Save the Victorian College of the Arts

I am angry.

My art school is about to be administered out of existance.

This year I am studying puppetry at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, an amazing specialist art school and the only place you can study puppetry in the southern hemisphere. It is the only art school in Australasia where so many artforms can be learnt on one campus; art, music, acting, film and tv, puppetry, music theatre, dance and production. The VCA was taken over by Melbourne University in 2007 after the Federal Government pulled its funding and now Melbourne Uni are planning on introducing their Melbourne Model. It is a copy of the american five year degree structure; students do a three year general fine arts degree and then can specialise in their artform at postgraduate level. Essentially student’s training will be reduced to two years instead of three and the specific changes brought by the Melbourne Model mean that practical training will be reduced by over 50%.

You can read more about it here: Save the VCA

I won’t go into detail about it all here because you can find more accurate information on the website. But what I want to write about is how this situation is symptomatic of a real problem in the education sector in Australia and New Zealand. To my eyes these changes have very little to do with pedagogy and everything to do with management and administration. The current attempt to force all tertiary education into a university format is resulting in dilution and homogenisation of eduction in Australasia. Not all education should be academic. I will use the arts as my reference here but I think that it applies to many other sectors.

The main argument that is being put forward for the imposition of the Melbourne Model is that students need to study broad based degrees and that specialised training is an outdated approach to education. I find this attitude patronising, it assumes that students at the VCA are not capable of being broadminded without the university giving us the courses to teach us how to be.

Here is an a quote from our new Dean Sharman Pretty (an administrator who won’t talk to us about our concerns). I’m embarassed for her…

“I am astonished at how siloed this campus has been,” she says. “It’s siloed in its programs, it’s siloed in its narrow little degree programs, and it’s physically siloed to the point where there are people who have worked on this site for many years together who have only recently got to know each other.”

Producing elite dancers that only become ballet dancers, or actors that only act, is no longer appropriate in Australia, she says.

“The only way people are learning to sustain a real career in the theatre, for example, is if they can write the play, act, make their own costume and sell the tickets.

“If they’ve got a whole package of skills there’s a very good chance they will be able to find a niche and sustain themselves. The idea of someone being a specialist is a very old view.”

Personally I think that we should be aiming for excellence in our craft, whether that be art, or teaching, engineering or chemistry. Aiming to be an all rounder is to aim for mediocrity.

In theatre matching the mode of performance to the content is essential. Integrating the set, sound, costume and lighting design with the style of performance and ensuring that it all contributes to the communication of meaning and content in a show goes a long way toward creating magic on stage. The same should go for education. The mode of teaching should suit the discipline. Architects learn how to design by designing, historians learn to research by researching, doctors learn how to treat patients by treating patients. At the VCA we are all learning how to be artists by practicing art. Thats why we are at this school, all we are asking is to keep the school the way it is. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

I’ll leave it at that. If you live in Melbourne come and support us next Friday, we will be marching to parliament and celebrating all that wonderful things we love about VCA. We are taking our art out into the streets!

2 comments

  1. bb says:

    It does sound like the people in power are post-rationalizing the decisions. I would have thought one of the few benefits of a market led approach to tertiary education is that you should get a good variety of courses offered that people can choose between. If the RCA offers many courses that are unique to the southern hemisphere then it seems really crazy to start changing them drastically.

    Does the cancelling of courses reflect a lack of enrolment or a lack of funding from central government? It also raises interesting issues about the different role that universities and polytechs used to have and how these have now merged, often with poor consequences for vocational or practical disciplines.

  2. Gina says:

    The cancelling of courses is mostly due to a lack of funding. Government funds for the college were withdrawn a few years ago and Melbourne University stepped in to ensure that the VCA continued running. The courses that have been cancelled seem to be the ones that are expensive to run. Puppetry is particularly resource intensive and has low student numbers due to the nature of the course.

    You have touched on something that I didn’t talk about in my first rant. Yes, this does highlight issues to do with the different roles that education institutions can play in tertiary education and how that is changing. I think that there has been general dilution of tertiary education over the past few decades due to a push to try and fit everything into a university model. Many professions just don’t suit an academic learning process. There is a reason that people learn to be builders and electricians by doing apprenticeships; because that is the best way to learn how to do those jobs. Learning how to be a historian is best done at a university where you have access to libraries and academic mentors, just as learning how to be an artist is best done at an art school where you actually practice art. I think that the broadening the scope of universities not only has poor consequences for practical and vocational training but also for the universities themselves. The integrity of academic learning also needs to be protected and the inclusion of too many types of teaching in one institution risks damaging that.

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