Presidents Welcome: The Dawkins reforms - a personal view

By Su Baker

I started working casually in art school in 1987, at Sydney College of the Arts, established in the 1970s as a specialist and progressive visual arts institution. It was a College of Advanced Education, as most art schools were at the time, focused on training and educating artists for the profession.

In 1987 Federal minister for education John Dawkins put out a Green Paper then the next year a White Paper. These two things have defined my career and have determined the shape and focus of my professional life over the last 30 years. OMG, as they say!

From that point the professional education and training of artists changed. Did it change the outcomes? Did it change whether graduates were better or worse as a result? I'm not sure. It was worse for students in part due to them having to pay HECS and leaving with a debt. But was the education better? It would have improved anyway, I think, as new generations came through. Art itself had changed and the profession and culture had certainly changed the 1980s, represented by a global explosion of supercharged art worlds. Heightened criticality and higher prices created a dynamism that would have been undoubtedly reflected in arts education.

What might be worth thinking about are the lives of the teachers, the academics, and how they changed. We turned ourselves inside out trying to fit into layers of risk-averse bureaucracy and endless evaluation for seemingly very obscure purpose and benefit. On the other hand, our salaries were better, and some new conditions such as paid study leave and promotion on merit were clear advantages. As a result of some of these changed conditions, teachers and universities have had to raise the bar of service and perform better. Teaching has improved because more is expected - perhaps influenced by those from the CAE's, which were largely designed around teaching and professional mentoring, rather than on the research orientation of the university sector, with teaching to be avoided where at all possible.

However it would be reckless for me to make broad generalised statements and analysis of this period in a few words here but it is worth noting the 25-year battle through the research debates and all the goal-displacing behaviour, the definitions and re-definitions of research in the creative arts, the torturous justifications and the endless justification that creative academics were put through! What about the student experience? Is it better or worse other than they now pay and that they expect a better experience. 

Graduate degrees have now extended the time spent in art school to a maximum of 8 to 10 years from undergraduate to PhD. Would this have happened anyway as the world became better educated? Every qualification I have was the first time it had been offered. Now students have clear and well-travelled pathways from undergraduate to PhD and post-doctoral work. 

When we started in this new unified system there were over 30 art schools in Australia all with more or less the same model of professional education, some more radical and progressive than others, some already in university contexts. In the last decade we have seen art schools morph into the institutional shape of their host university and in some cases the radical destruction of many of these once active institutions. This is, not I believe, due to low demand but rather it must be rather a lack of faith by some university management and the value of arts education. This scepticism and suspicion is not universal and there is still strong support in key institutions but this seems to be driven by the personal commitments of individual university leaders rather than any systematic approach. Funding is always used as a constraint but in a time of an emphasis on student engagement and impact in the public domain this is clearly short-sighted thinking. Nevertheless, good leadership is all and regrettably or not that can't be legislated for and perhaps it survives any changed policy condition. Where there is a will ...

Perhaps a consequence of this also is that it made the higher education voice more consolidated and a more cohesive block delivering serious economic and social public good on a grand scale. 

Would this have happened if John Dawkins had not forced the CAEs to merge with a university, not one always of its choice? Hard to know. However, if he hadn't, my career, for one, would certainly have been different.