A question of priorities ... playwright David Williamson wants a fairer go for the arts. Photo: Jesse Marlow
Australia's best known playwright, David Williamson, has attacked the nation's "huge" spending on sports while a "pittance" is spent developing the next Cate Blanchett or Geoffrey Rush.
Williamson has also taken aim at the funding being "ripped" from TAFE, costing 800 teaching positions in NSW alone, with fine arts "predictably" among the casualties, while Melbourne was set to lose a valuable creative arts program.
"The overall cost of our Olympic gold medals was in excess of $17 million per medal but that was thought to be not nearly enough investment by many who oversee our elite sports institutions," said Williamson, delivering the 2012 National Tertiary Education Union lecture in Fremantle.
"Why as a society we think it's legitimate to spend huge amounts on our sportsmen and women, but seemingly don't think the relative pittance we spend on developing a potential Cate Blanchett or Geoffrey Rush is as justifiable, has to say something about our national and political priorities."
The former Sydneysider, whose new play Happiness premieres at the Ensemble Theatre in May and whose play Rupert, about media baron Rupert Murdoch, premieres at the Melbourne Theatre Company in August, now lives in Queensland, where "the barbarians are not just at the gate, but in power".
Williamson, in his lecture "Living dangerously: The future of creative arts education in Australian universities", said the new Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, had transformed the state into a "developers' paradise", while abolishing the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, "which cost the relatively trivial amount of a quarter of a million dollars".
But the playwright also took aim at other states: in Victoria, the Baillieu government had sliced $35 million from Swinburne University of Technology's budget as part of a general $290 million cut to TAFE in that state.
"Swinburne is being forced to plan the closure of its Prahran campus, home to its creative arts program, which in terms of graduates being employed in the arts industry, has been one of the most successful in the country," Williamson said.
"Where are our future cameramen, directors, set and lighting designers, choreographers and makeup artists for television, film and stage meant to spring from? It seems, in that phrase invented by Shakespeare, the greatest artist of all time, 'thin air'."
In NSW, meanwhile, some 800 TAFE jobs are "slated to go and the casualties, predictably, are fine arts and ceramics".
"Creative courses on university campuses are under just as much threat, but here it's not the bloody-minded anti-arts mentality of conservative state governments that's to blame but the gradual python squeeze of less and less university funding for which the federal government must take the blame," he said.
"Despite increases in university funding by the Labor government, these increases have not kept up with inflation or increasing student load and in essence our universities are asked to do more with less.
"Funding levels for higher education have dipped to just 0.7 per cent of GDP as against the OECD average of 1 per cent."
"Skimping" on higher education was partly to do with "political cowardice", he said.
"It's OK to have white papers on us integrating ourselves with Asia in the 'Asian Century' and tell us we're all to learn Asian languages, as long as there are absolutely no plans to actually do anything."
Yet the arts sector contributes $30 billion a year to GDP, more than agriculture, forestry and fishing combined, Williamson said.
"Funding in a university flows from the number of students you teach and how effective you are as a research institution," he said.
"Many faculties have responded to funding pressures by decreasing the staff student ratio. Tutorials of a dozen were commonplace 30 years ago, now the normal size is 30. While this has decreased the effectiveness of teaching in all faculties, it's still possible in most of them to get an acceptable outcome.
"In creative pursuits, however, learning is only partly possible by discussion; it's actually doing the activity, and getting precise and informed feedback from talented teacher-practitioners that enables a student to flourish."
Williamson said the new national curriculum would be weakened by a lack of funding, despite the welcome emphasis on arts.
"The success of the national arts curriculum is being hamstrung by the lack of qualified music, drama, dance and art teachers," he said.
"Great arts teachers can work wonders in introducing our kids to the joys of the arts.
"But teachers without sufficient specialist training in teaching music, theatre, dance or drama are equally good at torpedoing the artistic talents and passions of young people. We urgently need to lift the level of arts training that primary teachers get. We desperately need to produce more specialist arts teachers for our high schools.
"But the reality is that many of the higher education institutions which should be producing these teachers are being specifically targeted for budget cuts.
"Put simply, we are not going to have the teachers to teach the national arts curriculum. That is plain dumb."