University cuts risk losing Australia's next generation of artists

Image: NTEU and Save Our Studios rally to save jobs and education at Griffith University. Photo by Cheryl Bronson, 2020.

In the last few weeks many Australian universities have begun revealing numerous course and staffing cuts as well as proposals for more to come. The debilitating cuts being made at all universities are targeting the arts and studio-based learning in particular. The months leading to these difficult decisions have been a stressful and exhausting time for many as universities consider sweeping changes as part of their Covid-19 recovery plans at the cost of the livelihoods of hundreds of staff members. 

A vast majority of university staff in arts, craft and design faculties and schools across Australia have been carrying the stress of uncertain futures, finding themselves in the crosshairs of bureaucrats undertaking a savage cost-cutting and restructuring agenda. They have endured three months or so of job uncertainty and an unclear picture of their futures. For those “fortunate” enough to keep their jobs, many of their roles have been restructured in ways that make their workloads unmanageable, and devalues what they do as teachers, researchers, and support staff.

There are many factors that have led us to this point. Set in the context of stagnating public funding, the Federal Government has been implementing cuts to education for generations, putting enormous strain on the business of running a university. Between 1995 and 2005, public investment in tertiary education in Australia increased by 0%. Subsequently, Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) was introduced by the Howard government in 2006, stripping universities of the support services that were provided by student unions, including the provision of many arts’ facilities. Furthermore, the Dawkins’ reforms in the early 90s saw art schools moved under the umbrella of universities from colleges of advanced education. This required universities to operate in a more business-like manner, setting performance targets and other accountability measures. 

Fast forward to 2020, a year of pandemic, which has dealt another huge blow to the arts sector, left high and dry without access to any of the Federal Government’s income support, including JobKeeper. In October 2020, the Job-Ready Graduates Bill passed through the Senate which will mean a 113% increase in fees from 2021 for arts and humanities degrees.

The impact of the economic crises on universities is huge. Universities are facing enormous deficits alongside the fear that enrolments in the arts will drop due to the increase in fees. As predicted, many universities have been forced to make difficult decisions in the process of balancing the books. 

According to the number crunchers, the economic arguments for keeping arts facilities and courses at universities just don’t add up. Numbers do not usually win an economic argument for keeping art, because numbers are the wrong way to measure its value. Arts, craft and design are resource intensive disciplines. Ten, twenty years ago, studio workshops in many art schools offered generous space for students to make work with the support of several teachers and technical assistants. Today, this has been whittled down to just a few lucky departments with significantly less staff and increasingly, a great deal less space.

The complexity of the ways in which arts’ practitioners, teachers, assistants and graduates enrich a university – and indeed the way they nourish society more broadly – is not simply numerical and therefore cannot be measured by accountants alone. Excellence in teaching, pedagogical development and studio based learning, and the maintenance of their complex suite of disciplines, feed into the whole of a university. A few years ago Associate Professor Denise Ferris, Head of the School of Art at ANU highlighted the integration of art, craft and design across the university as a huge plus, saying that the flexibility they offer means around 40% of their students were drawn from other faculties including physics and maths, engineering and computer science. 

There are countless studies that demonstrate that training in the arts helps students learn the skills of creativity, innovation, agility, intellectual curiosity, resourcefulness, exploratory thinking, communication, teamwork, problem solving, emotional judgement, professional ethics, global citizenship, entrepreneurship and the courage to take risks; qualities which are becoming increasingly essential for the 21st century working environment. Proposed funding cuts to the creative disciplines puts the whole at risk of irreparable intellectual and social loss. This loss will be felt not only by the university but by the broader contextual community from which it draws students as well as financial and social support.

Surely there is danger in universities reneging on their responsibility to offer a diversity of educational options to students to enable them to fulfil educational and career ambitions. Many universities are simply treating this as a business decision, with little commitment to the cultural environment created for the university itself. Moreover it represents a lack of understanding of what these decisions will do to its reputation in the larger community. Australia looks to domestic and international tourism, for example, for economic growth and recovery yet so much of that tourism is reliant on steady, sophisticated development of the arts. 

Many universities have benefitted from excellence in their arts faculties, earning international reputations for cultural sophistication and investment in experimentation and innovation. They have enjoyed a strong recognition amongst peers, seen to be providing specialist and multi-disciplinary approaches to research-based visual arts, craft and design education that reflects the diversity of professional art practice.

Course cuts and studio closures will have a deleterious impact on both the number and quality of artists in Australia and may result in severe cultural deficit for Australia. We are not simply losing particular courses and facilities - we are witnessing the erosion of vital sites of experimentation, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and joy. Over time, perhaps few university arts programs will still be accessible, but only to those who can afford the fee increases, who can afford the increased cost of living in city centres, who can afford to not juggle part time work on top of their long studio days. The point of irony that we arrive at is that although conservatives relentlessly deride the arts for being inaccessible and elitist, it is precisely their defunding of the industry that makes entering it so cut-throat and unsustainable for the vast majority.

The onus cannot once again be on emerging artists to be resilient, exceptional and adaptable no matter the conditions. The structure of the university has a responsibility to hang on to the arts and fight for them. If cost-saving measures are not shared proportionately across all university faculties - leaving one discipline bearing the brunt - what happens when that discipline disappears altogether? Do the number crunchers shift their attention and cost-reduction initiatives to another sector?

Cutting arts funding as the first option needs to be dropped as simple arithmetic. A more sophisticated and integrated approach is needed, thereby reflecting the broad context of life the university is there to fuel.