20 May, 2017

Art attack – time to reverse government cuts to arts education

By Rosie Scroggie

TAFE Colleges, and their predecessors, have long fostered the growth of Australian artists, and the cultural and artistic landscape in Australia. From pre-eminent Australian painters such as Sidney Nolan and John Olsen to street and contemporary artists like Rone and Tracey Moffat; musicians and bands such as Augie March and Troy Casser-Daly; fashion designers from Akira, to J’Aton Couture to Lisa Ho; filmmakers, animators, dancers, writers – so many of the talented people who have shaped Australia went to TAFE.

Cultural, creative, and artistic industries are intrinsically valuable – UNESCO’s Cultural Times notes that “undeniably, culture and creativity have been the cement that binds together not only hearts and souls, but entire societies and nations.” It is art that helps us make sense of our identities, our values and our place in the world. Art helps us to maintain traditions and histories – and to forge new ones.

There is also economic value to investment in arts and culture. Jason Potts, Professor of Economics at RMIT University concluded from his analysis for The Conversation that according to ABS Satellite data for 2008-9 “the contribution of cultural and creative economy to Australia GDP was $86 billion which is almost 7%... The cultural and creative sector produces more GVA than health care, but less than construction.” According to ABS statistics GVA (gross value added) for Arts has grown steadily throughout the 00s and into the 10s.

Despite the economic and intrinsic value of healthy cultural, creative and artistic industries, funding for arts education, particularly at TAFE, continues to be cut by governments.

In 2012 in TATT we reported that state budget cuts in Victoria – designed to reign in the massive growth of private for profit providers – were having a devastating effect on the whole sector, including TAFE. Arts courses at TAFE colleges were a major victim of these budget cuts in Victoria. Similar scenarios have played out around the country with devastating effect. In NSW for example, the introduction of Smart & Skilled, left most Arts courses without government funding – forcing students to pay exorbitant up-front fees to undertake, or complete, Arts courses.

The reform agenda imposed by governments on the vocational education sector has continually undermined the provision of Arts courses in TAFE colleges. It has done this through not only continued underfunding of TAFE colleges and removing subsidies from Arts courses, but by entrenching income contingent loans in the sector.

Income contingent loans, first VET FEE-HELP and now VET Student Loans, have not been positive for Arts courses in TAFE. Despite the rhetoric around access and affordability, and unlike similar schemes in Higher Education, VET FEE-HELP transferred the entire cost of courses onto students by way of a debt. Courses that had previously been available at TAFE for a modest fee, were now only available to students either prepared to pay a large fee up front, or take on a debt.

Under the new scheme, VET Student Loans, this continues. However, in an attempt to reign in unscrupulous private providers profiteering through vocational education income contingent loans, the list of courses that are eligible for VET Student Loans has been greatly reduced – particularly in the arts, creative and cultural industries. The government claimed that eligibility for VET Student Loans would be limited to courses that “Have a high national priority, meet industry needs, contribute to addressing skills shortages and align with strong employment outcomes.” This has translated to an absolute decimation of Arts courses available under VET Student Loans.

According to media reports, of the 57 courses previously able to access VET FEE-HELP that were broadly in the “Creative Arts” area, only 13 will be eligible for VET Student Loans. Courses in musical theatre, professional writing and editing, jewellery and object design, ceramics, dance, styling, journalism, broadcast technology, acting, circus arts and floristry will no longer be available under a loan scheme. Students wanting to study in these areas will need to pay full fees, straight up – if they can find their preferred course still being offered somewhere after the past decade of cuts to Arts programs in TAFEs.

The Federal Education and Training Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, justified the reduced list of courses eligible for loans claiming that many courses were “lifestyle choices” that would not lead to work. This casual dismissal of creative courses of being pointless plays into the long held view by some elites about TAFE: that it is a place of “basket weaving” and “cake decoration” and that those skills are useless and lead to nothing.

We of course know this isn’t true.

According to NCVER figures – over half of all Creative Arts students at TAFE in 2015 were employed by mid-2016. What the data doesn’t tell us is what the remainder are doing. While Senator Birmingham may assume these students are just on the dole, we know that many of these students will be busily creating, performing, undertaking work experience, setting up businesses or going on to further study.

We hear so many stories from TAFE teachers and students where an Arts course at TAFE has been the first step in a longer journey. After time away from education, or after a negative experience at school – Art classes are often a sanctuary and a first positive learning experience for many people. After experiencing success in Arts – many students go on to further study in different departments. For these students, Arts education has been more of a lifesaver that the alleged “lifestyle” Senator Birmingham refers to.

In 2015, the Australia Council undertook a study which culminated in the landmark report Arts Nation: An Overview of Australian Arts. The report noted that 85% of Australians think the arts make for a richer and more meaningful life. The report also noted the strong, and varied, economic contributions of the arts. The “reforms” in vocational education – reduced funding; entrenching income contingent loans; and removing government subsidies from Arts courses act against the vast majority of Australians who understand how important the art, cultural and creative industries are to our society; and the economy.

Art does not happen in a vacuum. Like any other industry or profession, education is vital to the ongoing growth of the sector. While Higher Education institutes have a part to play in arts education, it is vital that the vocational education sector is encouraged and assisted to provide affordable and high quality arts courses – particularly in those more practical and vocationally oriented disciplines.

It is vital that governments realise the importance of art, and arts education, and come to the natural conclusion that to ensure a vibrant future for these industries in Australia they must guarantee funding to TAFE. TAFE has for generations taught, inspired and moulded some of Australia’s greatest artists, performers and creatives. For TAFE teachers to nurture the next generation of George Gittoes, Catherine Martins and Lanie Lanes – there must be funding and support for TAFE colleges.