Mergers, Creative Arts and the Art City that never happened

By Dr Gwilym Croucher

The changes brought by Minister John Dawkins refashioned Australian higher education and its institutions. Over the course of a few years, the government ended free education and introduced HECS, turned an elite education system into mass education, made vice-chancellors into CEOs, and turned higher education teachers into both teachers and researchers. Dawkins’ changes brought dramatic growth in the number of students at universities and other institutions but in doing so caused long term challenges for many different educational disciplines.

Many smaller specialist educational institutions faced the greatest challenge in meeting the government mandated consolidation process. This meant the older, more prestigious universities, as partners of preference, made numerous acquisitions, most absorbing many smaller colleges, institutes and schools.

Dawkins’ reconfiguration came to be known as the “unified national system”. The creation of the unified national system was and often remains controversial, and its lasting impact is evident where institutions, especially many smaller ones, were merged into new or existing universities. While the Dawkins changes remodelled much of higher education, creative arts institutions, especially several of the oldest, were some of the most affected. The mergers became a symbol of the unified national system because Dawkins made it a condition of funding that all higher education providers, be they universities or specialised institutions, must have a minimum number of students. The government required higher education institutions have 2,000 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) students minimum, while 5,000 were obligatory for a broad teaching profile and some specialised research activity and 8,000 for ‘relatively comprehensive’ research.

Many smaller specialist educational institutions faced the greatest challenge in meeting the government mandated consolidation process. This meant the older, more prestigious universities, as partners of preference, made numerous acquisitions, most absorbing many smaller colleges, institutes and schools. For example, Monash University absorbed campuses in Caulfield, Frankston, Gippsland, Mount Martha and the small but prestigious Victorian College of Pharmacy, to emerge as the largest university in Australia at twice its original size.

Creative arts colleges and conservatoriums, by their nature were mainly smaller and specialist, and so were forced to merge. For instance, the Sydney College of the Arts split to join the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, while the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music joined the former. 

A proposal that drew on existing plans to include film and television within the VCA was crafted in late 1988 for a precinct to be known as Arts City. It would bring Swinburne’s Film and Television School and the fine art component of Victoria College’s Prahran campus to an expanded VCA campus.

These unions caused significant upheaval as the story of the Victorian College of the Arts shows. The VCA traces its origins to the 1867 art school attached to the National Gallery of Victoria. In 1972 it achieved independence from the Gallery and by the late 1980s had diversified its offerings to include dance, drama and music as well as visual art. By its nature the VCA’s intensive form of tuition was expensive, however it was unable to persuade the Commonwealth to extend the support it gave to the national training institutions in the creative and performing arts, and Dawkins new funding model reduced the VCA’s operating grant. As an institution with only 583 full time equivalent students in 1988, the VCA had no choice but to seek partners. Focused as it was on concentrated training, the VCA was quite unlike the University. Its tuition was practical, without any academic studies, and its research activity was modest given its focus on excellence in practice.

A proposal that drew on existing plans to include film and television within the VCA was crafted in late 1988 for a precinct to be known as Arts City. It would bring Swinburne’s Film and Television School and the fine art component of Victoria College’s Prahran campus to an expanded VCA campus, but it would require acquisition of additional land and a substantial building program. Proposals for the Arts City would seek economies of scale and critical mass of creative arts to a single campus in central Melbourne. Despite some enthusiasm, plans fell through, so VCA amalgamated with the University of Melbourne.

The University of Melbourne was seen by many as the natural partner given the proximity, and the Vice-Chancellor at the time David Penington anticipated political pressure to amalgamate by State and Federal Ministers of Education. Melbourne provided a future and safeguards were enacted to the VCA’s finances could be maintained. From the outset the new union brought challenges that show the limits of Australia’s experiment with reorganisation in higher education. The VCA operated at arm’s length from the University’s procedures in an attempt to preserve its distinctive mission. But the Dawkins funding formula put the VCA and the University in a hard place, with the government from the outset saying the University should make up the VCA’s shortfall. Initial attempts to bring the VCA into the University of Melbourne, such as the preliminary effort to integrate it with the University’s Faculty of Music, failed, prolonging the trial of forced amalgamation, many elements of which would not be fully resolved for decades.


Dr Gwilym Croucher is a Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, a 2017-18 Fulbright Scholar and former higher education policy adviser. Gwilym has been Chief Investigator on an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant examining the origins and history of current higher education policy in Australia, and is currently a principal investigator, along with colleagues at University of California, Davis on a project analysing interviews with over one hundred leaders and policy experts in Australian higher education.  He is currently an investigator on an Australian Government Office of Learning and Teaching grant examining the future of the doctoral study in Australia. He has policy development and advocacy experience, particularly in higher education policy.