October 2021


Drama in hell

By Julian Meyrick
Image of theatre stage with empty chairs

© Russell Watkins / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo

The descent of creative arts at Australia’s universities

Around this time last year, when lockdowns felt like something new, I started to get emails from university colleagues teaching in drama courses around Australia. They were outraged, bewildered and grief-stricken as their departments were downsized, hastily reshaped or cut altogether. A new chapter in the corporatisation of Australian higher education was unfolding. Neoliberalism, with all its specious doubletalk and confabulated rules that change shape even as you try to follow them, was being wrought upon creative arts programs.

Twelve months on, the wave of sad complaint has broken, leaving fear, exhaustion and resignation in its wake. There are a number of rationalisations offered for the cuts: creative arts courses are expensive to deliver, difficult to evaluate and not a “national priority”. These ignore their value in education curricula, and in the cultural sector more broadly. For if creative arts teaching struggles to survive, then the creative arts will struggle to survive. To damage one is to cripple the other.

In terms of delivery cost, performing arts occupies a midpoint between creative writing, whose classroom setting resembles more traditional chalk-and-talk courses, and the atelier-style teaching of the visual arts or the one-on-one of music. Class sizes for practical drama courses range from 12 to 22 students. Drama is thus a rough indicator of the health of creative arts teaching in universities.

Of Australia’s 37 public universities, around two thirds offer some type of performing arts course. A number are thimble-sized, while others are outcroppings of English departments. About 15 have established reputations. Every one I have investigated over the past few months has been subject to significant cuts in staff and resources or an abrupt swelling in class sizes, which impact on the type and quality of teaching they can offer.

Here, I give a glimpse of the fates of some of these drama departments. What is needed now is a formal inquiry into the state of all creative arts programs led by the Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Creative Arts (DDCA), and the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools, to scrutinise what is happening at different institutions. The danger is that the pandemic is providing a screen behind which suspect changes can be wrought without crucial questions being asked. I want to raise these questions, and explain why the nation will suffer as a result.

Australian drama departments share a point of origin: a 1949 report by British theatre director Tyrone Guthrie, who was asked to consider “the development of the best local talent on a long-term plan which shall enable it to be useful at home”. His recommendation in those lingering imperial days was to train theatre students in London, then ship them back to Australia.

The first accredited professional theatre school, the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), was established in 1958. The first academic drama department followed in 1966 at the University of New South Wales. These two bodies represent a pedagogic binary between departments dedicated to theatre training and those focused on drama scholarship. In practice, it’s a continuum, with most departments doing both. Since the 1970s, the spectrum has widened. The University of Sydney’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies emphasises the ethnographic study of performance processes. The school of theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) has a longstanding connection with community theatre. Until 2010, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) offered the only accredited music theatre course in the country, and it remains the most prestigious.

The problems of creative arts programs did not arise from COVID-19. As Australian higher education warps under the corporatising forces unleashed by the reforms of Labor education minister John Dawkins in the 1980s, all disciplines suffer. But the creative arts are a comparatively recent addition to the university system. They needed time to embed themselves into its teaching and research frameworks. This time has not been given. As the fallout from the Dawkins years continues, creative arts programs find themselves exposed on every front.

Following the individual stories of these departments is like playing whack-a-mole. “Departments” morph into “programs”, “schools” merge into “colleges”, and degrees go by different names: bachelor of performance/bachelor of theatre arts/bachelor of creative arts (drama). Behind the smoke and mirrors, majors are quietly downgraded to minors and courses amalgamated. Senior staff who leave are not replaced, while casual staff are “let go”. Specialised teaching spaces are “opened up” to other functions. Suddenly, drama departments find themselves bereft of trained staff and resources. In the words of DDCA president Clive Barstow, “opportunism seeps downwards”. Having weakened these departments, it is easy for managements to argue the departments are weak. It isn’t a lie exactly. But it is far from the truth.

I entered Australian higher education as a doctoral student in the early 1990s when smaller arts colleges were being sucked into expanding university administrations like crumbs into a hoover. Aggressive horizonal integration meant drama programs with very different philosophies and structures were fed into the corporatising sausage machine. It happened at varying speeds, and differences remain. But the problems these programs face have a homogenised feel. In former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis’s words, “In an age of regulated assimilation to a standard model, Australian universities have become more alike over time.” This is the poison in the Dawkins pill. Diverse creative arts programs are coming under sustained pressure from standardised budgetary frameworks. Everyone I spoke to while researching this essay is convinced the federal government, and the prime minister in particular, has a dislike of art and culture. They may be right. But it isn’t necessary to assume so to explain the current nugatory outcomes.

An important point: there is no one way of teaching drama. There are no “benchmarks” that aren’t contestable, no “world standards” that aren’t an elevation of someone’s point of view. Debates about conservatorium training versus broader arts education can be intense. What matters is that the full range of options is available to students. Over a 30-year period, I’ve taught in a number of drama departments. They reflect Australia’s multiculturalism, its regional differences and its more rarely acknowledged class ones. All are now at risk. Unless room is provided for diverse courses, we will end up killing what makes us want to teach the creative arts and students want to learn them.

According to my rough list, seven universities have closed or cut to the bone their drama departments, two have increased their class sizes appreciably, and three have experienced significant leadership difficulties. A few are doing okay, but for these you have to add “for now”. If departments have pulled through 2020, there will likely be more cuts at the end of 2021, courtesy of a botched vaccine rollout and $1 billion of funding reductions enacted upon universities in the last federal budget.

Monash, Murdoch, La Trobe, Charles Sturt and Newcastle universities have effectively closed their standalone drama programs. In 2010, Monash’s Centre for Drama and Theatre Studies had six full-time staff, a consistent intake of 60 to 65 students a year and the highest retention rate of any course in the university. In 2014–15, its bachelor of performing arts was disestablished, and the program reduced to four full-time staff. In 2020, this fell to 1.5 staff and it was absorbed into the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music and Performance.

In 2014, Murdoch University theatre and drama had five staff and two technicians. By 2020, two had retired, while in 2021 another took redundancy and the senior professor went to a management role. In 2020 it was announced there would be no more admissions into the major from 2021. The only options for drama students in 2022 are paper-based units in the English and creative writing major.

La Trobe University’s theatre and drama program has existed since 1985. In 2013, it lost two senior staff and its departmental status in a restructure. In November 2020, the three remaining staff were told it would be closed. A final change proposal was delivered in July 2021. It is anticipated that the program will be terminated by the end of the year (despite substantial capital investment in 2017, including a new performance space).

In 2020, Charles Sturt University’s management began implementing a “brand vision” to identify each of its three major campuses with a single “market”. In 2021 it closed the School of Communication and Creative Industries, “shedding” the Wagga Wagga–based Riverina Playhouse, two drama studios, a film and television studio, a foley studio, 10 edit suites and an outside broadcast truck, all of which will no longer be available to staff or students. A “new” bachelor of arts will be offered in Bathurst only. The sole acting lecturer at Wagga Wagga has been made redundant.

At the University of Newcastle, compounding a steady deterioration of teaching infrastructure (the de facto closure of its Drama Theatre in 2010, the disestablishment of its Drama Studio in 2015–16), a decision was made to “suspend” the discipline in 2020. This year, it was announced that a “new” major would be launched, with remaining drama courses bundled into the music program, and a reduction of contact hours from 39 per week to fewer than 25. The one remaining drama academic has been made redundant.

Flinders and Wollongong drama have both suffered reductions. At Flinders University Drama Centre, contact hours have dropped from between 21 and 25 hours per week to 16, while the number of theatre productions has fallen from 12 across four years, to five across three. At the University of Wollongong, amid a general stripping back of its creative arts programs, only one permanent, practice-based lecturer in theatre and performance remains. As with La Trobe, the facilities are better than ever – two new studio theatres, two music recording studios and a music ensemble rehearsal room. A number of discipline-specific history/theory subjects have been replaced by more generic courses.

Both the Queensland University of Technology’s bachelor of fine arts acting program and Federation University’s Arts Academy (Ballarat) have pulled through immediate crises, but with significant changes to class sizes. At QUT, small-intake courses have been replaced by larger-intake ones. At Federation, there has been steady pressure to increase class sizes: from 54 students into three programs in 2001, to nearly a doubling of those students into just two programs in 2011, to a current proposal to have 60 students in a single program.

NIDA, VCA and WAAPA, probably the best-known theatre training institutions in Australia, provide a different but analogous story. While none is facing disabling cuts and the mood is more positive, each suffers by inclusion in standardising university frameworks and metrics. For NIDA, the problems have been ones of leadership. Apart from a two-year period in 2016–18 when Kate Cherry was director, the institute has not been headed by a senior artist since 2007. From 2018 to 2020, it had three different director/chief executive officers, three different chairs of its academic board, and two different chairs of its board of directors.

At VCA’s school of theatre, two senior staff have retired in 2021, while the head of theatre position has only just been filled after a two-year vacancy. The school has been subject to three reviews of its undergraduate curriculum in 10 years.

WAAPA might be considered the most stable of the three institutions. In 2018, it won an Australian Award for University Teaching. Within a month, it underwent a root-and-branch restructure to make its teaching “more financially efficient”. New procedures in room bookings, enrolments, budgets, timetabling, workload calculators and grading rubrics impose a heavy burden on staff. There are fewer opportunities for students to engage with the sector: a drop from eight visiting artists over three years, to four, and a reduction of 10 theatre productions over three years, to just five.

Funding drama departments is the compound result of three different budgetary processes. Like the concentric circles of Dante’s Hell, each has a particular torment attached. Neoliberalism provides the baseline thinking that, as cultural theorist Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, “seeks to … install a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business”. Part of this is a deft fudging of accountability. Governments decide, then universities decide, then faculties decide. As a result, creative arts programs founder. Within the circles, price and policy signals get muddled up. It is impossible to tell whether universities are responding to the market, to an idealised concept of the market or to a fantasy about which markets governments would like to see. In each circle, it can be argued that people elsewhere are making the decisions. Governments point to universities, which point to faculties, which point to universities, which point to governments, in a closed loop of endlessly deferred responsibility. In the end, there just seems no one to blame.

The outer circle is the government, reducing support for universities like a hangman tightening a noose. Here, what is deemed “affordable” is a political choice, and reflects what The Australia Institute’s recent “Creativity in Crisis” report called the “market-first” ideology that has “weaponised bipartisan policies of austerity and privatisation”. A brilliant 2016 article for the Sydney Review of Books by Ben Etherington, titled “This Little University Went to Market”, explains how Australia’s Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) funding (formerly the Higher Education Contribution Scheme), originally designed as a type of social insurance recognising the public value of higher degrees, has shifted to a user-pays model that frames degrees as a market transaction for solely private benefit. User-pays replaces a holistic view of knowledge (each discipline valuable in its own way) with a specious index of differentiated graduate outcomes, leavened with whatever the education minister feels is a “national priority” at the time. Since 2006, Australia has had eight federal ministers of education. A former vice-chancellor told me that “each of them wanted to do something, but only a few of them really cared”.

The Job-ready Graduates Package introduced last year by Education Minister Dan Tehan, and the hike in course fees attached to it, exacerbates the problem. Also, it makes no sense. First, the government is well aware its HELP changes will not, as it claims, influence study choices for “the jobs of the future”, deemed to be mainly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics area (STEM). Second, even if they do, as the “Creativity in Crisis” report states, “industry leaders are now calling for more arts and humanities graduates in their workforce”. Finally, their dismal backdrop is the failure of post-1980s employment policy, where “jobs of equal worth” were supposed to materialise as the Lucky Country deindustrialised and became the Clever Country. Instead, Australia is living off its primary industries again, and has one of the highest rates of casual employment of any OECD country (around 25 per cent), and, since 2007, one of the largest increases in underemployment. Both trends hit young people the hardest. Universities have thus acquired a new function: keeping the official unemployment figure lower than it would be otherwise by retaining young people in education. As one former dean told me: “The great con in the system now is that students are forced to pay for being kept out of youth unemployment, and the less value that the government attaches to their education, the more they are required to pay for it. Their revenge could be to demonstrate the correctness of the government’s evaluation of their education by never earning enough to repay their HELP debt.”

The middle circle involves the university budgeting process. As multipurpose institutions, universities must pay not only for the courses they teach but also the research they conduct. Some of this, particularly in the STEM area, is expensive. Under the old block-grant system of the Paul Keating years, or even the cluster-funding one under John Howard, there was “money on top” for one of the most important activities universities engage in: basic research. This is research that doesn’t lead to Bright Shiny Things, but to a steady accumulation of knowledge that ensures national capacity in the face of an indeterminate future. It doesn’t have a profit stream attached and those who do it aren’t being entrepreneurial. However, it underpins the moon-shot projects that serve up results in a more glamorous way. When university administrations look over their budgets, they face an intricate cross-subsidy of courses that the government’s (shrinking) per capita student funding makes much harder to balance. Creative arts courses are not the most expensive to teach, as made clear by the government’s 2011 Lomax-Smith Base Funding Review. Veterinary science, medicine and engineering, with their significant capital overheads, are costlier, while other courses, such as archaeology, will have comparably small class sizes. The HELP changes mean creative arts students pay more for their degrees (around 8 per cent), and this income flows to universities. But the fact that science students are now paying less, and there is less money to support basic research, makes the problem of what can be “afforded” at a university level one of infernal calculation.

Universities do themselves no favours by adopting overly flexible accrual accounting methods. Ad hoc book adjustments – for example, in depreciation schedules and the valuation of assets (such as property) – together with slippery treatment of investment income streams, leave some institutions looking dodgy whether they are or not. “Australian public sector universities have adopted imprecise language to describe their 2020 financial results in press releases and internal documents,” wrote Macquarie Business School professor James Guthrie in a recent article about the University of Melbourne’s use of the opaque phrase “underlying net operating result”. Thus, Melbourne’s “operating result on paper does not reflect its fiscal reality. That the bulk of its surplus is unavailable for general operational expenses is a matter of choice, not accounting logic or calculations. Nor is it alone.”

Too much financial flexibility is exacerbated by too little accountability, with university managements answering to small internal councils. As public bodies, universities submit their finances to government audit offices. But audit compliance is not the same as mission oversight. The disparity between the standardisation being forced on academic courses and the fluidity of accounting procedures provides lebensraum for mission drift. Universities that develop property portfolios to help fund teaching and research end up looking like real-estate investors running degrees on the side. If teaching across the higher education sector is packaged into stock offerings, then course competition is transposed into non-essential items – swimming pools and study hubs – with students offered what a KPMG report in March 2021 called the “Customer Experience”: “so that when transacting with the institution the student receives the kind of service they expect in other walks of life and creating the favourable impression that is a foundation of lifelong loyalty”.

Only in the inner circle, at the faculty level, are the sorts of “affordability” arguments made that drama departments are likely to hear. As each university receives its funding from the government, they distribute it in a way described to me by my former vice-chancellor as “apportioning it to the priorities of the university and the justice of which areas are bringing in the students”. It’s a negotiation in which faculty deans are told how much money they’re getting and that they must ensure teaching is delivered within the allocated budget (ideally, getting to the end of the year $1 in the black). In humanities faculties, where most creative arts courses are placed, “affordability” takes the form of direct comparison with large-enrolment chalk-and-talk courses that have high staff–student ratios and minimal capital costs.

Faculties have a double identity. On the one hand they are communities of notionally equal domain experts, and on the other they are ranked ladders of managed employees. Abrasion between equality and hierarchy, mind and money, is inherent. But corporatisation enflames it. Creative arts programs can find themselves in situations where turning a profit is a key criterion of worth. Cost-of-delivery arguments have nothing to do with pedagogical ones about which courses should be taught or how. Yet these separate conversations are run together. For deans looking for where savings can be achieved with the least damage to their faculties overall, the creative arts appear as low-hanging fruit.

The situation would be mitigated if creative arts programs were more successful in seeking research funding or industry sponsorship. But the “19 code” – the category for creative arts research used by the Australian Research Council – is a minimal contributor to most university’s research income, while the Australian cultural sector is hardly in a position to give money to anyone. In the 20 years from 2002 to 2021, across all grant types, the “19 code” attracted just $108 million in grant money, out of a total $13 billion for all codes. Or 0.8 per cent on average, annually.

Thus are the rings of Hell constructed. The outer circle is an ideologically driven government, with heedless ministers implementing senseless policies. The middle circle is stressed university managers, juggling complex balance sheets and making rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul decisions without wanting to look like it. The inner circle finds drama programs compared to courses with which they may have an intellectual affinity, but in respects of teaching look nothing alike. What is “affordable” depends on a series of decisions taken at different levels for different reasons that have a cascading effect, but are not readily visible to those they ultimately impact. Key questions about the purpose of a university course are lost. In drama, these are about delivering quality teaching to appropriate numbers of students who reflect the social diversity and cultural capacity of the nation. Failing to address them invites a reversal of ends and means, confusing pedagogical imperatives with budgetary ones. Good-faith discussion becomes impossible because everything is being referred to money, but no one will openly admit it.

“Do we not know what the arts are for anymore?” a senior drama teacher asked me recently, adding, “Did we ever know?” I suspect many of my colleagues believe Australian universities are no longer capable of delivering quality education in drama, given that it cannot be taught according to a one-size-fits-all funding formula. The creative arts, and the teaching of them, can only thrive in a space of spiritual and intellectual generosity. In the West, where anything like a traditional culture has effectively disappeared, creative arts programs cultivate one of our most important resources: our imaginations. The immediate crisis is, how can we deliver creative arts teaching? The existential one is, what kind of country are we delivering it for? With due respect to my colleagues, what’s happening is not about us. It is about the role of the creative arts, which exist within a positive conception of what it means to be Australian. If their teaching is foundering, it means this conception of ourselves is foundering. My anguish is for a country exchanging a rich and diverse national life for a narrow economic identity.

So let me lay out three arguments about why creative arts programs matter. First, the creative arts are a good in and of themselves. They have inherent value and a place in our lives that should be cultivated. “Inherent value” means value beyond the marketplace, beyond box-office returns or the number of “likes” on a Facebook page. It is coded into the substance of creative artworks, realised in encounters that can neither be aggregated nor depersonalised. Inevitably, at this point someone asks whether the creative arts matter “more than” science or business. It is a ludicrous comparison. Neither in life nor university curricula are domains of knowledge ranked in this way. Our lives are naturally filled with a plurality of experiences, and some involving the creative arts are among the most precious we can have. How have we come to believe we must choose between domains that only together make up a flourishing life? How have we let what we can afford become the measure of what we should pursue? To fail in this conversation is to fail both those who study the creative arts now and the sector’s future. As the “Creativity in Crisis” report states in relation to the 2020 HELP hike: “doubling study costs to acquire professional cultural sector skills impose[s] the greatest disincentive to study for low-income, First Nations and international students. [It] diminishes diversity in Australia’s cultural arts skills pipeline, and undermines the quality of creative conversation, interaction, and diverse representation within arts faculties … The risk is that future cultural outputs will increasingly reflect a narrower set of experiences and understandings, further excluding voices from working class, migrant and marginalised communities.”

Second, the creative arts are the driver of what the critic Lionel Trilling called “the cultural mode of thought”. Even if Australian governments are indifferent to art and culture, this is not the case for other nations. It leaves us at a disadvantage if we do not have a mature knowledge of creative arts practices, and expert understanding of their histories, skills and values. We are dumb at the table of the broader cultural conversation, which is increasingly the conversation in a socially and economically interdependent 21st-century world. This is most obvious when crucial interactions between peoples are conducted in cultural terms, such as those between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. However elaborate settler-Australians’ verbal acknowledgements of First Nations culture become, they are an empty form unless a genuine effort is made to understand the meaning of that culture in Indigenous Australians’ lives. For non-Indigenous Australians, this requires an understanding of culture in our lives. There is no way around it. Respect and consideration can only be extended to a mode of thought we also validate in ourselves. Culture, and perforce the creative arts, is something we seek to share. To share it appropriately, authentically and successfully, we have to understand it first.

Finally, there is the social function of the creative arts. In the fungible world of neoliberalism where there are no limits to the physical world, and everything is reducible to money, the creative arts have a counter-intuitive function. Rather than being infinitely plastic, a mental whiteboard for blue-sky “innovation thinking”, it is the opposite. It is to be a record of all we try to forget, avoid, regret, feel overwhelmed by or long for, but cannot find the words to say. The creative arts help us ask “What else is possible?” And when you have a way to pose that question, the answers just keep coming.

To those who still do not find my arguments persuasive, because neither neoliberalism nor the corporate university seems objectionable, I say this. “Market-first” thinking is the product of the last 40 years of our history. The challenges that gave rise to it include the failure of state socialism in Eastern Europe, the de-industrialisation of Western economies, and the Pax Americana that sought a measure of stability in global politics. Are these the challenges we still face now? Or have climate change, entrenched inequality and political division replaced them?

Yes, they have. They are challenges requiring close cooperation and strenuous collective effort. They demand from Australians new awareness of our common interests and how these can be achieved in a society that has elevated competition and individual choice to an article of faith. If that doesn’t change, and soon, the problems we confront will overwhelm us and break our capacity to act for the good of all.

How are we to live now? It is within the horizon of this crucial question that creative arts programs have their place today. The creative arts are neither a market preference nor a “tool”. They are a type of knowledge all societies in the past have valued, recognising the importance of the understanding they enshrine. This is especially true of drama, whose development parallels that of democratic government. Drama’s stories and characters are a profound accompaniment to public life, helping us to understand the most important aspect of our actions: its human consequences.

I spend my life trying to persuade Australians to take their own culture seriously for this reason. Not because the creative arts are l’exception culturelle, but because they aren’t. Because they exist within the heartbeat of ordinary life and can help us live it in all its conflicts, contradictions, horror and hope, in a more meaningful, sustainable and creative way.

How can we fail the creative arts’ teaching on which our future depends? What do we imagine will be the result? We need to ask these questions now, and, abjuring economic doubletalk, answer them in the same language of the heart in which they are posed.

Julian Meyrick

Julian Meyrick is professor of creative arts at Griffith University, general editor of the Currency House Platform Paper series and literary adviser at the Queensland Theatre.

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