Cuts to Arts Education Another Blow for the Sector





By Maeve Marsden

In news that surprises no one, the Government has cut funding to another public service. Federal Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham this month announced changes to the vocational training sector, restricting access to government issued, income indexed loans to pay for up front fees for diploma courses, specifically those deemed as not linking to specific work.

In short? All diploma courses must now show a pathway to employment and students who fail to meet this requirement will no longer be eligible to defer their fees by way of subsidised loans.

While the cuts target a number of sectors, it’s particularly devastating for an already decimated arts sector, restricting access to student loans to just 13 of the 70 previously available courses. For the perennially underfunded arts sector, the value of well-trained graduates cannot be underestimated and the availability of courses that offer fair access is integral to developing a rich and complex industry.

While the cuts no doubt impact broader society, it is interesting to look at how they affect women, especially when you consider the Government’s frustrating track record on women’s funding and services (oh hello, Paid Parental Leave).

The arts sector already has a gender problem, with many organisations implementing programs to increase the representation of women – a process painfully littered with conflict, as detractors make reference to ‘meritocracy’ and undermine the value of affirmative action. Barriers to participation and employment include the implicit history of patriarchal oppression, along with a lack of mentorship and development opportunities, workplace inflexibility for families and the structure of employment pathways. In cutting funding to subsidised arts training, the Government places another roadblock on the path of women wanting to pursue a creative career, especially those on a low income.

VET training has long been the bastion of further education for those for whom university was not an option, because of either course duration, academic pre-requisites or inflexibility of the tertiary institution. In contrast to this, TAFE and similar institutions offered a comparatively user-friendly approach to post-secondary education. More than 50% of TAFE enrolments are women, many of them well beyond school-leaving age.

In the current climate of cuts, the Government have created a quagmire that’s incredibly frustrating for an aspiring creative to navigate. Less money in the industry means less jobs; cutting student loans for training makes it harder for emerging creatives to get those jobs. So what happens? Rich kids who can afford paid training (and lengthy unpaid internships) advance in their career ahead of others, ensuring the sector’s historical lack of diversity is maintained.

Access aside, I have a fundamental problem with linking coursework so tightly to job possibilities. Educational pathways need not be literal. While the very nature of vocational training is linked to employment, many of the courses cut, especially the creative ones, provide skills and training that benefit graduates in a number of industries – even if they can’t be linked to profit. And the arts themselves have greater value than simple economics.

The Arts, like much of women’s labour, has been done for love not profit for aeons. Traditionally, the arts rely upon the suffering (artistic and fiscal) as an integral part of the process. In Marxist terms, the arts are not a productive labour; we run at a loss. But the output of artists has value, for the individual, for audiences, for culture and for society.

Romantic notions of the artist as sufferer aside, while we live under capitalism, arts workers need to be paid. This balance between value and productivity may not have been perfectly addressed with the previous system of subsidised student loans, but at least broadly available training for creatives provided the hope of a level playing field, the possibility of a diverse cultural landscape, and a small piece of the puzzle in addressing gender imbalances in the workforce.


Maeve Marsden is a writer, producer, director and performer. She is currently performing in feminist cabaret act, Lady Sings it Better, as well as theatrical comedy, Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin. She has written for Daily Life, Junkee, Daily Review, ABC Online, Archer Magazine and The Guardian, and she tweets from @maevemarsden.

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