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Fighting Back: Students Get Creative In Face Of Arts Education Cuts

31 Aug 2023

Deadlines loom that threaten to cut creative education options in Aotearoa's universities off at the knees - the creative community has been called on for a last stand.

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With the clock ticking on a number of tertiary arts educators and future creative students, now isn't the time to sit idle.

The window to challenge the impending cuts for Victoria University of Wellington's (VUW) music, language and theatre programmes is set to close on Tuesday (5 September). All parties who feel strongly about protecting these institutions - regardless of whether you're from the area or have been through the University - are being encouraged to make a submission (all the details of how can be found here at #saveVUW).

Students have taken it upon themselves to tell the story - in this online short doco.

VUW theatre lecturer Dr Kerryn Palmer has reiterated its importance to The Big Idea.

"As an arts educator of over 30 years, one of the most consistent and enduring challenges I face is how to convince society that the arts have deep and immeasurable value to society (as explained in this TBI article).  

"In spite of Te Herenga Waka’s proposed cuts to the theatre and music programmes at Victoria ( in order to help fix the fiscal hole the university has found itself in), the theatre programme is thriving. 

"As young people emerge from their COVID-imposed isolation they are looking for a place to connect with other humans, to learn creatively and to work out their humanity- together. This was overwhelmingly apparent during last Friday’s open day which saw thousands of prospective students attend the three campuses at Te Herenga Waka.  

"The theatre programme staff and students were inundated with requests for information about how to study theatre at Victoria, and a steady stream of prospective students left us joyously exhausted and cautiously optimistic.  Over the past few months, I have been left questioning why the value of something that is so obvious to me, seems to be so hard for many people to understand, in particular those who hold the purse strings."

Palmer continues "A few years ago, I received a letter from my children's high school about future changes to NCEA, the paragraph that stood out to me was; 

'We need to be more deliberate in developing the competencies we know help students thrive as they move into the wider world – things like collaboration, creativity, resilience, critical thinking, and courage.' 

"These are precisely the competencies that young people gain from being immersed in and learning through the arts.  As arts educators, we know this intrinsically.  Stripping arts as a core practice in education 20 years ago has undoubtedly led to a deficit of skills in young people such as collaboration, creativity, resilience, critical thinking, and courage.  The irony is that the stripping back of the arts in favour of STEM subjects, was an attempt to raise the numeracy and literacy rates in NZ children and yet ( unsurprisingly for arts educators), we find ourselves 20 years later with ( arguably) worse literacy and numeracy rates than ever

"Astonishingly, as the fight to keep the current Theatre and Music programmes at Victoria University demonstrates, here we are in 2023 - looking at stripping arts from education even more. The lack of foresight, courage, critical thinking, and creativity from these decision-makers is mind-boggling- and suggests there was indeed little arts in their own education.

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Dr Kerryn Palmer. Photo: Supplied,

"In the 2021 report Te Rito Toi: The Twice Born Seed, arts education advocate Prof. Peter O Connor   details how '…the narrow focusing on literacy and numeracy in Primary schools, the almost complete lack of arts in Initial Teacher Education, and a poverty of resourcing in the arts in schools are primary suspects of the silent but incredibly effective destruction of creativity in schools.' 

"Educating through the arts, teaches core skills and competencies in a way that is organic, visceral and employs mātauranga Māori concepts such as Kōtahitanga, Akoranga and Manakitanga.  An arts-based education embodies the values of kanohi ki te kanohi (the seen face/face to face/fronting up) which ensures that relationships, communication, empathy, and humanity are developed, strengthened, and celebrated. 

"We only need to look at the rising mental health statistics, the reported lack of empathy, resilience, sense of community, and hope that many young people have today to realise that something has gone awry in our education system.

"Maybe we need to try something radical. Maybe we need an education system where The Arts are the heart of our education system. Where young people are taught in a way that; increases literacy & numeracy, makes them more resilient, able to empathise, think critically, communicate, work well in a team and have courage in this ever-changing world. 

Art as protest

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VUW is of course far from alone.

Massey University is facing cuts that will impact 245 teaching and academic staff - with the Centre for Creative Arts (CoCA) among those in the firing line.

While the staff there reportedly feel hamstrung with what they can say publicly while their positions - and those of friends and colleagues - are on the chopping block, a group of students are doing what they can to raise awareness.

With the tools said teachers have taught them.

A quartet of final-year Fine Arts Students are rallying the creative community by staging an exhibition as a form of protest against those cuts. 

It's sharply titled Off Cuts, one of the co-organisers Ruby Christoffel told RNZ "It's a direct response to all of the cuts that have been proposed not just at Massey University, but across all of New Zealand - Victoria and University of Otago as well"

On their creative response, Christoffel notes "We really want to highlight all of the creative work that is going to be missed with the cuts. All of the poets, the artists, the designers - all of the work that we have had the privilege of being able to be able to do and work with is all going to be lost. 

"We really want to celebrate and have a positive outlook of what we have been able to achieve through our work and we are calling for all New Zealand to do the same and celebrate all the work that we've actually been able to produce."

It's an open-call exhibition - with anyone able to contribute and take part in the protest.

"We're asking for submissions - that could be as simple as a painting, It could be a post-it note, it could be a rant on a voice message that you send to us. 

"We really just want to hear anyone who is directly affected but feel like they haven't had an opportunity to have their voice heard. We want to provide them with this voice."

Submissions are open until 7 October, with the exhibition starting two days later - details here on their Instagram page.