The Dawkins Reforms: How was it for you?

By Jenny Wilson with contributions from Ann Schilo (Curtin); Peter Roennfeldt (Queensland Conservatorium); Michael Halliwell (Sydney Conservatorium); Nick Oughton (Griffith Film School) and Geoffrey Caban (UTS)

The very phrase "The Dawkins Reforms" evokes an image of Minister John Dawkins adding the flourishing touches to a paper that was, overnight, to disrupt the settled and contented life in Australia’s art and music schools and send tertiary creative artists trudging in Lowryesque procession to the university "factories and mills".

"What struck me as we went through various potential amalgamations ... was ... the presence or otherwise of goodwill as the heads of various music schools and university management negotiated arrangements."

But in reality, life in pre-Dawkins colleges was not hunky dory for all tertiary creatives. The White Paper was part of a reform agenda that had already begun and which was to continue for many years.

During my own research on this topic [1] I was struck by how different the Dawkins experiences for creative artists were depending upon which institutions were involved. For this edition of NiTRO, we invited colleagues from different institutions recall their experiences and views of the changes that this period of reform brought to draw out just a few of the enduring themes.

  • Professor Peter Roennfeldt, former Director of Queensland Conservatorium has written extensively about the history of Queensland Conservatorium including its amalgamation with Griffith University following the white paper[2]
  • Associate Professor Michael Halliwell, joined Sydney Conservatorium in the aftermath of its amalgamation with the University of Sydney
  • Dr Ann Schilo, Senior Lecturer in the School of Art and Design, viewed the Dawkins period from the perspective of a university which had already undergone reform when the Western Australian Institute of Technology became Curtin University in 1987
  • Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Caban's experiences of the design school in its shift from the former Sydney College of the Arts to the University of Technology, Sydney are reflected in a history of UTS published by Xoum Press[3]
  • Professor Nick Oughton from Griffith Film School, experienced the amalgamation of Queensland College of Art, formerly part of the TAFE system, with Griffith University.


Location, location

Although the White Paper triggered many amalgamations, not all creatives were affected by this. Some universities already housed music schools and conservatoria, and a number of institutions had already undergone merger and reform prior to 1988. Deakin, James Cook, Tasmania, Wollongong and La Trobe universities had already experienced mergers, and 3 CAEs had already become universities (Curtin, QUT and UTS)[4]. As Ann Schilo explained, the impact of the White Paper on Curtin University was negligible. "Art and Design was a founding School when Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) was established in 1968 so art staff were already accustomed to institutional practices and negotiations."

"While the builders probably wondered what they had in common with some of our programs ... many of them sat in the front seats at the annual fashion parades"

For those institutions that were perceived to fall below the specified student numbers, the White Paper began a long process of negotiation and change. Peter Roennfeldt’s experience at Queensland Conservatorium, which became embroiled in protracted negotiations with three universities, shows that the decision of who was to amalgamate with whom was not as straightforward as is sometimes portrayed.

What struck me as we went through various potential amalgamations, with Griffith, QUT, UQ then finally Griffith [again], was that while this was government policy to be somehow adhered to, the presence or otherwise of goodwill as the heads of various music schools and university management negotiated arrangements ... I think the whole period was characterised by power plays both at the institutional and personal levels, and I have often wondered it would have ended up differently with a different set of people in the key positions.

Geoffrey Caban highlights "external influence" on the eventual merger participants, “When members of the School of Design ... expressed a preference to join the University of Sydney ... the NSW Minister for Education called us ‘intellectually pretentious’ and sent us to UTS” (p223).

"the increased sense of a detached and distant administration who ‘didn’t understand what we did’ was, and still is, an impression held by many"

The new university "homes" did not always have appropriate facilities for the creative arts and the settling in process was disrupted subsequently, often for many years, by relocation and re-siting. As Geoffrey notes: “for three years after the amalgamation we remained at White Bay ... housed in the old Ampol Building and a few sheds full of asbestos and fumes from the smash repair shop underneath’ (p223). In Brisbane, both Queensland College of Art and Queensland Conservatorium were eventually located to a central campus, but it was a long processQCA, which had amalgamated with Griffith in the early 1990s, continued working from its former TAFE location for nearly a decade. As Peter recalls: “While Griffith had plans for moving [the Conservatorium] to Nathan, community and institutional support dictated that an inner city location was essential, which eventually gave GU great prominence within the cultural precinct, so it was a win-win, but ... it could have gone in a different direction”.


Identity change and new connections

As Peter explained, the old loyalties to a small specialist institution die hard, but in the case of Griffith it inherited two arts schools which had 'Queensland' in their title which actually laid a claim to state leadership, so it was a case of bringing longevity / tradition / track record ... not merely a poor cousin needing a bailout. I still sense from older alumni and supporters whose involvement pre-dates 1991 that 'the Con' is more important in their perception than 'the university'. The loss of our former logo in 2002 was one example of this sense of being deprived of its unique identity."

Queensland College of Art’s Nick Oughton puts the identity issue more succinctly: “One good quote I remember from the time was that 'Amalgamating QCA to Griffith was like pouring a bottle of Grange (from a good year I suspect) into the Brisbane river'".

"I think this has been a major important change. Today postgraduate students in NTRO fields don’t have to argue the case, to justify what they do as research. It’s an accepted and acclaimed field."

In addition to coping with identity loss, the shift in teaching expectations brought concerns. As Michael Halliwell notes: "I had the sense that there was a lot of resistance to the amalgamation with Sydney Uni from staff ... many of the teachers had been there for quite a long time and were very comfortable with the conservatory model. Being part of a university was a big unknown for them."

At UTS while there was apprehension, "fears were generally unfounded" (p223) due to the welcoming attitude from senior management. The connection with the broader intellectual community that the university offered is highlighted as one of the major positive changes. At Sydney Conservatorium, Michael notes "being able to draw on the intellectual and other resources of a major university was a big plus, and in my area we were able to tap into areas such as languages, performance studies". 

When Design at UTS joined with Architecture and Building in their new faculty structure, Geoffrey notes a genuinely welcome noting that while “the builders probably wondered what they had in common with some of our programs ... many of them sat in the front seats at the annual fashion parades" (p224).


Credentalisation and Research

The growth of the importance of doctoral qualifications was common in both amalgamated and non-amalgamated institutions. "The growing expectation of higher degree qualified staff ... with a significant increase in the percentage of doctorates amongst the staff", that Peter notes is echoed by Ann, where, "Curtin became concerned with credentialing staff. Whereas previously a track record as a professional artist was sufficient to be considered worthy of a teaching post at WAIT, Curtin staff during the 90s needed to have Doctorates." 

But the need for doctoral qualifications was not always accompanied by an awareness of research in creative disciplines. Michael notes "that the increased sense of a detached and distant administration who ‘didn’t understand what we did’ was, and still is, an impression held by many. The emphasis placed on research is still felt by some as something that should not be their concern, which is excellence in teaching elite performers."

The focus on research also saw a shift for students with "access to the full suite of qualifications ... up to doctorate, including in recent years also professional doctorates - I doubt this would have ever happened in the CAE scenario", said Peter.

Ann notes: "the major shift in creative arts is the recognition of it as research ... During the 90s there was certainly a lots of work done here ... promoting creative arts research and getting the Doctorate of Creative Arts established. By the 2010s ... Curtin accepted the idea the PhD could be also creative production and so the DCA fell by the wayside."


Lasting Legacy

So what do contributors feel has been the lasting affects on creative arts disciplines from the Dawkins period?

Michael: On the positive side, the music offerings at our institution are broader and more inclusive than before. There is more focus on a wider range of potential careers in the arts sector and not just as orchestral musicians, and opera singers. Negatively, there is a sense that elite standards of performance training have deteriorated over the last 10-15 years, so that the depth of elite performers is more limited ... the vastly increased focus on performance-based research is the standout element in the changes. This wasn’t on the horizon then. I have been involved in developing policy in this area from 95 and the changes have been substantial.”

Geoffrey: “While the Dawkins changes have enabled design students and lecturers to learn and teach in a wider intellectual community, some traditional creative skills have been diminished through larger classes, new technologies, and reductions in studio time. The emphasis on research and publication in universities, and the still inadequate opportunities to substitute creative work, have produced some scholarship that assists the creative arts, but also a lot that is fairly useless.”

Peter: “Forcing of a dialogue amongst the various discipline networks as to what constitutes 'research' for non-traditional fields I think [has also created] a mutual sharing of the problem with pre-existing sandstone universities who have also diversified their outlook - no longer could you say the former CAEs just 'did the arts' and the universities 'researched the arts' - it is much more of a mixed package, virtually for every institution” 

Ann: “From my position involved in some 25 years of HDR creative production I think this has been a major important change. Today postgraduate students in NTRO fields don’t have to argue the case, to justify what they do as research. It’s an accepted and acclaimed field.” 



[1] Wilson, J ( 2017Artists in the University: Positioning Artistic Research in Higher Education. Springer International

2] See:;  and Roennfeldt, P. J. (2012). Northern Lyrebird: The Contribution to Queensland's Music by Its Conservatorium 1957-2007. Australian Academic Press; Metcalf, B. & Shaw, B. (eds), Brisbane: Training, Teaching and Turmoil; Tertiary Education 1825-2018. Brisbane History Group; Boolarong Press.

[3] Caban, G. ‘The school of design: from Sydney College of the Arts to DAB’ in Adelaide, D., Ashton, P, & Salt, A. (eds), Stories from the Tower: UTS 1988-2013. Xoum Books

[4] Taylor, D. (1991) Changing Policy in Australian Higher Education, in: G. Neave & F. van Vught (Eds) Prometheus Bound: The Changing Relationship between Government and Higher Education in Western Europe, Oxford, UK, Pergamon Press