NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Crystal Gazing and Our Service to Sanity

We take stock of our institutions one year on from the outbreak of COVID-19, and gaze into our hazy crystal ball to see what might lay ahead in these uncertain and unpredictable times.

By Professor Clive Barstow

Welcome to the 33rd edition of NiTRO where we take stock of our institutions one year on from the outbreak of COVID-19, and gaze into our hazy crystal ball to see what might lay ahead in these uncertain and unpredictable times. The immediate effects of the pandemic caused all of us to make major shifts to online teaching and support for our students, at a time when the longer-term prognoses of lost international cohorts loomed large. The dramatic effects of lost revenue for our institutions forced courses to be cut, staff redundancies on a major scale, structural reorganisations and amalgamations and a de-prioritising of the arts in favour of STEM education under the guise of the Government’s Job-Ready legislation. Then of course there are the resulting long-term effects on our mental health, our fears of uncertainty and our sense of social and national isolation, much of which will surface in years to come.

So, are there any positives in the after wash of this perfect wave that might improve our modus operandi? The future of online learning certainly arrived abruptly for most of us in the arts and as we improve our relationship with these technologies there are clearly things to be gained in this learning space that can supplement our studio practices in the future. But as Professor Peter Mandler and Professor John Sloboda point out in their contribution to the UK SHAPE enquiry[1] “the urge to congregate with others in public cannot be successfully suppressed for long without lasting damage to public life and human connectivity. We are social creatures for whom evolution has created unmodifiable needs for physical, not just virtual, communion.” The same is true about studio teaching of course and for the same reasons; learning through process, sharing ideas through sustained collaborative practice and the essential life-long experiences our students gain from our real-time connectivity with each other.

In terms of the initial effects of the Job-Ready legislation on our commencing applications, Guardian Australia[2] offers some interesting early data on the demand for the arts & humanities in our politically-adjusted new world norm. Despite the fee increases, it appears many universities are witnessing an increase in applications this year, proving the fact that students will always follow their passion and not the cost, which makes the premise of this legislation so much more unfair on students and fundamentally flawed in its assumptions.

Our current situation in Australia in respect of missing international revenues is particularly unfortunate. Australia is handling the pandemic extremely well compared to the UK, Europe, Canada and USA, but we now are paying the price of strict international border closures resulting in increased applications by South East Asian students to these competing countries[3]. A recent podcast by the Economist[4] investigates lockdown lessons for higher education in the UK, and refers to the Australian context, pointing to a new norm of delivery as we all come to terms with the long-term impacts of travel restrictions in an increasingly competitive global higher education market.

Across our sector, creative schools have generally adapted well to survive, Darwin would have been proud, but as we move forward we must ask the question: what is the value of the arts for our future economies and for our societies? Looking beyond the immediate problems faced by our institutions toward the greater impact on our post-COVID world presents a dystopian scenario of a possible lost generation of critical and creative thinkers, unless successive governments realise the potential of creative graduates beyond the confines of public entertainment.

The arts play an essential but often misunderstood role in our society and for this very reason, the British Academy launched its Shape the Future initiative in May 2020 to bring insights from the social sciences, humanities and the arts together to understand how we can shape a positive future for people, the economy and the environment post-pandemic. The arts disciplines have been identified as having a critical function in the handling of and recovery from the pandemic. It is surely time that here in Australia we start a similar dialogue with government that looks beyond the present and one that takes into account our cultural and social responsibilities, and our often-overlooked value to the Australian economy.

As Professor Ian Christie put it at the British Academy’s Culture in Crisis forum in June 2020[5], the arts and humanities act as a national sanity service. Never more needed than now!

And finally, I would like to sincerely thank all the contributors to this edition for laying bare their thoughts and reflections about their personal and institutional responses. These are difficult times for our colleagues and for our sector, but no better time to share our experiences and support each other.


[1] Journal of the British Academy, 8, 167– Shape the Future: how the social sciences, humanities and the arts can SHAPE a positive, post-pandemic future for peoples, economies and environments. Download p231 appendix 14 and

[2] Zhou.N. Demand for arts and humanities still high despite Coalition university fee increases. The Guardian Australia 8.2.2021.


[4] The Economist. The World Ahead: Lockdown Lessons 2020

[5] Culture in Crisis


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