NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Taking stock, taking a breath, taking charge: Transitions and transformations at the University of South Australia

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.

By Professor Joanne Cys, Associate Professor Veronika Kelly, Professor Susan Luckman and Professor Craig Batty  

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. On April 6 2020, UniSA re-organised its core academic operations into seven “academic units”. We write here as members of the executive team for a new and exciting entity, UniSA Creative.

While UniSA was able to return to some teaching on campus during 2020, along with settling into a new academic structure, we continued to experience almost daily changes to social distancing restrictions.

While UniSA Creative comprises two antecedent schools (Creative Industries; Art, Architecture and Design), the comprehensive breadth of all of UniSA’s creative disciplines, now consolidated into one academic unit, affords us with increased influence and standing within our academic institution, as well as a more potent identity to present to external partners, stakeholders and prospective students. This is the basis from which we now move forward, and in line with the university’s forthcoming integrated teaching and research Academic Enterprise Plan, we speculate on where to from here.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018  sets out how the nature of work is changing from known routines and limits, to new roles and careers that demand an “agile mindset” and capability to thrive in situations that are uncertain and complex. Even though universities already operate in increasingly complex environments, the nature of work the past year was also marked by uncertainty. Educators had to act quickly to adapt on-campus practice-based teaching to alternative approaches in situations that were continually changing. While UniSA was able to return to some teaching on campus during 2020, along with settling into a new academic structure, we continued to experience almost daily changes to social distancing restrictions. This necessitated devising different interpretations of planned teaching activities to have a workable “Plan A”, “Plan B” and even “Plan C”.

South Australians were fortunate enough to get back to a COVID-normal setting, through these collaborations there emerged a strong sense of potential for collective action towards recovery.

The year not only brought into focus the utility of uncertainty as a central concept in creative education; it also highlighted a need for all educators to anticipate (even embrace) uncertainty as they interpreted their teaching practices differently to continue supporting student learning and outcomes. The agility and resilience of our staff was brought to the fore as we negotiated complex and unpredictable learning and teaching scenarios, yet we still found moments to reflect on ways of teaching – and importantly, what is valuable to student learning. It was a year of learning from teaching, as academic staff translated, transformed and also let go of some aspects of how they would normally deliver, in a way prototyping new, and reframing existing, approaches to creative education going forward.

As all NiTRO readers will know, 2020 saw unprecedented disruptions to creative research. Some of these impacts we shared with colleagues in other disciplines, such as industry partners all but signed on to grant applications needing to pull up the drawbridge on new financial commitments as the nation went into lockdown. Other impacts are perhaps more specific to creative practice research, such as HDR candidates having to postpone finalising years of work as galleries closed and doctoral examiners could no longer be flown in from interstate and overseas to offer the kind of engaged feedback that all candidates should reasonably expect of their work.

As we settle into 2021, we take stock of who we are, and who and where we want to be. Building up industry partnerships has been the mantra of many universities since 2015’s Watt Review, but perhaps now more than ever this is becoming the dominant discourse. While the Government’s research block grant has been committed to increase over the next couple of years, it comes with a caveat – to reward those universities that do business with industry. This is not new for UniSA – it describes itself as the nation’s university of enterprise, and it does have one of the highest levels of industry funding of all Australian universities – but how does this look in the creative arts and industries? When many small, medium and even large organisations and struggling to keep afloat, will they have the cash to engage in university research? Did they ever?

In parallel with the pandemic and the re-structure, UniSA Creative also saw in 2020 the rolling out of the first year of its Bachelor of Creative Industries, a program designed and taught in direct partnership with South Australian creative industries and community partners. As the shock of the first lockdown settled and South Australians were fortunate enough to get back to a COVID-normal setting, through these collaborations there emerged a strong sense of potential for collective action towards recovery. This is not to understate the profound and ongoing employment impacts upon the cultural and creative sector. But all of this does put creative academics, for many of whom the precarity of work is less palpable, in an important professional and moral position. With university-sector alliances a potential enabler of access to resources for creative recovery, now is the time for the ARC re-commit to supporting Linkage projects with strong in-kind buy-in, from cash exempt (cash-strapped) partners. Could the pandemic re-define the place of the creative arts in the competitive research funding landscape?

Over the last 20 or so years we have seen governments and other sectors, along with their strategies and policies, catch on to – and from a creative’s own point of view, catch up with – the value of creativity. Creativity is widely recognised as a fundamental human attribute, an advantageous process, an economic contributor, an essential element of society, and even an employability skill. The challenges of 2020 have also revealed to many that other characteristic of creativity that we, the NiTRO community, have always known – that creativity can thrive on constraint. 


Professor Joanne Cys is Executive Dean of UniSA Creative. She is a Design Ambassador for the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers, an Australian Design Hall of Fame Inductee and past National President of the Design Institute of Australia.  

Associate Professor Veronika Kelly is Dean of Programs in UniSA Creative, an Executive Member of ACUADS, Advisory Board Member for the journal Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, and continues to be thankful for choosing to study design at the very start. 

Professor Susan Luckman is Professor of Cultural and Creative Industries and Director of the Creative People, Products and Places Research Centre (CP3). 

Professor Craig Batty is Dean of Research in UniSA Creative, and an Executive Member of the DDCA. He has published widely on screenwriting, creative practice research and doctoral education. He is editor of the Journal of Screenwriting, and co-editor of Media, Practice and Education.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.