous move given global evidence of the dynamic employment context. We are not alone in these concerns. Julian Meyrick (2021) criticises the “closed loop of endlessly deferred responsibility”, and policy that “makes no sense”. Barstow and Dury (2021: 12, 13) suggest that “the role of servant to sciences” does not offer “a glimmer of hope” for Arts and Humanities disciplines.
Considering the attack on HASS disciplines, and the blatant bolstering of STEM, we return, again, to the question of how to facilitate meaningful transdisciplinary collaboration between the art and science disciplines. We choose the prefix trans specifically for its etymology: across, beyond, on the other side of. We know that students in creative arts, as in science, learn how to think and interact both creatively and collaboratively, and to identify creative thinking and collaborative strategies as key to addressing wicked problems. These are tools we can utilise within the confines of our professional situatedness, in this climate, to continue to facilitate positive outcomes for students at all levels; and working more closely with scientists is likely to interrupt the policies and programs that slice through the university, dividing us.
But whether as collaborators with scientists, or on our own, can we creative academics “have a stronger position when lobbying for a place at the decision-making tables of government and research”? (Hope 2021). Surely, yes: through a curated and collective voice of artist academics and industry practitioners, thinkers and makers uniting, aligning and lobbying under the umbrella of an Australian Academy of the Arts … It’s one of the most refreshing suggestions posed in a long time.
 Hendry-Saunders, Holly 2021 “The Small Press Network Interviews: Terri-ann White, Upswell Publishing” (1 October), SPN, https://smallpressnetwork.com.au/the-small-press-network-interviews-terri-ann-white-upswell-publishing
List of works cited
Barstow C, Durey, J F 2021 ‘At Risk: The Arts and Humanities’ in Journal for the Liberal Arts and Sciences, Volume 24, Issue 2, Spring 2021: 3 – 27.
Meyrick J 2021, ‘Drama in hell. The descent of creative arts at Australia’s universities’ in The Monthly, October 2021: https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2021/october/1633010400/julian-meyrick/drama-hell
Julia Prendergast’s novel, The Earth Does Not Get Fat, was published in 2018 (UWA Publishing). Julia’s short stories feature in the current edition of Australian Short Stories. Other stories have been recognised and published: Lightship Anthology 2 (UK), Glimmer Train (US), TEXT (AU), Séan Ó Faoláin Competition (IE). Julia is a Senior Lecturer (Writing and Literature), and Academic Director Partnerships and Pathways, at Swinburne University, Melbourne. She is Chair of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP), the peak academic body representing the discipline of Creative Writing in Australasia. Julia is an enthusiastic supporter of transdisciplinary, open and collaborative research practices.
Jen Webb is Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice, and Dean of Graduate Research, at the University of Canberra. Recent books include Researching Creative Writing (Frontinus, 2015), Art and Human Rights: Contemporary Asian Contexts (Manchester UP, 2016), and the poetry collections Moving Targets (Recent Work Press, 2018) and Flight Mode (with Shé Hawke; RWP, 2020). She is co-editor of the literary journal Meniscus and the scholarly journal Axon: Creative Explorations, the Mandarin/English collection Open Windows: Contemporary Australian Poetry; and, with Kavita Nandan, Writing the Pacific. Her research addresses the relationship between the creative field and broader social formations.