From the President: Political mythmakers and Jane the robot

By Professor Clive Barstow

Welcome to the 23rd edition of NiTRO. In this edition we invited commentary around the many myths that surround arts teaching, research and practice and its greater contribution to the economy. I doubt if many outside our sector really understand the role that the arts play in a rounded and progressive society such as Australia beyond simply providing entertainment, so it is time to put the record straight.

This is not just an invitation to persuade the uninitiated, it is an important issue and one that ultimately might influence the very survival of the arts in Australian Universities. Proving that our graduates are not just employable but versatile and fluid individuals that are making a significant contribution to our growing multi-dimensional economies, showing that arts research is not simply self-indulgent naval gazing and that teaching creativity is a craft that is increasingly in demand will ultimately affect our ability to argue for a future that is inclusive of the arts, and as such appropriately funded and supported.

In an age of fake news, we might ponder to think how mythmaking has any real relevance to us as artists, musicians and design educators. Let me point you to the latest government AUGAR report [1] on post 18 education funding in the UK commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education. The report pitches STEM v Arts and Communications in terms of funding and argues that funding the arts is disproportionate to its Science based programs, and goes further to question if the current level of funding for the arts is “strategically desirable” (p82).

The backlash has come from every corner, in its call to arms the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) comments “The report argues that these [Arts & Communications] receive a disproportionate amount of public funding in contrast to STEM subjects which, it argues, ‘are better aligned with the economy’s needs’. Media and communication programs are seen as ‘low value degrees’ despite their vital contribution to the knowledge economy, the cultural and creative industries and democratic well-being’” [2]. When one considers the contribution to the UK economy from music, fashion, arts and design and its driver of the tourist dollar, it is hard to imagine how the perception of investment in the creative sector can be seen in such a negative vacuum. In the UK, the creative industries account for 1 in 11 jobs, employing 700,000 more people in 2017 than the financial services sector and is now the fastest growing part of the UK economy [3]. Mythmakers have a way of finding a truth space in the populist mind, and perhaps one as potentially destructive as the dragons they invented.

Here in Australia, a recent research paper by Emeritus Professor Frank Larkins of the University of Melbourne [4] compares the improvement outcomes of the recent ERA round again pitting STEM v HASS/Arts highlighting a clear discrepancy in the way standards are being evaluated. While STEM subjects generally have seen across the board increases in excellence ratings, only a handful of Universities have managed increases in the HASS/Arts disciplines. This is not helping our cause.

So how are these connected and what influence do the mythmakers have in terms of future resourcing? If you are not sure then I suggest you keep an eye the predicted changes to government funding for Universities in the UK post Brexit as it struggles to deal with the potential loss of thousands of European students. It is possible that we will witness a crude and misguided prioritising of funding based on the myth that STEM equals jobs and economic prosperity while the arts are for those who can afford to indulge. The UK has a long history and a rich resource to prove the value of creative education to the economy, think of the rock music industry alone, yet its very foundations are under threat.

With the recently released draft legislation on performance funding for universities here in Australia, it is clear that such crude measures as the graduate destination survey will not serve us well in the arts. Inappropriate measurement, as we often see with university research, can have a devastating effect on creative courses and in many cases serve to threaten their very existence.  We need to build hard data around the contribution to GDP generated through creative education and above all to quash the myth that the arts are not central to the quality and prosperity of our future lives.

Thankfully not everyone is so easily fooled by constructed truths and politically motivated myths. In his recent keynote address at the Creative Innovation Summit in Melbourne, Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel AO comments on the world of AI and on our past and future relationship with robots. not tackling the thorny question of whether a robot can be creative or empathetic, he does point out what will be demanded of us as humans to ensure that we build in a quality human/machine relationship through a rounded education. He comments “There’s a belief in some quarters than AI means outsourcing the work of our brains, so as the robots smarten up, the humans can dumb down. I fundamentally disagree. We need more education in order to integrate robots, not less. We need more discussion of philosophy and ethics, not less. We need more creativity, in politics and in literature and in schools and in the media, not less” [5].

We need more voices like Dr Finkel to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences rather than further polarising it, and we need to prove the worth of our graduates to protect ourselves from the dystopian future that might lay ahead in the hands of our financially motivated mythmakers. Interestingly, I write this from my hotel room in Shanghai recovering from a bout of pneumonia. My updated medication was just delivered by the hotel robot called Jane. I said thank you and asked her if she really cared about me. She answered in perfect English that this facility is not available … yet.

[1] AUGAR report https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/805127/Review_of_post_18_education_and_funding.pdf

[2] IAMCR/AIECS/AIERE. UK Augar Review Devalues Media and Communication Education. Member email 17th June 2019

[3] https://www.creativeindustriesfederation.com/statistics

[4] Larkins, F. Anomalies in the Research Excellence ERA Performances of Australian Universities. University of Melbourne 2019.

[5] https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/Creative-Innovation-Summit-2019-Speech.pdf

 

Related reading

Larkins F. P., Research at Australian Universities: Is Excellence Really Excellent? May 2019

Australian Research Council, State of University Research 2018-19, ERA National Report, https://dataportal.arc.gov.au/ERA/NationalReport/2018/

Harzing A.W., Citation analysis for the Social Sciences: metrics and data-sources, 20 September 2016. https://harzing.com/blog/2016/09/citation-analysis-for-the-social-sciences-metrics-and-datasources