Arts cuts create cultural division

By stopping funding for fine arts courses at TAFE, the NSW Government is cutting off an important educational pathway that has helped many to contribute to and enrich our society

Heather Brockwell
Nulkaba Public School 

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli’s decision in September to cut all funding for TAFE fine arts courses and introduce full fees for art students threatens to dash the potential of many students with high aptitude in creativity.

The arts should be supported by the Government from the beginning to the end of a student’s education. While it is supported in government primary and high schools, a postschool creative arts education is now only available to those who can afford it. It is absurd to abolish these opportunities just as students are looking to bring these learnings to fruition and enter the workforce.

The funding cuts create a system in which only those with the financial means will be able to complete fine arts courses. TAFE students are paying fees of up to $12,000 per year. In some TAFE institutes, it will now cost more to do a fine arts Certificate IV than a degree at university. This promises an elitist bias in our culture and community, despite the fact that Australians value freedom and education for all.

In their 2011 book Transforming the Curriculum through the Arts, Robyn Bibson and Robyn Ewing argued that the arts have “provided the means for disadvantaged, disengaged and disenfranchised school students and adults to find a way back to learning and to a meaningful place in society”.

Fine arts education refines cognitive skills, strengthens problem solving and critical thinking and provides engagement for students across socioeconomic boundaries.

The new national curriculum for schools also emphasises the benefits of fine arts education. The February 2013 draft of the arts curriculum reads, “The arts have the capacity to engage, inspire and enrich all students, exciting the imagination and encouraging them to reach their creative and expressive potential... the arts play a major role in the development and expression of contemporary cultures and communities, locally, nationally and globally.”

The rationale adds, “The arts entertain, challenge, provoke responses and enrich our knowledge of self, communities, cultures and histories. The arts contribute to the development of confident and creative individuals, nurturing and challenging, active and informed citizens.”

Without quality arts education, we face a loss of culture and self expression, ultimately hindering the natural progression for innovation and invention.

The government-appointed Creative Industries Taskforce drafted an action plan that outlines the importance of the creative industries to the NSW economy. Creative industries employ about 147,600 people in NSW, according to 2011 Census data, while the action plan reports that its exports were worth more than $1.5 billion in 2010—11.

The arts lead creative minds into other fields of education, work and life, contributing to society as a whole. The Creative Industries Taskforce action plan calls on the NSW Government to recognise “the need for a range of alternative, affordable and practical avenues to education and training... by reinstating NSW Government funding to those TAFE Fine Arts courses”.

These funding cuts and the NSW Government’s Smart and Skilled policy, which introduces contestable tendering for vocational education and training, have already begun to reduce the collaboration that occurs between TAFE faculties countrywide. A dogfight of private provider against provider, TAFE against TAFE, will only discourage sharing of the knowledge and experience that teachers have, disadvantaging the community.

TAFE’s achievements of access and equity should be celebrated. TAFE is not a private business but a public school, open to everyone. In a dog-eat-dog world, private providers will bully and entice TAFE’s students away, starving TAFE to a slow and painful death.

The decision to cut funding for fine arts education in TAFE is a mistake that can still be rectified. Art communities have protested against these threats to TAFE with rallies outside the NSW Art Gallery and State Parliament in Sydney, and in country towns outside local TAFE providers and art galleries. Activists are writing letters and forming delegations to visit local MPs, using information from the Federation website. Register your support for the campaign at www.stoptafecuts.com.au.

This is not an issue to be quiet about. Creativity expressed through art should be part of all Australians’ education, from early childhood to higher education, not just those that can afford to pay.

Heather Brockwell was an Anna Stewart Officer in term 2.