NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

ATSE’s Research Engagement for Australia May Just Fit Creative Arts

By Associate Professor Denise Ferris and Professor Marie Sierra, Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools (ACUADS) — The National Innovation and Science Agenda, launched in December 2015, has significant consequences for tertiary institutions, and in particular, for the art and design disciplines, as well as the broader arts, humanities and social science (HASS) fields.

The Agenda’s embrace of innovation rests on four key pillars: one that addresses tax breaks for business; another that supports students to adopt digital strategies (primarily in science and maths); another to amend the visa system to attract international talent, and depict the government as a facilitator of digital know how. The fourth pillar, collaboration – specifically collaboration with industry – will directly affect university art and design schools, programs and divisions. Shortly after this came the Watt Report, outlining changes in the methods of how research funding will be distributed to universities. The terms ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ are reiterated throughout both the government Agenda and the Watt report.

Reporter Gina McColl states Graeme Turner, Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, believes the Innovation and Science Agenda will have ‘grave consequences’: ‘he says changes to university research funding that remove peer-reviewed publications as one of the measures of success (in which HASS historically excels), and instead rewarding research that attracts industry partners or investors (which favours science, technology, engineering and medicine), puts the humanities at a structural disadvantage.’[1]

Meanwhile, the Watt report draws on the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), a system that combines case studies and expert panels in its methodology. Known to be expensive to implement and overly bureaucratic, the REF process also rendered certain researchers invisible, particularly culturally and linguistically diverse people (CALD). Tim Cahill, director of Research Strategies Australia, has openly questioned whether there is anything to be gained by producing hundreds of case studies in Australia.[2]

But inclusion for HASS, and support, has come from an unexpected quarter. The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) has devised metrics on research engagement, called Research Engagement for Australia (REA). Their proposal uses the ‘income received from industry and other research end users to support research collaboration plus commercialisation income as the basis for an engagement metric’; and they note that ‘it was felt that it was very important that any metric developed had to be applicable and useful for the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) as well as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.’[3]

At the end of their Proposal report it is stated that ‘there may be other data suitable for inclusion that would recognise other forms of knowledge transfer, and which may capture broader research benefit across a wide range of disciplines. There are a number of other ways of embedding knowledge in settings outside of academia out into society, and which support research translation, where metrics could be developed.’[4] It goes on to note some of these, which many people from art and design would see as relevant, including: consultancy income, income from professional (trade) publications, number of research publications published in an open-access repository, and number of research students and researchers in work placements outside the research sector. As a sector perhaps we should establish systems for the informed use of econometric methods, tracking contribution to Australia’s economy, as other sectors have explored.[5]

While Tim Cahill has noted REA as a welcome addition, he also notes the enduring underpinning issues, such as concern with impact pulling focus away from basic research; the many players and extended time frames of research and innovation, driving a need to consider the context for which impact is intended; and the role of partial and proxy measures, and also what can fall out of view, such as in-kind support.[6]

Given the latter is something we know so well in art and design, in modes of both reception and distribution, we remain alert to any opportunity to include it and the other dimensions REA suggests. Overall, a HASS-inclusive viewpoint such as REA has been long-awaited in the exercise of measuring research in Australia. Perhaps we are at the stage of entering some maturity of approach, but the obligation for organisations such as ACUADS and the DDCA to be both vocal and vigilant remains.[7] 

Associate Professor Denise Ferris is Head of the School of Art at the Australian National University and Deputy Chair of ACUADS. Her photographs are held in Australian public collections as well as international collections. She was a 2011 recipient of an ACUADS Distinguished Teaching Award. Her multi-series exhibition of photographs, Encounter and Immersion, was shown with Ruth Waller’s paintings at Taipei’s National Taiwan University of the Arts in 2015.

Professor Marie Sierra is Deputy Dean and Head of School at UNSW Art & Design, and Chair of ACUADS. She has also worked at the University of Tasmania, the VCA at the University of Melbourne, and RMIT. She has held numerous solo and group exhibitions within Australia and overseas, published on contemporary art, and won several grants and awards, including five Australia Council Grants, an ARC LIEF and an OLT.

[1] Graeme Turner quoted by Gina McColl, accessed 17 June 2016

[2] Tim Cahill quoted by Claire Shaw,, accessed 14 June 2016

[3], accessed 17 June 2016

[4], p 34, accessed 17 June 2016

[5]The importance of advanced physical, mathematical and biological sciences to the Australian economy”, Australian Academy of Science, 2015,, accessed 19 June 2016

[6] Tim Cahill,, accessed 17 June 2016.

[7] Particularly when writing on the National Day for Action, 17 June 2016; a day of protesting the Federal cuts to arts funding which were announced on 13 May.

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