Richard Watts | ArtsHub | 

Plans to cut the number of tertiary arts courses eligible for student loans from 70 to just 13 have shocked and angered Australian artists and arts workers.

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As reported by ArtsHub last week, Federal Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham has announced a major overhaul of the vocational training sector, including a drastic reduction of the number of tertiary-level diploma courses eligible for taxpayer-funded student loans.

The changes come as the Government introduces a new program, VET Student Loans, to replace the Vocational Educational and Training (VET) FEE-HELP program developed under Rudd-Gillard Labor Government.

Read: Student loans cut to creative courses

Under the new guidelines, ineligible courses now include the Diploma of Dance, Diploma of Musical Theatre, Diploma of Screen Performance, Diploma of Visual Communication (Design Communication / Photo Communication), Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing, Diploma of Cinemagraphic Makeup, and Advanced Diploma of Animation. All sectors are affected.​

‘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,’ Birmingham said in a statement last Monday.

Statistics released by the Australian Council in 2015 demonstrate that the cultural sector contributed $50 billion to Australia’s GDP in 2012–13.

The Minister’s implication that the arts are a ‘lifestyle’ choice rather than a valuable contributor to the Australia economy, has caused deep concern.


In an open letter to the Minister, the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) noted that the Minister’s actions came at a time when the arts were more valuable than ever before to the Australian economy.

‘In June 2015 the report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) predicted that technology could make almost 40 per cent of Australian jobs, including highly skilled roles, redundant in 10 to 15 years. It singled out jobs that involved “low levels of social interaction, low levels of creativity, or low levels of mobility and dexterity” as most likely to be replaced by automation,’ wrote NAVA Executive Director, Tamara Winikoff OAM.

‘It indicated that the trend was towards highly skilled, agile, self-employed people who were capable in the areas of “architecting, designing and analysing”, being those who would form a substantial proportion of the workforce of the future. These are the very skills in which arts creators are pre-eminent.’

Bethwyn Serow, Executive Director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG), said the consequences of the Education Minister’s decision raised a number of important questions for the longer-term training needs of the arts sector.

‘No one wants to see public money rorted, but equally no one wants “unintended consequences” from inadequate consultation, and we certainly don’t want the arts sector effectively locked out of vocational training,’ said Serow.

‘We need more information about why the government is proposing such a direct change to arts training support.  The VET student loan caps and cuts to performing arts courses are not cuts to “lifestyle” options – they are cuts to affordable and important training that facilitates multiple entry points into the arts sector and will have a significant impact on many young Australians.

‘Creative talent takes time to evolve and enter the job market and paid work is often precarious, freelance or project based – yet the training is critical. Economist David Throsby’s research identifies formal training by coursework at a tertiary or specialist institution as by far the most important means of training for practising professional artists in Australia today,’  Serow noted.

Ausdance CEO Roslyn Dundas noted that the rationale behind the retention of some courses and the cutting of others was unclear.

‘The government hasn’t put forward a very strong argument as to why – especially for the performing arts – some courses will no longer be eligible for VET fee help. We understand that there’s only a small number of students, compared to the whole population, who are accessing these courses, but those who are, are reliant on that VET Fee Help to be able to undertake their training,’ she said.

‘What we’re particularly concerned about in the impact this will have in future years on the delivery of the national curriculum in the arts, and how we’re supporting future teachers and leaders who [in turn] will be supporting generations to come in engaging with arts programs – especially performing arts programs.’

The literary sector too is alarmed at the proposed changes announced by Birmingham last week, with Nicolas Brasch, Chair of Writers Victoria, describing the changes as ‘retrograde on a number of levels’.

‘The Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing includes the word “professional” for a reason. While students are provided with the knowledge and skills to enable them to become published authors, they are also pushed towards developing all-round skills that could see them succeed in as many forms of writing as possible,’ said Brasch.

‘These courses matter – they matter a great deal. Like the lives and voices of those who enrol, they are precious. I urge the Federal Government to rethink their decision.’

ArtsPeak (the confederation of Australian national peak arts organisations and state arts industry councils) is currently investigating the proposed cuts and the two week timeframe given to the community in which feedback can be submitted to the Department of Education and Training.

‘ArtsPeak is alarmed by the reports of these cuts and we are investigating what it means for the arts and cultural sector and will comment further shortly,’ said Arts Peak spokesperson Norm Horton.


As well as concerns by leading arts sector representatives, a number of political figures have also expressed dismay over the federal Government’s proposed shake-up of student loans and the vocation training sector.

Speaking in Parliament today, Kate Ellis MP, Shadow Minister for TAFE and Vocational Education, said the Labor Party wants to see the government engage meaningfully and constructively with the sector in finalising the approved course list.

‘I hope that the Minister is seeking expert advice about the demand for skills, the employment and business prospects, as well as the transferable skills that students require,’ she said.

‘While it’s really easy to get headlines for striking some courses from the list, we know that is primarily courses in management and business administration that have caused the blowout in VET FEE-HELP … On this side of the House we have already been contacted by good quality and long-standing providers that have fallen foul of the Government’s  proposed course list, particularly in arts and creative industries. Now the government needs to make sure that they do not use this opportunity in order to pursue some ideological crusade on what they consider to be worthy study; that instead they use this opportunity to deal with rorting and exploitation.

‘Of course the course list is not contained in the bills that we are debating here today; it will not be voted on in the House at this stage, but we do put forward that we have heard concerns; that we have significant concerns; and that the Minister needs to make sure that he gets it right. He needs to make sure that they recognise that there are many courses with value and many good providers with a proud history. There are many courses which improve the skills, the employability, the work-readiness and the job prospects of Australians, and we need to make sure that we don’t inadvertently limit those prospects.’

Shadow Minister for the Arts Tony Burke has questioned the government’s plans, telling ArtsHub: ‘The best way to have the best performers is to have the best training.

‘The moment you decide that only wealthy people can afford to be trained in the performing arts you’ve effectively decided merit doesn’t matter,’ Burke added.

Greens arts and education spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young also expressed concern about the proposed changes.

‘The arts are an essential part of the social fabric of this country, but it seems as though the Turnbull government just doesn’t get it,’ she said.

‘When they’re not busy trying to sell off Blue Poles, this government is making it harder for the next generation of Australian artists to get an education and begin their careers.

‘The widespread rorting of the VET sector is a classic example of privatisation gone wrong and, while reform is essential, it shouldn’t come at the cost of our creative arts.

‘The prospective course list is currently open for consultation and I call on the Education Minister to listen to experts in the education and arts communities who are voicing their serious concerns,’ Hanson-Young concluded.

Feedback on the list of newly eligible courses should be submitted to by 23 October 2016.

Courses currently deemed ineligible for funding may be reinstated if they can demonstrate strong employment results.

The full list of creative courses now deemed ineligible for funding, as supplied by the Department of Education and Training, is published below.

Diploma of Dance (Elite Performance)
Diploma of Musical Theatre
Diploma of Live Production Design
Diploma of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Visual Arts Industry Work
Diploma of Ceramics
Advanced Diploma of Dance (Elite Performance)
Diploma of Floristry Design
Diploma of Jewellery and Object Design
Advanced Diploma of Jewellery and Object Design
Diploma of Broadcast Technology
Advanced Diploma of Performance
Graduate Diploma of Classical Ballet
Diploma of Performing Arts
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts
Diploma of Fashion Styling
Diploma of Screen Acting
Diploma of Screen Performance
Advanced Diploma of Acting
Diploma of Circus Arts
Diploma of Social Media Marketing
Advanced Diploma of Acting for Contemporary Screen Media
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts
Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship for Creatives
Diploma of  Stage and Screen Performance
Diploma of Arts (Acting)
Advanced Diploma of Arts (Acting)
Advanced Diploma of Professional Screenwriting
Graduate Diploma of Elite Dance Instruction
Advanced Diploma of Stage and Screen Acting
Diploma of Visual Communication (Design Communication / Photo Communication)
Advanced Diploma of Visual Communication (Design Communication / Photo Communication)
Advanced Diploma of Music Theatre
Diploma of Cinemagraphic Makeup
Diploma of Styling (Fashion, Image and Media)
Advanced Diploma of Commercial Song and Dance Performance
Diploma of Journalism
Advanced Diploma of Art (Musical Theatre and Commercial Dance)
Advanced Diploma of Film, Television and Theatre Acting
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts (Acting)
Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing
Advanced Diploma of Photography
Diploma of Theatre Arts
Diploma of Product Design
Advanced Diploma of Screen and Stage Acting
Diploma of Creative Arts in Christian Ministry
Advanced Diploma of Creative Arts in Christian Ministry
Advanced Diploma of Arts (Professional Writing)
Diploma of Arts (Professional Writing)
Diploma of Mass Communication
Advanced Diploma of Photography
Diploma of Performing Arts
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts
Graduate Diploma of Photography
Diploma of Fashion Products and Markets
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts (Musical Theatre) (Commercial Dance)
Advanced Diploma of Animation