Opinion: Arts Education in Australia is in Peril

During International Arts Education Week 2021, Professor Judith McLean reflects on the status of arts education in Australia

2 min read

In 2011, UNESCO proclaimed the third week of each May ‘International Arts Education Week’. The intention being to increase international awareness on the importance of arts education, while promoting cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and social cohesion.

When asked about the importance of this week, Professor Judith McLean says “the role of arts education has never been more critical, yet it has never been in more peril.

At QPAC, Professor McLean’s role is to connect research, industry and practice. For more than three decades she has made ground-breaking inroads as a teaching artist in the arts and across sectors including health, defence and engineering. A recipient of the 2020 Drama Australia President’s Award and Facilitator of Australia Council's Arts Leaders Program, she is internationally recognised as a leader in arts education.  

Professor Judith McLean
Reflecting on her roles as a teacher in the school system and professor in the university sector, Professor McLean laments arts programs at both levels have diminished.

With a greater focus in schooling on literacy, numeracy and science, what has the impact been on arts education in Australia? Professor McLean believes particularly in the school system, arts education is not in a great place.

What you have is a downgrading of academic belief in arts subjects, and that has manifested in new curriculum where the arts have been incredibly devalued. Many young people feel they can’t take arts subjects because they feel they won’t do well on their university entrance exams.

Professor McLean says the tertiary sector has also seen an amalgamation and devaluing of its arts teaching and Creative Industries programs, which makes becoming a teaching artist or trained artist a very expensive exercise.

To do a degree in the Creative Industries will cost you twice what it would cost you to do a degree in ‘purposeful vocation’ subjects. The problem with that is only people who have means will be able to afford to study the arts subjects.

It’s a problem for us as a society that the role of the arts, the role of arts education and the role of the artist is continually being questioned and devalued.

Amidst a pandemic, and in a world fraught with isolation and closed borders, Professor McLean says it is not the time to diminish opportunities and livelihoods of artists, the very people who can bring communities together.

Art is how a lot of people are getting through COVID-19. The things that are valued in western culture are being able to read and write very well, being able to add up – not being able to empathise and care for others, yet we are seeing the importance of this through COVID-19.

Arts education is a sense. That sense has an equal weighting in life to a mathematical knowing, to a linguistic knowing, to a kinesthetic knowing – to be able to sense and perceive the world through the senses is what an arts education is about.

Professor McLean says the arts were highlighted as a sanctuary during the pandemic; it was through art that people connected, where people felt seen, where people felt heard, where people felt something other than despair.

“While we’re in peril, COVID-19 may actually be a corrective force given the cohesive and reparative role the arts played during the pandemic. What is required is a declarative response by all governments to rethink their structural support in arts education.”

QPAC NOW

Acknowledgement of Traditional Owners

We pay our respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestors of this land, their spirits and their legacy. The foundations laid by these ancestors - our First Nations Peoples - gives strength, inspiration and courage to current and future generations, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, towards creating a better Queensland. Queensland Government’s RAP Acknowledgment of Country