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"The Battle Is Far From Over" - University Arts Education Still Under Threat

06 Jul 2023

Performing arts programmes at NZ universities haven't been spared potential cuts, despite government financial support. 

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Protests continue for the proposed cuts at Victoria University of Wellington. Photo: VUWSA. 

A $12m government injection hasn't been enough to stave off the cuts coming to arts education at Victory University of Wellington (VUW).

Last month's devastating news that the humanities were in the firing line, with whole programmes facing extinction or amputation, was met with an uproar from many - including it being labelled an "unforgivable attack" by VUW theatre lecturer James Wenley, whose department was facing losing half its staff. The Music and languages programmes are also in danger.

The Government stepped in with a timely election-year announcement to offer embattled Universities support, but given VUW have $30m it's looking to save, it's more of a life-preserver than a lifeboat.

Wenley's passionate opinion article here on The Big Idea set the stage for others to take up the fight, including colleagues Dr Nicola Hyland contributing her thoughts to The Spinoff  titled Killing the Human in Humanities and David O'Donnell taking the issue to global theatre portal The Theatre Times. 

O'Donnell narrates the 50-year history of the programme, and concludes "the proposal to significantly reduce New Zealand’s oldest and largest university Theatre programme must be a reminder of the need to work tirelessly to ensure that the value of performing arts education is recognised by those in power."

Still under threat

Wenley updates the situation.

"Public pressure led to the Government's action to provide additional funding for the tertiary sector. That's round one won, but the battle is far from over. 

"Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington responded by pausing consultation for the change proposal while it seeks applications for voluntary redundancies. Our Vice-Chancellor has indicated the $12 million in additional Government funding for VUW may only be enough to save a third of jobs up for disestablishment. 

"Programmes like theatre and music are now in limbo until mid-August when we'll be presented with a revised change proposal. Colleagues at the University of Otago and Massey University are also awaiting news about what is in store for their programmes.

Performing arts programmes at our universities across the country are under grave threat. 

It is important that we keep speaking up about the value of arts education. Any cuts would have long-term impacts on our national arts and cultural infrastructure.  

"As Circa Theatre puts it, 'with thousands of VUW theatre graduates & staff working, producing, performing and supporting Circa Theatre over the years, their theatre programme is vital for the continued growth of NZ's professional performing arts.'"

Wenley says the VUW facility and students are immensely grateful for the outpouring of support and solidarity from the performing arts community. You only need to look at Wenley's Twitter thread to see the many arts organisations and prominent alumni advocating the programme's importance within the arts ecosystem. 

The show must go on

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Performing Data in Australasia symposium at VUW. Photo: Robert Cross.

Wenley explains that even with the August axe looming, there's been no let up on the theatre department doing what gives it such a strong reputation.

"This week, the VUW theatre programme is hosting the 'Performing Data in Australasia' symposium - colleagues from Australia have joined theatre staff and industry professionals to explore data-led performance projects. 

"On Wednesday, Dr Nicola Hyland shared her work on a MBIE-funded project exploring the representation of emotions in video games, Binge Culture's Joel Baxendale (VUW Grad) walked us through the development of the PickPath app, and we provided an update on the trans-Tasman collaboration between Theatre Aotearoa and AusStage live performance databases. 

"We were determined to press ahead with our symposium despite the uncertainty around our theatre programme's future."

Bottom lines are reality - but value is measured in more than just dollars and sense. The fight goes on to ensure that art education can be measured by its true value to this country.