From the Vice President: Darwin’s favourite children

Welcome to the 16th edition of NiTRO. Following on from the previous edition in which we reminisced over the changes brought about by the Dawkins reforms, this issue turns the mirror to reflect on ourselves, and how we have innovated and adapted on a local level to both external and institutional influences on our teaching and our scholarship.

Government reforms are ever present in their various guises whether through sweeping changes or more overtly through quality agencies that attempt to account for the hard earned taxpayers’ dollar. While we in the arts might argue value where others talk of impact, the truth is that government agencies such as TEQSA (AUQA with teeth) will favour measures that are relatively short term and tangible, and we know that future funding for higher education will in part be determined by such measures.

Art schools within universities have always been innovative in the teaching and research nexus, we are Charles Darwin’s favourite children, we have adapted and survived an ever-shifting system that is too often insensitive to the long term cultural value to society, a system that, like government itself, looks for quick fixes in a short term political cycle.

In the political rhetoric around jobs and growth, the arts have a contemporary story to tell. For the future of work and in our contribution to cultural knowledge; preparing graduates who already feed the growing gig economy, who infiltrate our regular modes of work with new and inventive alternatives to employment, who research and create new ideas about how the world can be improved, the artist already plays a central role. Artists make work to improve the lives of others, an attribute we must never overlook. Are we witnessing these attributes in our business graduates for instance? Is personal greed driving the attitude and practices currently being exposed in the banking sector? Who cares about ethical decision making as it applies to others?

As Rutger Bregman comments: “I believe in a future where the point of education is not to prepare you for another useless job, but for a life well lived” [1] or what Michael Sandel refers to as “the good life” [2]. In this sense, and it is common sense, the arts lead the way. Although the arts cannot claim to exclusively own all of the cognitive and social skills for future work that are expected to survive automation, such as creativity, dexterity, teamwork, empathy, ethical judgement and so on, it is well known that learning through the arts offers a philosophical and contextual understanding of a world we are creating.

For most academics that have spent the best part of their lives having to constantly justify the very existence of arts in the university, the recognition of the future needs of a rounded economy and the value of a well-educated society is allowing us a moment when we can flex our collective and creative muscle. Creative, adaptable and contemporary curriculum design based in the arts therefore presents us with an opportunity to not only reflect the future needs of our graduates, it should set pedagogical standards for those in higher education who’s politically driven vocational focus, and the metrics by which this is measured are already out of time and out of date.

Innovative curriculum design isn’t just about how we teach the craft of the creative artist, at best it reflects our ability to survive these external pressures by retaining what is timeless while at the same time inventing what will be needed. The wonderful work undertaken by so many academics in Australia has helped position the arts as a leader in the way we think critically and ethically, how we become resilient, and perhaps most importantly how we regularly define what it means to be human. So Darwin would be proud, we might not look like the fittest but we know how to adapt like no other.

I hope you enjoy this edition of NiTRO.



[1] World Economic Forum,

[2] Michael Sandel, Professor of Philosophy Harvard University on the importance of liberal arts in a mechanised world. Episode 8 question and answer at 43.47.


Related links

Strauss, V. The Surprising Thing Google Learned About its Employees — And What it Means for Today's Students. The Washington Post, December 2017.

An exploding creative economy shows innovation policy shouldn’t focus only on STEM via @ConversationEDU

Ford, M. Rise of the Machines: What Jobs Will Survive as Robots Move into the Workplace? Elysse Morgan, ABC News Online. July 2017.

Bleich, J. The role of Universities in the Post AI Age. Higher Education Conference Keynote Address Universities Australia March 2017.

Featherstone, T. Are STEM Skills Overhyped?  The Age. Jan 2018.