Policy Changes Stymie Industry Engagement Benefits

By John Cumming and Craig Batty, Australian Screen Production, Education and Research Association (ASPERA)

Australia is engaged in completing a transition that will result in academic endeavor being placed squarely within the ‘triple helix’ of university-industry-government. Priority research projects will be those that can secure funding from ‘end-users’. The challenge for researchers is now shifting from publication and peer review to benchmarks of impact and industry engagement.  At present, highly ‘engaged’ work in screen production research often leads to outputs that are either not counted as research or counted inadequately without any effective recognition of impact. This situation applies to the publication of creative work in screen production through cinemas, international film festivals, television broadcasts, DVD, online distribution, galleries or public art installations and performances.  While the benchmark of impact may be more achievable for practice-based screen production researchers than refereed publication, industry engagement will be measured, firstly, in dollars. 

The NISA mentions the creation of 'ideas' but these are only framed in the context of ideas that will boost economic benefits.  Important cultural and social ideas are not always open to be accounted for in this way.  Cultural enrichment is a significant return on public investment in the arts and in arts education, but research and education focused on creative and critical thinking cannot always be ‘geared towards positive outcomes[which] demonstrate clearer returns on public investment’ if what is meant by this is economic return.

The challenge we now face is how to honour the intellectual rigour and inventive potential of our work whilst seeking finance for it from a local industry that already relies on subsidy through public institutions and high levels of professional volunteerism. When it comes to developing creative content, even highly commercial local production in Australia is often substantially dependent on investment from public financing agencies. University financial systems are so different from those to required to manage a film or television production that they place real barriers to our ability to have industry-sourced production grants or investment run through them.  Engagement can be achieved with these (Categories 2 & 3 Public) industry funding sources but there is currently no practical way to have such investment equitably counted as research income whilst also having it acquitted at the industry end.

Why would Australia follow a model that has proven itself to be flawed and creating a dismal academic environment?

The NISA looks to the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) model for measuring the impact of research, but the REF recognises only the outputs of a hand chosen elite from each university. It is not a transparent system, and presents a highly skewed image of research activity nationally. Many UK academics are, as a result, suffering from feelings of marginalization and poor wellbeing.  Most of the UK's academic workforce is currently on strike about poor working conditions. Why would Australia follow a model that has proven itself to be flawed and creating a dismal academic environment?

The methodology that Australia adopts to measure engagement and impact must draw on indicators ‘sensitive to a range of research types, including research relevant to different audiences'.­ The case study approach, or at least a version of it, with peer review and benchmarking by those in the discipline, will be imperative for many disciplines for which metrics simply cannot convey engagement and impact.

In Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Australian Higher Education, the government correctly identifies that a more accessible, transparent and consistent allocation of subsidised postgraduate places is long overdue. The current agenda of practical changes does not, however, include any direct action to address this issue. Postgraduate research activity in screen production has increased significantly in recent years and is becoming a very significant avenue for meaningful collaborations between universities and industry. Highly experienced industry practitioners are looking for opportunities to undertake research that targets industrial and cultural needs, identified by reflecting on their own professional experience. These leaders are looking to both give back to the industry that they have flourished in, and to expand their own skill and knowledge to fuel the next phase of their careers.

The changes to Federal responsibility for higher education are driven by an unwavering faith in commercialization, competition, regulation and measurement as the primary means of improving ‘choice’, quality and efficiency.

The changes to Federal responsibility for higher education are driven by an unwavering faith in commercialization, competition, regulation and measurement as the primary means of improving ‘choice’, quality and efficiency. Implicit is an assumption that universities and their staff are in a position to resource the additional academic workload; to become even more competitive; to mount substantial research into teaching and learning innovation on a national scale without Federal assistance; and to undertake additional reporting and further activity in the time-consuming work of expanding engagement with industry in a way that will be effective and meaningful. Most academics in creative arts disciplines are already over-stretched and at a disadvantage to their hard-working colleagues in other disciplines. The teaching and assessment of students in creative arts is usually complex and multifaceted with substantial time taken to guide and advise them in their practice-based work with all the real-world contingencies that creative production entails.

John Cumming is President of the Australian Screen Production, Education and Research Association (ASPERA) and Senior Lecturer in the School of Communication & Creative Arts at Deakin University.

Craig Batty is Chair of the ASPERA Research Sub-Committee andAssociate Professor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University.