new rules: the research game

dawn bennett: era, artstart and music education

Amy Rodd, Jeremiah Mutagubya, James Cook University

Amy Rodd, Jeremiah Mutagubya, James Cook University

AUSTRALIA IS ALLEGED TO BE IN THE MIDST OF AN ‘EDUCATION REVOLUTION.’ BUT HOW DO HIGHER EDUCATION TEACHERS AND RESEARCHERS IN MUSIC SEE THEMSELVES AND THEIR INSTITUTIONS ADAPTING TO AND BENEFITING FROM THIS CHANGING EDUCATION LANDSCAPE? BECAUSE OF THE CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING VARIOUS ASPECTS OF THE EXCELLENCE IN RESEARCH FOR AUSTRALIA (ERA) SCHEME AND ITS IMPLEMENTATION, I OFFERED ANONYMITY TO CONTRIBUTORS TO THIS ARTICLE. RESPONSES COME FROM 12 ACADEMICS IN FIVE STATES: SEVEN WORK AT UNIVERSITIES, THREE AT CONSERVATORIUMS AND TWO ACROSS BOTH. THEY REPRESENT POPULAR, CLASSICAL, WORLD AND NEW MUSICS AND MUSIC EDUCATION.

At one stage the Australian Federal Government funded 20 categories of research output, including creative research. This ended when an independent audit identified inconsistencies in 45% of claims. The result was a decade during which just four categories of research were recognised: authored books, peer reviewed journal articles, fully refereed conference papers and book chapters. In February 2008, the Federal Labor Government announced ERA, a new research framework with a 2009-10 budget of AUD$35.8 million. Full implementation of ERA is scheduled for 2010.

In 2008, Julia Gillard said of the Education Revolution: “For the first time in many years, Australian Universities will have a Federal Government that trusts and respects them. A government which understands the formation of knowledge and skills through teaching and research is the indispensable—absolutely indispensable—precondition for the creation of a stronger economy and a more confident and equitable society.”

While the reaction from contributors was generally positive, there is a perception that the government lacks understanding about education and research. Aligned with this is scepticism. One music educator, only too aware that the recommendations of the 2004 National Review of School Music Education have still to be implemented, added, “rhetoric does not always meet reality so I look forward to finding out how this position will be enacted…” The timing of the proposed initiatives was also cause for concern: “most of it is to come closer to the next election.”

Theoretically, the creative arts will benefit enormously from ERA’s recognition of creative works in four categories: Original (creative) works in the public domain; Live performance works in the public domain; Recorded (performance) public works; and Curated or produced substantial public exhibitions, events or renderings. In line with this, contributors commented on changes to the ways in which music academics and faculties are thinking about creative practice and research. As one Head of School explained, “The inclusion of the creative arts in the data collection of research outputs is critical for the arts sector of higher education to feel fully franchised and not always having to argue the case”. However, she went on to warn:

“This ERA trial will test the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the government’s commitment to the inclusion of creative arts in the higher education system, and it will test the creative arts academics in their capacity to step up and make a sound and rigorous system for evaluating quality. Having said that, this mania for auditing is putting huge imposts on universities and individual researchers, and if the government really trusted us they would not put us through so much of this micromanagement.”

In terms of ERA’s immediate impact, two distinct pictures emerge. The first includes the institutions that have not previously recognised creative research. Many of these institutions have “no systematic approach to the collection of this material.” In these, artist academics “have been completely demoralised by the many years of non-recognition of creative outputs.” This has often resulted in a creative practice separate from academic life, or the abandonment of creative practice altogether in favour of traditionally notated research: “I have neglected my arts practice in favour of written research because I never thought anything would change.”

In contrast, institutions that have recognised creative research despite its exclusion from the national research agenda are ideally positioned to engage with ERA. First, much of the required evidence has been collected. Second and perhaps most importantly, internal recognition has enabled academics to integrate their creative practice into their academic profiles, prioritising it as one might any other form of research.

There is a need to ask why creative practice has to be justified as equivalent to traditional scientific research rather than being recognised in its own right. Aside from the fact that writing about one’s creative practice can contribute positively to that practice, “not all creative artists want to view their practice as research.” There is also scepticism as to how ERA will evaluate creative practice and how it will compare with traditional research such as journal articles: “Without knowing what kind of recognition will be given to creative practice outputs it is difficult to get over-excited about the re-inclusion of creative output”. Many academics will find their creative practice attracting attention for the first time: “People who haven’t submitted their creative works over the years are [being] encouraged to do so.” Some faculties are mindful that creative practice has yet to be accepted or understood within their own institutions, adding an internal battle to the national one: “the university has to modify its systems and attitude.”

The process of making creative work eligible for funding under ERA is far from simple, requiring a range of evidence in a format that can be stored digitally. Academics are facing not only the collection of evidence relating to each work, but the challenge of collecting data “when the rules change after the period that is being assessed.” For the 20% of outputs subject to peer review within a research code, each must provide a 250-word statement that describes the research background and questions, contribution to new knowledge, and significance of the research. The complexities of this were brought home to me as I attempted to write a background statement on the originality and research behind the performance of a 19th century viola concerto!

journal ranking

The ranking of journals is contentious across almost all disciplines and is not restricted to Australia. With news of the European equivalent ERIH (European Reference Index for the Humanities), the editors of 55 European journals published a joint editorial in which they described the scheme as “putatively precise accountancy…entirely defective in conception and execution”. “Great research”, they argued, “may be published anywhere and in any language. Truly ground-breaking work may be more likely to appear from marginal, dissident or unexpected sources.” The editors predicted that ERIH will lead to “fewer journals, much less diversity and [will] impoverish our discipline.” They have asked the compilers of ERIH to remove their journals from the list, concluding: “we want no part of this dangerous and misguided exercise.”

Many of the same concerns were expressed by academics here, who feel that “the consultation was too short and not wide enough”, leading to “reputable journals missing from the list entirely” and bias towards traditional areas of research. One academic described the rankings as a “seriously vexed problem and one that needs solving to have any credibility.” Moreover, she questioned “the enormous waste of effort that these processes have to exert”. Given that we are in the ERA data collection period, I asked whether the rankings are already influencing academics’ choice of journals. One contributor said, “I am largely defiant… and publish where I think what I have to say will best reach its intended audiences, which ranges from top-ranking to non-peer-reviewed outlets.” For others, however, rankings are certainly influencing journal choice: “I have modified the fora in which I publish to those that are more highly regarded.”

Direct pressure from universities is a key factor in these decisions; some universities will only reward articles ranked B or higher, and there are obvious implications for promotions. One contributor commented, “I have applied for study leave next year and have been advised that if I don’t say that the work I produce will be submitted to A or A* journals then my chance of getting study leave will be greatly diminished.” In short, it is likely that “the journal ranking will see some journals disappear and others have an even longer response time to article submission.” With the almost certain demise of many unranked or lower ranked journals, including many ‘regional’ journals, publishing will be much more difficult for those new to traditional research, and those publishing in new, interdisciplinary or emerging research areas.

legitimised creativity

On a more positive note, ERA will potentially give artist academics “more confidence to consider their work as a legitimate part of their academic jobs.” It will promote “stronger links between practice and reflection” and will encourage “more activities that combine research and music-making.” The fluidity of approaches engaged by creative researchers is potentially of great benefit to the academy, whether or not the outcomes are documented in traditional narrative form. Thus, ERA also has the potential to “educate others in the academy about the innovative and expansive field of art.”

artstart

The ArtStart initiative will be delivered by the 2009-10 Federal Goverment Budget. The scheme is designed to assist graduate artists up to the age of 30 make the transition from study to career. With an allocated budget of $9.6 million, the program will run for four years and will be administered by the Australia Council. 200 grants of up to $10,000 will be awarded each year, with the first round to be advertised soon. According to the Australia Council, general information, draft guidelines and funding categories are “not yet available.” The only contributor to have heard about ArtStart was a Head of School with a visual arts background.

Not surprisingly, contributors are positive about the scheme “even if it provides one more opportunity before a tougher life begins.” However, eligibility is an issue: “it would be good to have some specific information about the eligibility of performing arts in this scheme. It currently reads as having a creative rather than a performing arts focus.” Without more information, the rest is merely speculative: for example, how will new graduates compete with 29-year-old artists with established track records? Will some genres be disadvantaged in favour of postmodern or ‘high’ arts? Are the performing arts with their collaborative and ensemble structures eligible for funding? ArtStart and ERA have much in common in terms of uncertainly, and only time will tell whether their impact is negative, positive or indifferent.

See Editorial—Journals under Threat: A Joint Response from History of Science, Technology and Medicine Editors. Reproduced in Historical Records of Australian Science, 2008, 19, ii-iv. www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2629173

Heartfelt thanks to the twelve academics who contributed such frank accounts of academic and creative life, and to other colleagues across the arts who offered their insights and wisdom.

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 6

© Dawn Bennett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2009
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