Preparing Arts Students for Careers in the 2020s

By Professor Warren Bebbington

When I first enrolled at university to study music, I never doubted for a moment I would find a career when I finished. It was the halcyon days of the late 1960s, there was full employment in most parts of Australia, and an expanding appetite for the arts, fuelled as arts councils and arts centres came into being. I wanted to teach music, and with a rapidly expanding schools system crying out for teachers of any subject, recruiting even those had not graduated, professional employment in my field was a certainty.

What was more, music students could earn fistfuls of money as they studied by casual performing. While my friends slaved long hours for low pay in retail stores, doing dull work they came to detest,  I could play a single gig each week and be rewarded with more than I needed, simply for doing what I loved.

It would be a bold arts school head now who promised incoming students a full-time career in their art form. To be sure, some arts graduates create innovative careers for themselves, often leveraging digital and artistic skills. But too many end up driving taxis, selling real estate, or diverting to study something else entirely that seems more employable.

The casual performing opportunities remain. But how different the career prospects are for arts students today. Career outcomes for graduates nationwide have fallen over 10% in a decade; 6 months after graduation 73% are in full-time employment, whereas it was 82% in 2006. But the problem is worst of all in the arts, where just 60% are in full-time employment 6 months after graduation-and this not necessarily in their chosen field. In music traditional opportunities in orchestras are shrinking, downsizing schools are trimming their arts staff, while the internet has fundamentally altered the way music is consumed, often to the detriment of musicians dependent on recording and broadcast income. It would be a bold arts school head now who promised incoming students a full-time career in their art form. To be sure, some arts graduates create innovative careers for themselves, often leveraging digital and artistic skills. But too many end up driving taxis, selling real estate, or diverting to study something else entirely that seems more employable.

Yet despite the gloomy employment outcomes, governments are often keen to see new arts colleges develop, and universities are often happy to see arts enrolments expand to match student preferences. In South Australia, a group of institutions is currently developing a proposal for a new "SA Arts Academy" that would draw together a number of existing programs across the State, creating a new institution of “national distinction.” This in a State with too few employment opportunities for its present arts graduates, and absent any assessment of the prospects that face arts academy graduates elsewhere.

To a great extent now, arts graduates need to make their own career, create their own brand, build their own audience. Institutions need to ensure they gain the skills and resourcefulness to do this.

For arts education leaders, it is of course gratifying when government and university administrators find arts colleges desirable ornaments for their vision of their communities. But arts leaders have a responsibility to their students' futures. To a great extent now, arts graduates need to make their own career, create their own brand, build their own audience. Institutions need to ensure they gain the skills and resourcefulness to do this.

Some arts schools have responded to the challenge by setting compulsory units in career preparation and planning, to help students immersed in art practice grasp how their talents might be put to profitable use. Some have linked their programs with professional arts organisations to provide work experience as an integral part of the courses. Others have created programs that deliberately integrate art form training with the study of digital technologies, now so critical to the promotion and dissemination of most art forms.

At the University of Adelaide, faced with declining traditional employment opportunities for our Elder Conservatorium graduates in opera, orchestras and schools, several innovations were introduced a year ago. An agreement was signed with the State Opera, for example, so voice students could work on joint productions in a professional setting. But most interesting was the establishment of the Sia Furler Institute for Contemporary Music and Media. Named after the Adelaide-born singer-songwriter-multimedia artist (with her permission), the Institute seeks to offer programs that combine training in contemporary music with media teaching and practice. It aims to produce graduates well equipped to survive in contemporary performance, film, digital and new media, sound engineering and music technologies. It will be interesting to see how it develops.

I fell almost without effort into a satisfying career in music education, which lasted nearly 30 years before I was drawn into university administration. But arts students today have a more challenging road to travel. At a time when career outcomes for graduates in all fields are decaying, arts education leaders need to overtly stimulate the career imagination and work-related skills of their students, so the art scan continue to be a career field our students will aspire to with confidence.


Prof Warren Bebbington is Vice Chancellor, The University of Adelaide, and former Dean of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.