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education and the arts

reform, reinvention & the education revolution

sarah miller

Professor Sarah Miller is Head of the School of Music and Drama, Wollongong University, New South Wales and was formerly director of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.

David Eastlake in Ben Knapton's Gaijin David Eastlake in Ben Knapton's Gaijin
courtesy of the artist

In fact the relationship between the academy and the professional arts sector might well be understood in terms of overlapping spheres of influence and effect, a möbius strip or infinite surface without boundaries. Artists become lecturers and students become artists, who then become lecturers, not that that’s the only possibility of course, but it’s the one that I’m concerned with at present.

Of course artists who are lecturers are academics who get paid, and are therefore undeserving of sympathy. Students who are yet to be artists or lecturers have to pay, while artists who are neither students nor academics must find other means of survival. Either way, a lot of time goes into working in order to get the time—and the money—to work at either being an artist or becoming an artist, and if not an artist, a richly fulfilled contributing member of society with a deep appreciation for culture and the arts.

promise & reform

In education, as in the wider community, the election of the Labor Government has promised many, many things; not quite as much as promised by the election of Barack Obama—transfiguration is not on the agenda—but substantial change nonetheless. Key among the anticipated changes is the long anticipated ‘education revolution’, which according to the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard and Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, promises “unprecedented reforms across the higher education and innovation sectors in response to the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education and the Cutler Review of the National Innovation System.” While ‘reform’ may well be a word to strike terror into the hearts of those many academics who have spent the past decade or more engaged in apparently endless reform, restructure and reinvention, there seems no doubt that a revolution is underway, and as with all revolutions there will be winners and losers. Creative arts educators rarely expect to win (unless they work at NIDA), but with years of chronic advocacy and resource fatigue behind them, there is cautious optimism that gains may be made in this new era (sic).

the demand-driven model

If Group of Eight universities have slammed the Bradley Review as “a roadmap to mediocrity”, the view from other universities seems to be that the current government has indeed laid the foundation for a coherent education policy from early childhood onwards. UTS Sydney’s vice-chancellor Ross Milbourne was quoted as saying that the Bradley review was the best he had seen on the sector: “We need a great university system, not one or two great universities” (The Australian, Feb 18, 2009). What is truly unknown, however, is the impact and effect of the shift from a supply-driven model of education to one built on demand, meaning that from 2012 student enrolments will be uncapped, and students will have the right to vote with their feet. Esteem factors, proximity, flexibility, the calibre of course offerings and student experience will all play their part in this transformed educational landscape, as will the actual capacity (staffing, infrastructure, resources) of universities to respond to the potential enrolment explosion. The tension between quantity (numbers of student enrolments) and quality (the calibre of the teaching and learning experience) is unlikely to go away any time soon.

For practice-led creative arts courses, often precariously positioned within the university, it is difficult to imagine how this might play out. On the one hand, secondary students are typically conservative, with anxious parents understandably focused on vocational outcomes; but on the other hand, enrolments in university art schools across all disciplines have been steadily increasing in recent years, even if this does not match the exponential growth in media and communications areas. The shift to what’s described as a more “student centred system underpinned by a national regulatory and quality agency which will enable an extra 50,000 new students to commence a degree by 2013” (Senator, the Hon Kim Carr, Media Release, May 12, 2009) clearly indicates that the shift will be seismic. I would suggest, however, that for most artist-academics, the tension between teaching and learning on the one hand, and practice-led research on the other is likely to be exacerbated rather than eased. This may be less a matter of priorities within the universities themselves than the capacity of individuals to fulfil competing roles effectively, that is, without detriment to either their own research (art) practice and/or to those of their students. The quality question is indeed the elephant in the room, but that presumably is what the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) project is designed to address.

era challenges

The ERA scheme, initiated by the current Federal Government following on from the previous government’s Research Quality Framework (RQF), has foregrounded, yet again, key issues relating to the nature and calibre of research in the creative and performing arts within Australian universities. Concern around the status and recognition of the work of artist-academics as research has been fraught since the amalgamation of specialist arts training institutions into universities as part of the Dawkins Reforms of 1989. Ongoing and intense work by advocates within the creative arts higher education sector has seen that argument won—at least in rhetorical terms—within some but certainly not all universities and within the Australian Research Council (ARC). At a day-to-day level, however, as in the wider community, the research credentials of artist-academics may well be marginalised given competing priorities in areas such as medicine, the environment or technological innovation. And even now, it seems that art as the object of scholarly research, which is publication friendly in the traditional sense, is far better understood within the academy than research which is either ‘practice-based’ or ‘practice-led.’

So will ERA remedy these problems? The definition of research as used by the ARC, proposes research as “the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings.” ERA indicator descriptors similarly state that, “This definition of research is consistent with the broad notion of research and experimental development (R&D) as comprising creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humanity, culture and society and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise applications.” For those artist-academics whose work reflects these research principles, this is no doubt welcome recognition, even if there is still a way to go before such understandings are implemented comprehensively throughout the university sector.

coded creativity

The ARC is currently conducting the first of the ERA trials with assessment of the Humanities and Creative Arts cluster being submitted in August with outcomes due in December. Universities everywhere are up to their eyeballs collating data in what one of my colleagues describes as the ‘Eternally Revolting Activity.’ As a consequence, all ‘research-active’ staff have been required to define their current areas of research using up to three Field of Research (FoR) Codes. For those of you unfamiliar with the fascinating details of this process, most creative arts activities come under FoR code 19. Within Division 19 there are six groups: 1901 Art Theory and Criticism; 1902 Film, Television and Digital Media; 1903 Journalism and Professional Writing; 1904 Performing Arts and Creative Writing; 1905 Visual Arts and Crafts; and then a big jump to 1999, which is “Other Studies in Creative Arts and Writing.”

In this context, it’s worth mentioning complementary initiatives undertaken from within the sector; in particular, an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) funded initiative conducted in partnership between the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools (ACUADS), the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and Sydney College of the Arts (SCA). “Future-proofing the creative arts in higher education: a scoping project for quality in creative arts research training” is headed up by Su Baker and Giselle Kett at VCA and Brad Buckley at Sydney College of the Arts. The project aims to survey the current state of doctoral programs in the creative arts in Australian universities and to investigate corresponding programs in a sample of overseas universities. Interestingly the study has already identified that models most compatible with the creative arts may in fact be more aligned to the experimental methods of the sciences than the interpretive and reflective approaches in the humanities.

So this tells us something of the brave new world that students who become artists who become lecturers have to look forward to. Conversely, those who choose to move away from the academy and support themselves as practitioners in the wider community may well be looking towards another new Federal Government initiative called ArtStart.


The new ArtStart—not to be confused with the NSW Government initiative of the same name for young people aged between 12 to 24 years—is designed to assist graduate artists including filmmakers up to 30 years of age make the transition from study to career. New funding of $9.6 million over four years suggests that this is a program the Government is taking very seriously indeed, particularly when you consider that it sits alongside another four year program also administered by the Australia Council called, “Opportunities for young and emerging artists” or OYEA—don’t you just love the acronyms?

OYEA is a government initiative that provides $6.6m over four years (2008-09 to 2010-11) to build the skills and experience of young and emerging artists through six pathways including creative residencies and commissions with major performing arts companies; artist-run initiatives; national mentoring programs, work placements for young producers; a bi-annual program of interdisciplinary mentored residencies in partnership with Byron Bay’s Splendour in the Grass Festival; and The Program, described as “an online, open arts community that provides a public-facing, social networking space for young audiences to engage with Australian arts.” A perhaps predictable add-on, given both the Australia Council Chairman and its CEO’s history with the organisation is a Young and Emerging Artist’s Award with the Australian Business and the Arts Foundation.

what kind of start?

You have to ask yourself how ArtStart will differentiate itself. It seems, talking to Australia Council staff, that the program is still very much a work in progress. It’s probably easiest to say what it’s not. It’s not another grant-giving scheme. It’s not about artists making new work. It’s not about subsidising their living costs. On the other hand it is about supporting them to buy the goods and services that they may need to establish their careers. It is about getting set up either to gain employment or to generate income. This could look something like the Run_Way scheme previously offered by the New Media Arts Board, which provided opportunities for artists and artsworkers to travel, learn and develop new skills, but it might equally support the hire of rehearsal and/or studio space, the purchase of essential equipment or allow someone to employ an accountant. One of the critical details yet to be nutted out is how to avoid ArtStart funding being counted as income and taxed accordingly. Neither funding nor industry bodies have had much success negotiating with the Australian Taxation Office over the years, so it will be interesting to see how that one pans out.

up to & after 30

It is extraordinary to think that amounts of $10,000 will be made available to around 200 artists a year, and while the question might reasonably be asked, is $10,000 sufficient to kickstart a career, anecdotally it does seem that graduating artists are more likely to continue as practitioners if they have the opportunity to make work during the first three years following their graduation. With around 16,000 creative arts students graduating annually, there is no doubt that mechanisms are needed if young and emerging artists and arts professionals are to go on to grow a robust and dynamic arts sector. It is fantastic that so many opportunities are being made available to young and emerging artists and it would be ungenerous to gripe. Nevertheless, you have to wonder what happens to artists when they turn 30, still a pretty young age for an artist. And what about all those hard working and tenacious mature to senior practitioners, whether working individually or collectively, who may have the time but not the money, or who have the money but not the time, and in what ways might our world be transformed if we were able to give more thought not simply to their financial survival but to their capacity to make art?

but is it a revolution?

There is no doubt that reform is essential. As the Bradley Review identifies: “Twenty years ago Australia was one of the first countries to restructure to enable wider participation in higher education. The results of those changes made it a leader internationally in the movement from elite to mass systems…There are now clear signs that the quality of the educational experience is declining; the established mechanisms for assuring quality nationally need updating; and student-to-staff ratios are unacceptably high.”

Australia is arguably not only reforming its higher education sector but reinventing itself through a welcome return to diversity and access for Indigenous people, people with low socio-economic status, and those from regional and remote areas. At the same time, initiatives such as ArtStart and OYEA are offering wonderful opportunities for young and emerging artists that should see many enabled to make the transition from university to professional practice.

What is not yet clear is whether Labor’s education revolution encompasses the creative arts in any meaningful way. We know that children who have access to arts education are uniquely advantaged, as a quick glance at any private school curriculum will tell you. A revolution would see all children and young people, no matter where they live, where they come from, and what school they attend, enabled to participate in an ongoing and systematic form of specialised arts training, understood as equally essential to their development as literacy, numeracy and sport. Should that prove to be the case, Australia might well achieve its education revolution, fulfill its social inclusion agenda, and change the world. Imagine that!

Image note: David Eastlake, Gaijin, photo courtesy of the artist. Writer QUT Creative Industries PhD student Ben Knapton, winner of the ADSA Philip Parsons Prize for outstanding Masters practice-led research, from which his performance work Gaijin emerged.

Professor Sarah Miller is Head of the School of Music and Drama, Wollongong University, New South Wales and was formerly director of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 1

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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