Looking back, looking forward: university creatives after Dawkins

By Associate Professor Scott Brook

Let me begin with a claim some will find problematic: creative disciplines have been wildly successful within the structure of a unified Higher Education sector.

As counterintuitive as this sounds, it has to be admitted that the post-Dawkins reforms era has clearly demonstrated their value to the Australian university. It was the value of creative disciplines to faculties from the early 1990s that enabled a boom in the number and size of programs to meet undergraduate student demand in a new quasi market in domestic places.

So why does this account of institutional value matter? For the simple reason that it directs attention to a new set of problems emerging around graduate employment outcomes.

It was their value for the professional development of newly employed lecturers and emerging creatives that saw a steady increase in HDR programs across numerous creative fields (with APA scholarships being widely regarded as the most generous form of funding for emerging artists). And it was the visible effects of this development that supported a new focus in research and teaching centred on the creative and cultural industries, with the figures of ‘the creative’ and ‘creative sector’ becoming symbolically privileged key terms for a range of policy domains – from workforce development to national R&D.

Of course, the economic reasoning implicit in this narrative is controversial, as it is for many academic fields, but it does highlight a great success of the post-Dawkins era: namely, that both despite and through the economic logic of these reforms – a mix of neoclassical economics and Human Capital Theory – creative disciplines thrived.

The vocationalist agenda implicit in the use of employment outcomes as quality indicators is not about to disappear ... Beyond contesting the metrics, responding to this situation will require creative disciplines to craft a much more nuanced and multifaceted account of the value of their degrees.

So, why does this account of institutional value matter? For the simple reason that it directs attention to a new set of problems emerging around graduate employment outcomes. Although the Dawkins Reforms sought to better align student enrolments with employment through compressing human capital theory within the mechanism of an income contingent loan scheme, the theory has not borne out in practice. We know that the HECS did not deter students from enrolling in areas with poor employment outcomes, and students in the Creative Arts are conspicuous in valuing ‘personal interest’ over employment in explaining their motivations for study. [1] Given the poor employment outcomes for most graduates of creative degrees shown in Graduate Outcomes Surveys (relative to other fields), the rise of creative disciplines in this period is strong evidence that course decisions are informed by factors beyond employment.

However, the vocationalist agenda implicit in the use of employment outcomes as quality indicators is not about to disappear either (witness the defunding of creative courses in the VET sector in 2017). Beyond contesting the metrics, responding to this situation will require creative disciplines to craft a much more nuanced and multifaceted account of the value of their degrees. I’d suggest this response – well underway within some advocacy-oriented research fields – will need to combine both normative and critical strategies, as well as to avoid the reflex defence of the intrinsic value of creativity. The default logic of the ‘special case’ implicit in the sector’s response to debates about research metrics will not work here; and as has been suggested, the success of practice-led research in displacing other research options risks deskilling university-based creatives from engaging in the kind of practical and engaged research the sector needs [2].

For the sake of brevity, let me list four strategies that seem to me capable of addressing the terms of emergent debate:

1 Curriculum development. This will take the form of employability and business skills development so that creative graduates can better appreciate their options within, across and outside the cultural sector. This will involve a finer appreciation of vocational and generalist educational rationales that underpin creative education.

2 Industry engagement to enhance initiatives to support graduate pathways and creative careers. This would involve partnerships in research and teaching with a view to developing and maintaining practical initiatives.

3 Graduate mapping that demonstrates the diverse applications of creative skills above-and-beyond employment.

4 Educational critique that refuses the notion that the value of courses is captured through the measurement of private returns to individuals, and demonstrates the continuing public value of Higher Education in general, and creative graduates in particular. To be plausible this principled defence needs to be accompanied by empirical accounts of the public benefits of the creative sector, and the key role universities play in this.

I’d suggest that the intellectual and institutional resources necessary for these strategies are available in the post-Dawkins university. The slowly emergent focus on employability suggests it is time creative disciplines deployed them.

 

References

[1] On the student experience of the HECS, see Angela Papadopoulos (2005) ‘Know Your Product: An Informational Analysis of the Higher Education Contribution Loan Scheme in Australia’. PhD thesis. Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne. For survey data on the study motivations of creatives art students, see Figures 13.1 and 13.2 in Scott Brook 2016 ‘The Creative Turn in Australian Higher Education’,  in R. Comunian and A Gilmore (eds.) Beyond the Campus: Higher Education and the Creative Economy. Routledge, London and New York.

[2] See ‘Editors’ Introduction: the critiques of practice-led research’. In ‘Beyond Practice-Led Research’, TEXT Special Issue #14. 


Scott Brook is Associate Dean of Communication in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT. He has published widely on the 'creative turn' in education and cultural policy, and has a long standing interest in creative graduates. He is currently Lead Chief Investigator on the ARC DP 'So what do you do?: tracking creative graduates in Australia's creative and cultural industries' (2016 - 2018), an international team research project that follows the recently finished 'Working the Field: creative graduates in Australia and China' (ARC DP 2015 - 2017).