The Unkindest Cut(s) of All – the creative arts perspective on current higher education policy

By Professor Julian Meyrick

A bleaker aspect of writing for an intellectually self-conscious publication like NiTRO is the obligation to respond rationally to what are, in the end, irrational points of view.  As the political Right dissolves into its constituent pathologies, its policies transmogrify into a mix of prejudice and panic.  In Britain and the US, neo-liberalism is coming apart like an old shoe.  In Australia, it remains infra dig to express too open a scepticism at its frankly incredible beliefs.  This injects an air of unreality into the policy-making process.  “Data” is obsessively gathered, but selectively deployed.  Some areas of government expenditure must repeatedly account for their “impact”.  Others are judged of self-evident merit and anything that contradicts this is downplayed or ignored.  Evidence is only evidence when it supports partisan assumptions.

The gist of Simon Birmingham’s proposed cuts to the higher education sector can be summed up thus: too many Australians go to university.  As a system partly subsidized by public taxation, there’s an incentive (so the argument goes) for the unsuitable to attempt a degree rather than obtain one of the “flexible”, gig-economy jobs currently available.  Unsuitable means irregular university entrance.  It means courses of study for which industry has no immediate need (“lifestyle choices”).  It means learning pathways that do not display the rapid application of job skills it is now higher education’s chief task to facilitate.  The creative arts tick a number of these dismal boxes, and so are in direct sight of Birmingham’s cuts. 

But it’s the cuts in the form of reissued discretionary grants, some 7.5% of government revenue going to universities, which will do the bespoke damage. As yet, there are no words attached to this number – a sure-fire sign of ideological gaming – but no doubt the KPIs when they come will reflect the government’s ‘jobs and growth’ mantra. It is likely the money will be tied to a graduate employment metric, the expectation that after a few years of ‘learn’ promptly comes ‘earn’, and the swift repayment of student loans.

How to respond?  The first thing to acknowledge is that the scope, financing and purpose of higher education is a difficult question.  Stefan Collini’s new book, Speaking of Universities (2017) opens with the words “There is a lot of talk about universities these days, not least because there are now a lot of universities to talk about.  In recent decades there has been an immense global surge in the numbers of both universities and of students, an expansion that, in purely numerical terms, dwarfs anything that has happened in the previous eight centuries during which this curious institution has existed.”  Following on from What Are Universities For? (2012), Collini makes the case against the measurement-obsessed managerialism that has overtaken the higher education sector in the last thirty years, and the downgrading of pedagogic values, especially in the humanities, which is usually where the creative arts are parked. 

So there are certainly a number of significant problems to be addressed in Australian higher education.  The trouble is, Birmingham’s proposals don’t even begin to try.          

His cuts come in two forms – the cut outright of some $2.8 billion (“the centerpiece” as Universities Australia Chair, Professor Margaret Gardner calls it), and discretionary grants of $500 million per annum.  The first is a straight money grab by a government convinced that paying for corporate tax cuts by curtaining public services is the right thing to do.  Nothing will shake this core belief save general election disaster.  This has happened in the UK, but not yet in Australia.  However, the emerging demographics are not in the Right’s favour.  Lowering the income threshold for HECS repayments is a sure-fire way of new-minting more Labor voters.  One day soon the Liberal Party may discover its own actions have fatally eroded its support base. 

But it’s the cuts in the form of reissued discretionary grants, some 7.5% of government revenue going to universities, which will do the bespoke damage.  As yet, there are no words attached to this number – a sure-fire sign of ideological gaming – but no doubt the KPIs when they come will reflect the government’s ‘jobs and growth’ mantra.   It is likely the money will be tied to a graduate employment metric, the expectation that after a few years of ‘learn’ promptly comes ‘earn’, and the swift repayment of student loans.

For creative arts courses this thinking is an unmitigated disaster.  It is a rare practitioner who, graduating from their training, steps into a job as a professional artist.  The first years after university are likely to be spent working in unpaid internships, trying out new skills in non-market or sub-market situations, and developing the key industry ties that will coalesce, in time, into a sustainable career. 

Not only is this the reality of a start in the creative arts, to some extent it’s desirable.  Only in their early years are practitioners likely to have the time to devote to their own professional development in an unwaged way.  It is in effect a form of hidden subsidy, so what looks like a saving for government and taxpayer, by insisting on immediate employment outcomes, will throw the whole ecology out of whack and jeopardise the sector’s long-term contribution.

. . . for neo-liberalism, there are no words for talking about the creative arts in terms of the core experiences they provide, what economists misleadingly call their “intrinsic value”, as it if this were somehow locked inside them, like the yolk in an egg, rather than being stamped on every aspect of their physical and spiritual being.

But there’s more at stake than money.  One of the central tenets of neo-liberalism, almost its conceptual pivot screw, is that everything is like everything else.  In economic terms, it takes the principle of substitution and elevates it to ultimate explanatory power. “I like cornflakes but under other conditions I would eat porridge”.  x substitutes for y in a zone of pure equivalence, mediated by the transcendentals of the free market – supply, demand, price, and consumer preference. 

The ungrounded dance of goods and services, of abscissa and ordinate, eats away at domains of committed action like acid rain.  Complex behaviours – and the creative arts are absolutely in that category – are reduced to a series of external effects.  Numbers of jobs generated.  Contribution to GDP.  Contribution to personal wellbeing.  Contribution to social cohesion.  Tourist dollars. 

Not that the creative arts don’t have these impacts, to a greater or lesser extent; or that these impacts aren’t desirable.  But for neo-liberalism, there are no words for talking about the creative arts in terms of the core experiences they provide, what economists misleadingly call their “intrinsic value”, as it if this were somehow locked inside them, like the yolk in an egg, rather than being stamped on every aspect of their physical and spiritual being.

So beyond Simon Birmingham’s cuts and the struggle to avoid them lies another question, more profound: do we want a national culture or not?  If we take ‘national’ to be not a unitary ‘ism’ that fuels a blinkered xenophobia, but a framework of belonging through which – only through which – we can properly achieve a settled, pluralist society, then the answer is ‘yes’, and the creative arts have a great deal to do with its propagation.  So we must train for it, and in it, to contribute to the cultural conversation among ourselves, and among the global community. 

So beyond Simon Birmingham’s cuts and the struggle to avoid them lies another question, more profound: do we want a national culture or not? . . . The alternative, which has always been something of Plan B for Australia, is to import cheap art from overseas.

The alternative, which has always been something of Plan B for Australia, is to import cheap art from overseas.  The accident of British settlement makes this easier than in other countries, where English is not the first language.  A quick look at Stan or Netflix shows what Australians are up against: bigger names, bigger audiences, bigger budgets.  The rewards for even a moderately successful arts practitioner under in the UK or the US are substantial. 

By contrast, the majority of Australian creative artists can look forward to a lifetime of hard grind and earnings below their peers in other economic sectors.  Adding to the burden of this, as these cuts do, is not something we should be considering without a great deal more thought.


Julian Meyrick is Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, Artistic Counsel of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and a member of the boards of both Currency House Press (editorial) and CHASS. He is the director of many award-winning theatre productions, and is a Chief Investigator on two ARC projects: AusStage, and Laboratory Adelaide: The Value of Culture.  He has written extensively in the areas of Australian theatre and Australian cultural policy.  His next book “Australian Theatre after the New Wave” will be published by Brill later this year.