NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

2020 at ECU: A warm blanket for short term comfort

The dramatic effects on international student enrolments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are being witnessed in all our institutions. At Edith Cowan University the impact has not been felt as dramatically as in some Universities that have a greater reliance on international on-shore students as a major component of their income generation.

By Professor Clive Barstow 

The dramatic effects on international student enrolments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are being witnessed in all our institutions. At Edith Cowan University the impact has not been felt as dramatically as in some universities that have a greater reliance on international on-shore students as a major component of their income generation. This is due to a number of local factors including a relatively healthy continuing student load from 2019, a large component of Commonwealth supported places and a growing on-line platform that has helped maintain some level of continuing international student enrolments during 2020/21. However, this warm insulation blanket offers only short term comfort as unless sizeable numbers of international students return onshore in 2022, then ECU will face, like all other institutions in Australia, a very difficult situation with the potential loss of three international cohorts and significant income loss as a result.

Western Australia has been the lucky state throughout this pandemic and only closed its campuses for a two-month period during the height of the first wave of infections. This allowed the school to continue on-campus teaching for most of the year.

The school of Arts & Humanities at ECU is a result of a major restructure and change management process that was completed in late 2018 before the pandemic, therefore the rationalisation and restructure into a broad mega-school in effect prepared us for the onset of cross subsidisation across arts and health disciplines, some of which are now growing in applications. Our international students are evenly spread across the arts, design, communications, psychology and criminology and the social sciences. In response to the first wave of infections in late March, the school has moved over 70% of its core curriculum to an online option to grow its regional domestic load and to maintain its teaching to students both off-shore and in periods of lockdown.

Western Australia has been the lucky state throughout this pandemic and only closed its campuses for a two-month period during the height of the first wave of infections. This allowed the school to continue on-campus teaching for most of the year, facilitating access to important studio teaching and practice when many other arts schools were forced into on-line learning for extended periods of time. Through these troubled and uncertain times our staff shone, many finding novel ways to keep their students active and engaged, a testament to the dedication and commitment of our academics, technicians and professional staff. This also gave ECU some breathing space to shuffle its coffers and thus avoiding staff redundancies through financial savings in other areas of operation.

There is very little evidence of the effects of the fee hikes as a result of the government’s job-ready legislation on commencing numbers in the arts & humanities.

Although it is early days, 2021 enrolments in the school are 7% up compared to same time last year, but there are some significant factors affecting this. The trend in arts, design and communications are relatively flat while new on-line masters courses in professional psychology and counselling have gone gang busters, enabling the school to maintain its current level of enrolments through 2021. This is of course a dynamic situation, with students clearly shopping around and leaving their enrolments until the last minute, in the context of a marked increase in local students unable to take a gap year in a state that has one of the lowest uptakes of year twelve students into higher education of any state in Australia. At this stage there is very little evidence of the effects of the fee hikes as a result of the government’s job-ready legislation on commencing numbers in the arts & humanities, which might well have been softened by the local factors mentioned above. 

So, what does the future hold for ECU? An uncertain one for sure just like every other university across the globe. ECU’s commitment to a $700m creative industries, business and technology city campus by 2025 is certainly a positive statement in the light of so much negative news, and a timely one at that. This project gives us hope and will drive new thinking in terms of how a university of the future will need to reconsider everything from delivery of curriculum, research engagement and above all its risks associated with its central business model which, up to 2020, assumed international students would always arrive on our shores. The pandemic is forcing all of us to rethink our priorities, so we all hope that higher education and particularly in the creative arts becomes a model for new thinking and human resilience, and one that our successive governments might seek to seriously invest in. 


Professor Clive Barstow is Executive Dean Arts & Humanities at Edith Cowan University and President of the Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Arts

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Dr Jenny Wilson — The events of 2020 have ushered in major change in the university sector and for creative arts in particular.

For students and staff at Monash University, 2020 was a year of loss and learning. As for all Australian universities, the rituals of university life were reimagined in ways that previously were inconceivable.

Transforming the structure of a university in the middle of a pandemic might not be on the top of everyone’s wish-list, but this is what happened at the University of South Australia.

Like most universities across the world, ECU has been forced to adapt in the face of the many and varied challenges presented by COVID-19. Notwithstanding the impacts of such challenges, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), when compared to other conservatoire schools across the world has fared extremely well.

Although 2020 was a difficult year, both professionally and personally for all involved, I am pleased to report that the staff and students in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) achieved a great deal together and we have entered 2021 stronger than ever.

When the National Art School campus closed due to COVID-19 in March 2020, students, teachers and staff were not the only ones affected. We also had to shut the doors on the public to the NAS component of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney.

For all the storm clouds of 2020, there was also silver to be found. Many schools around the country commented on the incredible ingenuity of teaching staff, adapting to the online delivery of programs and courses in ways never before imagined.

The QUT School of Creative Practice offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, with majors in Acting, Dance, Drama, Technical Production, Music, Animation, Film and Screen, Creative Writing and Visual Arts. As a school that had previously taught only face-to-face, the last 12 months presented many challenges.

The ANU School of Music has been hit like much of the ANU by COVID-19. Our 2020 story was pretty similar to many other stories; finding ways to make remote learning possible; finding ways to bring our students back to campus in Semester 2; and then finding ways to make the savings envelope.

The primary impact of 2020/COVID-19 on the UQ School of Music has been increased pressure in all domains: change and adaptation in teaching, lost opportunities in research, and decreased engagement opportunities.

The most outstanding recollection of the ANU School of Art & Design (SOA&D) in 2020 was the increasing and incredible capacity of my colleagues to develop new ways to teach and make, adapting quickly to offer students truly imaginative learning experiences.

Here at Southern Cross University (SCU), like much of the tertiary sector, we find ourselves much changed. Being a regional institution, while SCU’s share of international students is small in comparison to larger urban universities, the loss of revenue has been commensurate with size and so has still had a profound effect.