We appear to have reached the point in Australia where pursuing a creative career is considered a “lifestyle choice”. One that won’t lead to satisfactory career or economic outcomes, and is therefore unworthy of government assistance.
Under the recent overhaul of the vocational loans scheme proposed by the federal government, some 500 diplomas in the creative industries are set to be stripped of access to government loans. That means thousands of students will no longer be able to access loans to cover their upfront fees – which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
From January 1, 2017, under new funding arrangements, students undertaking courses in creative fields including dance, performing arts, acting, theatre studies, professional writing, jewellery design, circus arts and hundreds of others will no longer be eligible to access existing student loans.
According to education minister Simon Birmingham: “Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments or provide ‘lifestyle’ choices but don’t lead to work.”
In fairness, it appears there were some courses in the list that were not generating adequate student numbers to justify their continuance, but I’d like to know under what criteria the minister is judging the desire for a creative career as a “lifestyle choice” and where is the evidence that it won’t lead to a good career.
In the case of many of these courses, if they are made financially inaccessible to prospective students we will surely be left with a less dynamic culture in Australia in the long term. The move may also lead the privileging of creative industries to the children of wealthy families who can afford to make such so-called lifestyle choices.
The minister is also missing the point that artists are trained professionals across a range of disciplines that are employable in many industry sectors, both within and outside the arts.
I went to university in the 1990s and relied on a government study loan. I majored in professional writing and dedicated much of my spare time to editing the university newspaper. Perhaps my work prospects may have appeared shaky to hard-nosed neo-liberal thinking – but I went on to have a book published and built a career where my writing became my bread and butter.
Arts provides the foundation for creative and innovative thinking that can be applied in many areas of work and society at large. At present, Australian artists, filmmakers and musicians are well represented and recognised internationally. But if we cease to nurture our arts and culture at home – we will soon cease to make waves outside Australia.
Moreover, minister Birmingham’s assertion that such professions will not benefit Australia economically are wrong. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics the arts contributed $86 billion to the Australian economy in 2014 – more than the transport or welfare sectors. Added to that nearly 20 million Australians over the age of 15 attend art events annually.
So even on economic grounds the minister’s thinking seems flawed and ideologically based. Surely Australians can appreciate the value in the arts beyond its pure revenue making potential. After all, isn’t art the very thing that helps us celebrate the national imagination, provides a site for creative protest and exchange of ideas, and in many ways, reflects our nation’s soul back at us?
As the American actor Alec Baldwin once noted: “How can we turn our back on an endeavour which increases our children’s cultural intelligence, heightens individual sensitivity and deepens our collective sense of humanity? I suggest to you that we cannot.”