Thursday, November 29, 2012


Of late I've been writing elsewhere about education policies here in Australia in relation to both the Federal and state governments. Conservative state governments in NSW,  QLD and VIC are cutting support services, course funding, teacher numbers in all sectors but in particular the VET (vocational education and training) sector and most harshly around visual arts. To the point where NSW will defund all visual arts VET courses as of January 1, 2013. Fees have skyrocketed, and students already enrolled in programs will be expected to deal with such changes with no financial offset or promise to completion.

If you're reading this blog, I can assume you have an interest in design and art, and therefore some knowledge about training and education in this area. And you will fully understand how disastrous these sort of changes to access to visual art education are.

I'll give the pollies responsible for these decisions the benefit of the doubt that they're not just ignorant philistines, but are instead playing with the processes of funding in order to meet their self-imposed budgetary  targets of surplus regardless of the impact of that upon their civic society. Let's be gracious and assume that they're assuming that the VET arts students will move into the tertiary sector which is funded by the Federal government, thus saving them money.

Problem is of course that things are never that simple. For a start the tertiary sector simply cannot accommodate the student numbers involved. In 2011, 490 834 students were enrolled in a broad category described as creative arts. This covers graphic design, photography, visual arts, specialist courses such as millinery from statement of attainment through to Certificate IV. Tertiary courses already accept only 1 in 3 students who apply. So where do they think the additional students fit? One of the problems in our system of split responsibility for education provision between differing tiers of government is that the state ninnies don't have to think - its now someone else's problem.

The other problem is that tertiary visual arts education is more often than not completely inappropriate as a place of learning for most people. VET courses are very skill-attainment orientated and for many areas of visual art training are by far and away the best choice. Ask anyone looking to hire a graphic artist. A work-ready TAFE graduate can walk into $100 an hour digital graphic work role as the level of training they have received is recognised as thorough and up to date with current technologies.

The other point I'd make and this is partly based on personal experience as well as observing outcomes in visual arts education for now over 15 years, is that overwhelmingly any artist, practitioner or worker is much better provisioned by having had some VET training before moving into the tertiary sector. TAFE courses produce students with high skill accomplishment, technical proficiency and good management skills in relation to workloads. The acquisition of which is by no means a given if starting off in the tertiary sector. I suspect we have all seen a lot of university-produced work where the idea failed to deliver its promise for a want of skill in its making.

For visual arts areas working in 3D, VET and TAFE in particular are in many parts of the country the only venue for study. There's also a class element to this. TAFE colleges are present in regional locations and non-middle class suburbs, providing the 70% of Australians who do not have nor will have any engagement with the tertiary sector some access to educational opportunities. This is not just about the cuts to visual arts. Access to HSC via TAFE has been severely cut in NSW, so for those students, be they straight out of school or 24 who want to do the HSC again, the opportunity has in most part been removed, particularly if you're in regional localities.

We have the ridiculous situation where the Federal government is talking about its education revolution which is in the tradition of the Whitlam and Dawkins reforms - widening access to quality education, assuming it is a right not a privilege. And yet the state governments are returning to some paternalistic past where access is reduced, denied, where the value of education as a transformative process is denied by a market economy world view that sees no value in the citizen who cannot meet some notional middle class cost benefit analysis.

What prompted this was a tweet about RCA's 175th birthday show, The Perfect Place to Grow.  We have nothing equivalent in Australia, and given the attitude of VCs at places such as ANU, what little we have looks very likely to disappear. RCA draws equal measures of opprobrium and praise as venerable institutions do; recall Tracey Emin's remark that the best thing about RCA was getting the letter of acceptance. RCA supports my proposition that previous arts training before entry to tertiary courses is hugely important. RCA is for grads only - you have to have undergrad qualifications or equivalents but the point is that higher ed should be exactly that. Otherwise we risk churning out more smart monkeys who can conceptualise anything and everything into a four page artist's statement but can't make a mark on paper.

Anyway what I really intended to do was have a light cheerful post about this image:

Labeled 'End of Term Frolic, c. 1894', it's from the RCA archive. First thing I noticed was the presence of women in the group - five of them, meaning about a quarter of the students shown are women. QV was still on the throne, New Zealand had just granted women the right to vote the year before, the first nation to do so, and the great suffrage campaigns were only just commencing. Certainly the Arts and Crafts movement had seen large numbers of women engage with the arts, and there is a forgotten parallel history of women workers in Britain's factories decorating china, french polishing furniture, screen printing wall paper; the unseen decorative work of industry. I would love to know who they were and what they went on to do with the rest of their lives.

But then I noticed something a little odd. Which partly explains the title End of Term Frolic. What is the chap in the seated row doing? And what about those around him?

Methinks the arm resting on his neighbour's knee is not quite what it seems, and the plate behind his head is rather halo like. Someone better educated in the religious paintings of Europe could probably name the painting I think they're hamming up. 118 years later they've appeared in a catalog for their alma mater. Time and sepia having made their youth and japes seem stiff, fixed and unknowable. Who will be looking at our art graduates of today in 118 years?