From the Vice President: No Wiggle Room for the Arts

Welcome to the second edition of NiTRO for 2018, where we focus on the role of the arts within the tertiary education sector, and how we are adapting to the evolving language of measurement as a way of judging (as opposed to valuing) creative practice within a developing research agenda in Australia.

The process of adaption will always be an awkward and contentious subject for the arts, particularly when it is being driven by a political agenda that privileges STEM subjects as the panacea of all our woes. This is a truly short-sighted and misinformed idea in the context of an impending mechanised society, in which the arts will define more clearly what it means to be human. 

Michael Sandel, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, asserted in his recent interview for Q&A that Stephen Hawkins was wrong in his assumptions that philosophy is dead and has been replaced by the sciences and technology as the new philosophy for the next industrial revolution [1]. Sandel explained with insight and passion how philosophy and the liberal arts will play a crucial role in connecting technology to humans - one of many roles that the arts have played throughout time, but one that is relatively, and sadly, undervalued now in a data-driven and business focused university sector.

The role of the arts of course goes well beyond mere communication. They offer a deeper understanding of the mind, a critical and ethical approach to solving the problems that we have often created, and a language by which we can express the human condition, including failure, in all its beauty and unpredictability. Ethical and moral judgement based on improving life for all, not just the few, is a trait that is clearly lacking in our current transformation from a local to a global society. Since the lessons learned from the GFC we might have expected more in this respect but the recent exposure of data sharing by Facebook for instance should not surprise us. Nothing is for free, rather this unethical practice was always the business model. The arts throughout time have contributed critical commentary about our moral values and perhaps now, more than ever, it is time to value just that.

While universities make a major contribution to our understanding of humanity, they struggle to measure the impact of the arts because their greater impact is often long term, broadly societal and often psychological - elements of the human condition that cannot be easily rationalised through data analysis or scientific metrics. Learning to live with and negotiate metrics and big data is only part of the challenge for the arts in the university, another and clearly related issue is the seemingly constant struggle for recognition. 

In my recent research on the REF in the UK for the 2017 DDCA conference, it became clear to me how the UK have achieved a more sophisticated position in the NTRO debate than we have here in Australia. There are three main reasons. Firstly, research funding in the UK is informed by the REF including creative works and NTO’s (unlike Australia where funding is initiated through HERDC which specifically excludes artistic practice and performance as research). Secondly, in the UK the Arts & Humanities have their own research council with a wider range of funding opportunities; this in turn gives weight to the inclusion of artistic research in the REF. Finally, the UK has been given a much longer timeline to develop a position for the creative arts within the impact and engagement agenda. This is clearly evident in its maturity and confidence towards its contribution to a total research agenda that is more inclusive and respectful of the value of the arts, both in the tertiary sector and in society in general.

In Australia, we still suffer from a marginalisation of the arts in higher education, particularly in some of our regional universities. The arts in many cases are simply seen as a peripheral activity rather than a reflection of mainstream culture, as they are in the UK. Perhaps for this reason we have become too accepting of our current research metrics, knowing full well that these present a distorted and often inappropriate measure for the greater value of the arts both in and beyond the university. 

Here in Western Australia, the Department of Culture and the Arts recently devised a method of counting cultural impact called Culture Counts[2]. While acknowledging its honourable intentions, that of a primary focus on the arts and entertainment sector in WA rather than for higher education, of course these things tend to mutate. If we were to apply this model to the current research impact agenda in Australia; counting ‘bums on seats’, attendance figures at venues, music sales or commercial profit margins, then the four most prestigious and highly paid Professors in Australia would be The Wiggles.

At least The Wiggles are colour coded, I hear you say, but this is where the boundaries between arts and entertainment needs to be defined and the role of the arts in society needs to be more clearly articulated. In his recent article in The Conversation[3], Professor Julian Meyrick articulates the nonsense of measurement so eloquently. In his commentary on Cambridge University Professor Stefan Collini’s recent interview on the ABC regarding the impact agenda in the UK, Professor Meyrick refers to Shakespeare’s plays by saying “You need to know Shakespeare to judge it, not the other way round”. Perfect! If only ...

So, we must show a confident and unified approach in defining our unique position in the research context in a way that is both profound and one that mirrors the longer term good of our society. The contributions in this edition of NiTRO make a wonderful contribution to this important debate.



[1] question and answer at 43.47.