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University cuts – the dire implications for the creative arts

The creative arts are not a lifestyle choice. They are a life. Dan Himbrechts/AAP

The plan is there is no plan. On climate change, immigration, energy, marriage equality – pick an area – the federal government displays policy desuetude and political exhaustion. Around the world, the rhetoric of austerity is in retreat. In Australia, neo-liberalism’s sheltered workshop, it lives a crepuscular parole waiting for the next financial crisis or election catastrophe to finish it off.

Meanwhile, it does damage, sucking public money from sectors in which we should be investing, if the government would only listen to advice about using fiscal instruments. But the only good market is a free market, apparently, and until that truism is seen for a dud, this country cannot move forward on any front.

Higher education is a good example. Australia’s third largest export industry, it is now the target of a prototypical Lib mix of cuts and consumerist bright ideas, wrapped in talk about “making a contribution to budget savings” and creating a “sustainable future” for the sector.

Labor, the Greens, Universities Australia and the Innovative Research Universities group, have all come out strongly against Minister Simon Birmingham’s proposed measures. A war of figures and projections has been unleashed, with statistics about job losses, tax burdens, GDP contributions, investment surpluses and repayment thresholds tossed into the fray like infantry battalions.

At stake is a brute cut of $2.8 billion - one that Margaret Gardner, the Chair of Universities Australia, has said “moves in the wrong direction” for a country where public funding of higher education is already low. A further $500 million will be tied to performance outcomes. What these KPIs are hasn’t yet been disclosed. No doubt it will reflect the government’s “jobs and growth” mantra.

From the Minister’s perspective there is gold in them thare hills. If the universities are in the black, they are the legitimate object of budget savings. If students are breathing, they can afford to pay back more of what the taxpayer gives them to study. That the cuts aren’t fair and don’t offer any kind of real reform is less disturbing than the fact there is no broader policy vision behind them. As Tim Cahill wrote recently in the Australian Financial Review:

The university sector is not a real market. Almost all universities are established under statute, and in most cases the government providing the most funding (the Commonwealth) is not the jurisdiction which “owns” the university. Unlike other sectors, no amount of market forces can impel a restructuring of the sector… It is impossible to think about efficiency as a university measure… There are a host of alternative policy, governance and funding mechanisms that could be looked at.

“Could be” but probably won’t be. Last year, Birmingham withdrew student loan facilities from a range of Vocational Education and Training courses he dubbed “lifestyle choices”. Driving his decision was the rorting of the higher education system by unscrupulous providers that deregulation had hailed into existence like a plague of zombies. Fifty seven creative arts courses were directly affected. If these new cuts go through, they will have further serious consequences for national creative arts training.

First off, and obviously, it will cause trouble on the money side. If universities have to make more savings they will look at small enrolment courses with flinty eyes, and the creative arts typically fall into this category. The creative arts also require capital development, particularly in the digital media disciplines.

One of the most self-defeating aspects of the Minister’s spruiking of his cuts is his umbrage at the savings universities have earmarked for reinvestment. As if this were a bad thing, as if poor facilities and equipment were to be preferred. No surplus = no reinvestment, and creative arts courses will continue on a downward spiral of providing more for less, less often and less well.

But beyond the money – beyond the toe-cutting, haircutting and efficiency dividends; beyond the creative arts’ contribution to a more “agile” post-industrial economy, and the desire to turn culture into science, and science into business – lies the fact that the creative arts are important in themselves, and we should value them, support them and plan for them in a spirit of positive policy regard and not purblind truculence.

Allowing for the considerable diversity of Australia’s cultural sector, our method of cultural provision can be described as an assisted market system. We do not stop people who want to be artists from becoming so. We have low barriers of market entry, and rely on two mechanisms to regulate the results. First, price. Second, quality assurance. The former is the martyr’s relic of neo-liberalism, and gets endless coverage from the pack of economic claquers who worship it.

The second mechanism is more complex and is spread over the cultural sector like a cloud bank. It’s a collective intelligence. Peer panel assessments, producers’ decisions, programming choices, editors’ judgements, teachers’ selections – the norms and expectations found in these discretionary zones are responsible for ensuring that the culture we enjoy and participate in is of worth and quality.

It takes a long time to develop this collective cultural intelligence, and it can’t be bottled. Cahill’s point that “efficiency is more complicated than simply asking universities to do more with less” is doubly true in the creative arts. The skills, attitudes and flexibilities that creative arts training provide are not detachable knowledge-units. They are profound intellectual and emotional preparation for the cultural world beyond the university environs.

None of which is an argument for the status quo. Change is not to be feared, however the question is not “from what?” but “to what?” We have a right to expect our government to show real understanding when it wants to make substantial changes to particular policy areas.

The creative arts are not a lifestyle choice. They are a life. If Birmingham grasped that essential point more keenly, these cuts would be off the table and we would be discussing the reform of the Australian higher education sector in an entirely different vein.

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