The Federal Education Minister issued an open letter to the Arts sector on the proposed VET Student Loan scheme restating his issues rather than addressing the sector’s concerns.
One very important entry point to employment in the arts is via vocational training in dance, music and acting. Yet the Education Minister’s student loan reform is creating a damaging road block to these very courses. The eligibility list for arts-based VET student loans scheme has excluded all arts performance skills courses. These changes were made without research and consultation with the professional performing arts sector or the government agencies that support our sector.
And we are not talking about road blocks to corrupt and moribund private college rorters, but about courses offered at National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), future opportunities for students at Sydney Dance Company and The Australian Ballet School as well as respected private colleges.
Australia’s cultural sector is a major driver of national income, contributing $50 billion towards the nation’s GDP with over $4.2 billion coming from the arts. Arts companies and the creatives working with them embrace the very characteristics sought in a 21st century economy. They are agile, and innovative, operating in a very competitive and changeable environment. Training to work in the arts fosters very similar characteristics.
The Minister’s new framework prioritises support for courses linked to STEM, state skill shortages and agriculture. The state skills shortage lists are not created across jurisdictions in a uniform manner or with this policy work in mind. Importantly they were developed in an environment where the very arts courses that are now ineligible were operating and delivering skills for the sector. This process also fails to recognise the 21st century skills set that is nurtured through arts training.
Andrew Charlton  from AlphaBeta has been collecting online statistics and was recently quoted on his analysis of 4.2 million job advertisements in the past three years. He found a 212 per cent increase in jobs demanding digital literacy, a 158 per cent rise in jobs demanding critical thinking and a 65 per cent rise in jobs demanding creativity. Many unskilled and repetitive jobs are under threat, as are some in the engineering, accountancy and science disciplines. However jobs that require the human touch – creative and emotional intelligence – are much less vulnerable. Being so resilient in the face of automation they will be the jobs that will grow over the next 20-plus years.
For those arts courses still eligible for student loans, the Education Minister has proposed to cap loans at $10,000. Yet most performance training involves small classes and intensive teaching and a lot of practise. What is the rationale to cap at $10,000 when other courses are capped at $15,000 and what about the gap between the cap and real costs of delivery? This fee gap will deter students from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds from accessing training. Ultimately, this will negatively impact the entire professional arts sector’s capacity to accurately reflect our culture.
Vocational courses in the performing arts will not lead to the total cohort of graduating students becoming elite performers in six months, just as not all science graduates become research scientists. Creative talent takes time to evolve and enter the job market and paid work is often either precarious, freelance or project based, however this is not the same as oversupply. These courses also attract and nurture students with creative aptitude– some of whom will then progress into aligned jobs in the creative industries and creative jobs in the broader sector.
The government must act to address government spending issues in vocation training - but it must act with care and integrity, ensuring real talent and ambition in the arts is supported.
The arts require constant ‘tilling of the soil’ to uncover artistic talent– it is competitive and it relies on a pool of diverse talented artists. The sector is valuable in its own right as well as a lightning rod that inspires creativity, work ethic, dedication, discipline and courage - valuable traits in the 21st century job market.
You can read Simon Birmingham's letter here:Minister's Open Open Letter
 Director Alpha Beta Advisors, Masters and Doctorate in Economics from Oxford University, Rhodes Scholar.