By Jen Webb
In 2018 I wrote a piece for NiTRO subtitled ‘Are we there yet?’, tracing some of the practical and institutional effects of the Dawkins reforms that folded art schools and other creative teaching programs into universities. At that stage I felt reasonably sanguine about the futures of creative disciplines: despite a variety of hurdles, creative practice seemed fairly well embedded in the Australian academy.
Forward (almost) five years, and I am again taking the pulse and trying to read some of the signs. Frankly, I don’t believe the patient is in perfect health. Though the actuality is perhaps not as bad as is mooted during anxious conversations with colleagues – our art schools are not actually being closed down one by one – there are worrying changes that gesture toward a less secure future.
Holly Tregenza (2020) and Kaye Tucker (2021) are among a number of commentators who have traced the lists of Australian creative arts degrees and other programs that have been merged, closed or suspended. Much of the discourse circulates around the government’s Job Ready Graduates package (though Humanities and Social Science disciplines were hit much harder than were the Creative Arts).
Other commentators identify the Covid pandemic as the reason for the disappearance or diminution of creative presence on our campuses, but Brooke Boland (2020) disputes this, noting that creative practice was under pressure well before the pandemic hit. What seems more likely is that what we are seeing unfold now is the product of years of decisions by governments that higher education should ‘pay its way’; as if cultivating humans capable of addressing the needs of an unstable future were of insufficient value. This was made brutally clear in 2016 when then-Minister for Education Simon Birmingham cancelled 479 VET-sector courses on the grounds that: “Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments, or provide lifestyle choices, but don’t lead to work” (see Grattan 2016).
Increasingly I hear variants of the notion that the Dawkins forced marriage of art training and university education was perhaps “just a bad idea from the start” (Frost 2021), and though these (largely economic) concerns are primarily directed toward taught courses, examples of concern are emerging too in research and research training. Anecdotally, there are many accounts of applications for PhDs in creative practice-led research projects being closely interrogated, or not approved. Anecdotally, there are many reports of creative academics facing difficulties in being able to report NTROs as part of their KPIs, which of course affects promotion opportunities. And the postponement of the 2023 ERA assessment process, or more particularly the murmurings that ERA’s peer review be replaced by metrics – which would be unsympathetic to NTROs – adds another shiver to my spine.
In the face of this, though, I remain determinedly optimistic. First, as Australia Council surveys routinely show, Australians value creative arts practices, and understand their contributions to individual wellbeing and to liveable communities (AusCo 2020), which speaks to continuing demand both for training and for product. Next, the proposed Australian Universities Accord offers the promise of a transformation from the galloping commercialisation that has marked the past decade of higher education policy (Dept Ed 2022). It would be naïve to imagine that this alone will remedy the situation, but alongside concerted engagement from all of us, it has the potential to reset the agenda.
The third spark of hope is in the capacity of creative academics to collaborate – with each other, but also with other disciplines. It is evident that the wicked problems we face as a human species cannot be resolved by science alone, or policy alone, or economics alone. The skills and knowledges possessed by creatives align very sweetly with those other disciplines: arts/health, arts/science, arts/industry. Shifting more deliberately and explicitly to interdisciplinary collaborations will, necessarily, demand some redirection of both research and practice away from creative practice and its traditions, but I am confident that it will help secure the future of our disciplines in the academy and beyond; and I’m equally confident that exposure to these other ways of thinking, seeing and being will enrich our own practice.
Australia Council for the Arts 2020 Creating Our Future: Results of the National Arts Participation Survey webinar series (August), https://australiacouncil.gov.au/advocacy-and-research/creating-our-future
Boland, Brooke 2020 ‘Art Schools: Legacy in Crisis’, ArtsHub, 14 December, https://www.artshub.com.au/news/features/art-schools-legacy-in-crisis-261614-2369435/
Department of Education 2022 ‘Australian Universities Accord’, Higher Education Review, https://www.education.gov.au/australian-universities-accord
Frost, Andrew 2021 ‘Art School in Australia: Amid the cuts and closures, what could the future look like?’ The Guardian, 8 February, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/feb/08/art-school-in-australia-amid-the-cuts-and-closures-what-could-the-future-look-like
Grattan, Michelle 2016 “Government knocks out 478 courses from loans under VET crackdown” The Conversation, 10 October, https://theconversation.com/government-knocks-out-478-courses-from-loans-under-vet-crackdown-66748
Tregenza, Holly 2020 “ANU proposes axing Several School of Art courses in light of funding shortfall exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic’, ABC News, 8 December, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-08/renowned-anu-school-of-art-faces-cuts-amid-funding-shortfall/12959664
Tucker, Kaye 2021 “Arts Education on the ‘Endangered List’ in Australia”, World Socialist Web Site 8 March, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/03/09/arts-m09.html
Jen Webb is Distinguished Professor of Creative Practice at the University of Canberra, and Dean of Graduate Research. She is a poet and cultural theorist, working on representation, the creative field, and material poetics. Her recent academic works include Art and Human Rights: Contemporary Asian Contexts (with Caroline Turner; Manchester UP, 2016); Gender and the Creative Labour Market (with S Brook et al.; Palgrave, 2022). Her recent poetry collections include Stolen Stories, Borrowed Lines (Mark Time, 2015), the poetry / photography volume Watching the World (with Paul Hetherington; Blemish Books, 2015), and Moving Targets (Recent Work Press, 2018).