Strategic Manoeuvres: Creative Practice Thriving? (Within The Dynamic, Competitive, Technological Context Of Higher Education)
By Lynn Churchill and Jill Franz, IDEA (Interior Design Interior Architecture Educator’s Association)
IDEA comprises 12 International Institutions providing a minimum four-year Bachelor degree in the disciplines of Interior Design (ID), Interior Architecture (IA) and Spatial Design (SD). Most include an Honours program and the opportunity to undertake further research in Masters and PhD programs in compliance with the object of IDEA – excellence in ID/IA/SD education and research. Academic Research is a significant requirement for most academics in these disciplines.
The strength and relevance of IDEA lies in the rich diversity across, and within, the 12 programs; while at the same time they share the same dynamic external context, the impact of which has led to institutions competing nationally and internationally to elevate themselves within various university ranking systems. The contest is to re-position reputation and strategic relationships so as to attract high quality researchers and students, and therefore increase their portion of the limited available funding. The battle to prevail is political and financial.
Strategically and essentially, the disciplines of ID/IA/SD work synergistically within the domains of creative practice, science and technologies so as to re-think the many spatial typologies that have fallen into redundancy as a consequence of the pervasive rise of new technologies. We need to switch on to, and navigate, the future direction of higher education if we are to enable our students and researchers to continue to embrace such questions and opportunities. We need to ask: ‘What is the changing higher education landscape? What are the forces impacting higher education?’
Traditionally, in Australia, the higher education sector has relied heavily on government funding. However, in this time of economic volatility and uncertainty, the Australian Government recognises that internationally, funding models for higher education are changing. Internationally, various examples of significant industry engagement, have demonstrated a revolution in how, what and where students engage in projects and learning. For the most part, technology enables innovation.
Consequently, at this time when Australia is facing tighter fiscal conditions, these changes within the higher education sector offer an opportunity to reduce government funding to both learning and teaching; and also to research. Meanwhile, government focus on political agenda and a positivist understanding that social and environmental issues are problems to be solved, emphasises science and innovation as the Holy Grail. Government is now specifically directing funds to areas that align with their priorities, for example to Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
Future prospects for this approach to higher education funding include the corporatisation of education, whereby universities will be responsible for necessarily raising substantial revenue from new sources, plus cost reductions will continue.
Hence, the Catch 22 scenario, whereby universities are faced with the imperative to rise to a higher position within the rankings thereby attracting high quality students and researchers. Courses not attracting high student demand will be dropped, leaving revenue to be directed to those that can be delivered simply and quickly.
In contrast, courses relying on specialised environments and resources, with low staff/student ratios (such as design and the creative arts) will be compelled to develop less resource intensive approaches or perish.
There is pressure for curriculum ‘reform’ to prioritise standardisation of courses, with the risk that discipline specific courses will be subsumed by meta courses. Here the loss lies in discipline specific expertise and identity, and a general homogenisation of ‘design’. Emerging disciplines such as IA/ID/SD appear threatened. Similarly, research funding is threatened. Much of IA/ID/SD research constitutes creative works, the impact and quality of which is not compatible with science-based metrics and therefore difficult to measure.
It is incumbent upon design discipline leaders to make explicit the case for the value of our disciplines, to define and address government policy oversight in relation to the capacity for design disciplines to work in collaboration across various disciplines to address issues such as the impact of contemporary conditions on human occupation. Such questions demand innovative ways of imaging new futures and innovative relationships.
Design and the creative arts play a central role as part of a mutualistic system with science and technology. Paradoxically, reframing and mutualism require multi-discipline vested interests.
Lynn Churchill (Curtin University) and Jill Franz (Queensland University of Technology) are Directors of IDEA (Interior Design Interior Architecture Educator’s Association) .