Wednesday 25 September 2018
Hansard of the Legislative Council

UTAS Theatre and Performance Course, Inveresk - Impacts

[12.51 p.m.]
Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Mr President, I move the Legislative Council notes:

(1)   The strong community concern surrounding the restructuring of the UTAS Theatre and         Performance course at Inveresk;
(2)   The impact of the restructuring of the course on the Inveresk Campus's ability to attract         students to the new course; and 
(3)   The impact on the local creative arts community.

I will gather all my accoutrements to work from one motion to the other.  I am a bit discombobulated in respect of my notes because things moved fast once the member for Windermere brought it to the northern members' attention that there was 'trouble at mill' in respect of the performing arts in the north of the state.  We had to drill down to find out what the concern was from the creative arts community in northern Tasmania.  I thank the member for Windermere for being diligent and expressing that concern, and I agreed it was a matter of public importance to put this matter on the Notice Paper as a notice of motion.  We did not have much information about what was actually occurring and we needed to deal with it straightaway.  If things are left, they will spread through the community like wildfire, with everybody discombobulated and like chooks with their heads chopped off - then we will get rumours rather than facts.

The member for Windermere was after the facts of the matter.  It has been a good process.  The matter of parliamentary importance was withdrawn because it was considered word was spreading about what was actually going on.  Hence the notice of motion to actually give us an opportunity to bring facts together, to find out what was actually occurring and then to have the community made aware of the facts of the matter.  Hence, the motion talks about strong concern from the community about the course at UTAS, the impact of restructuring on the Inveresk campus and the ability to attract new students to the course.  Talking of having 10 000 students coming to Inveresk in Launceston - this is good and we want to remain optimistic.

How many students might this course bring to Launceston?  How many locals might there be?  What will be the impact on the local creative arts community, if there is any impact at all at this time or will there be an impact in the future?

What we are discussing is the change in the University of Tasmania's 2019 Theatre and Performance program to be offered in Launceston within its Bachelor of Arts rather than in its Bachelor of Contemporary Arts.

These terminologies might get a little bit clouded as we go through it, but I hope I use the correct titles to what is occurring here.  Perhaps people viewing this or reading Hansard could give me some latitude because I might not get the titles right - we are flying by the seat of our pants in developing an understanding of this.  We are drilling down, but we may not have our facts entirely correct. 

This move is seen by some in the northern community as a downgrading of the degree, and there is some evidence this is the case.  We must see this change in the context of a long-running fight to preserve the strength of the University of Tasmania's presence in northern Tasmania.  We can go back over the history with Don Wing and Coleman O'Flaherty and others in the community who have -

Mr Valentine - Here they come, yes.

Mr FINCH - Did I get the pronunciation right?  It was Coleman O'Flaherty and others, whose names do not readily spring to mind, who have fought since our change from the TSIT to the university.  That is the history of it.  We are precious about the presence of the university in the north.

Mr Dean - Brian Hartnett was another one.

Mr FINCH - Yes, thank you - Brian Hartnett.  We have been given by one hand and we do not want it to be taken away by the other.  That is what we northern members are here for.  We have to make sure that if things are going on and changes are taking place in the north of the state that we look after our tribe, our bailiwick.  That is our job.

For decades the north has had to fight a trend, or at least a fear, of UTAS moving south.  I believe this trend was arrested under previous vice-chancellor, Peter Rathjen.  He had a policy of strengthening the north and north-west campuses.  I am pleased to say this has been reinforced by Rufus Black, the present vice-chancellor.

Peter Rathjen and Rufus Black have been strongly backed by the Chancellor, Michael Field, who has north-west origins.  Is it Railton that Michael Field is from?

Mr Dean - No, Sheffield or up that way.

Mr FINCH - North-west origins will cover it.  He is very keen to maintain those three UTAS campuses in Tasmania.

It is interesting that Vice-Chancellor Rufus Black spent the first day of his new position at the UTAS campus in Burnie, then he came down to Launceston in early March to speak to the staff there.  Perhaps the most memorable part of his speech, which I will paraphrase for Hansard's sake, was that he said something like, 'It is not the University of Tasmania but the university for all of Tasmania'.

I believe the insecurities of those fighting for a strong presence of the university outside Hobart have been addressed by the two vice-chancellors.  Nevertheless, we must be vigilant.  We must hold the management of our university to account when situations like this arise.  That is why there is concern about changes to the Theatre and Performance program in Launceston.

Member for Windermere, will I read that letter from Cheyne Mitchell?  Cheyne Mitchell is a lecturer, a former student of West Launceston Primary School, and a fellow performer, I might say.  Cheyne sent me an email; I do not know whether he sent it to everybody -

Mr Dean - No, I don't think so.

Mr FINCH - I received it and I quote -

I have been alarmed to recently find on the UTAS website that the Bachelor of Contemporary Arts was no longer going to be offered in 2019.

Cheyne develops the Launceston College's musicals and is a terrific lecturer.  He is a member of the Launceston community and a wonderful performer as well.  He came through that course at the university.  To continue -

The course has now been replaced by a Bachelor of Arts (Theatre and Performance Major).  Not only is this of a concern in the sense that it means the end of a fully dedicated Theatre course in Tasmania, but also students who I have been course counselling for the past two years have overnight had the 'goal posts moved'.  Students who intended studying a Bachelor of Contemporary Arts were preparing for a theatre/technical theatre specific degree that's entry requirements involved an audition and also presenting a folio of work.

[3.54 p.m.]
Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Mr President, I had made my way probably halfway through a letter from Cheyne Mitchell, who is a lecturer at Launceston College who is involved in the local theatre community.  He is a director of the musicals, the recent one certainly with Launceston College, and very heavily involved in, not only in the development of the theatre, but also the development of the students.

I will go back to the beginning so this is all in context of what he actually said.  This is from Cheyne Mitchell -

I have been alarmed to recently find on the UTAS website that the Bachelor of Contemporary Arts was no longer going to be offered in 2019.  The course has now been replaced by a Bachelor of Arts (Theatre and Performance Major).  Not only is this of a concern in the sense that it means the end of a fully dedicated Theatre course in Tasmania, but also students who I have been course counselling for the past two years have overnight had the 'goal posts moved'.  Students who intended studying a Bachelor of Contemporary Arts were preparing for a theatre/technical theatre specific degree that's entry requirements involved an audition and folio of work.  The new Bachelor of Arts (Theatre and Performance Major) requires students to have an ATAR of 65 or higher, this is a major concern for students who have been told otherwise and will not have studied the necessary courses to receive an ATAR.  Meaning they will be left with the options of either moving state to pursue their education, changing their intended pathway, or if approved, returning to study a third year in college in an attempt to receive an ATAR.

This sudden decision made by the University of Tasmania has severe educational impacts for current year 12 students and I am shocked that this was done without any consultation with stake holders.

That is one of Cheyne Mitchell's concerns, and I am sure some of those issues may be fleshed out with contributions from other members.  I certainly have some information here about aspects of what Cheyne is actually saying.

UTAS has responded quickly to concerns like these.  I will quote one of the first official responses.  I do not at this stage have a person to link this to, but I will read it into Hansard anyway -

In Launceston we have been clear in our intent to have the Inveresk Precinct as a vibrant, cultural community space and that theatre and the creative and performing arts are central to this, as is our support for the QVMAG as an iconic community space. 

The response went on to say that in that context people could be assured that the university remained committed to a community- and industry-led theatre program in Launceston, one that provided local opportunities for students to develop their skills and networks, and prepared them for future careers in the creative and performing arts.  The response continued by saying that that working in partnership with the local theatre and creative arts scene was fundamental to that because the university could not achieve those outcomes alone.

That statement from UTAS in respect of what is developing there sounds nice and fuzzy and warm, but at this stage, I will go over the history of this course in the north of the state to give other members an idea of we are talking about.

Martin Croft is a name that might resonate with some - a wonderful man.  He established an English speech and drama course in 1973.  He was subsequently joined by Professor John Lohrey, and the performing arts then really flourished - that was Professor Lohrey's raison d'etre, as well as going to cricket around the world - but it was all about theatre and theory.  Michael Edgar then came in 1985, and what a fabulous actor.  I am sure the member for Launceston would agree with me.  She would have seen Michael Edgar.  He was so skilled, I have a sense he might have appeared in the West End.  He was very good, but also a wonderful lecturer and, as such, a great resource to have on board.  They then established the Bachelor of Performing Arts with Peter Hammond at the helm.  Peter recently retired to his model train set.  About 1991 CentreStage was established as a bijou theatre company.  People from the university held productions with the community in whatever relationship that might be like, such as swapping talent.  The directors usually came from the university, such as Peter Hammond, Michael Edgar or Professor Lohrey.  Ray Sangston, Jacqueline Horne and other actors from the community took part in those productions.

It was called bijou theatre because it was small theatre - one-, two- or three-handed productions.  I was on the board at the time CentreStage was established.  Don Wing was the chair of that committee.

After 22 years it was dissolved, perhaps due to the lack of an artistic director; there might have been a bit of burnout.  The member for Launceston might enlighten us when she makes a presentation on how she felt.  The university was not of a mind to keep supporting CentreStage.  Are you waiting to say something now?

Ms Armitage - I am wondering whether I will or not.  It changed.

Mr FINCH - It certainly did.

Ms Armitage - It changed from CentreStage to Next Stage because there were not enough students in the course, and some other issues were going on.

Mr FINCH - You might progress that -

Ms Armitage - No, it is not relevant to this.

Mr FINCH - Journalist Mary Machen, who is heavily involved in the arts, called it cultural vandalism when that operation was discontinued.

Helen Trenos was involved, followed by Robert Lewis.  There was postgraduate teaching in 2017, seemingly ad hoc.

The operatives and the community resisted closure because that would open the way for Hobart to secure the performance and technical theatre units.  That concern runs through northern Tasmania.  It may be unfounded; however, we need to protect our patch and make sure we hold on to any advantages we have and make them work.

To some, this new approach with theatre as part of a major is questionable.  I think it is eight units of the 16 over three years.  There have been mentions of consultation.  You will probably go into this, member for Launceston.  Why have we heard from so many theatre operatives and from the theatre community that they know nothing about consultation?  Had there been consultation, you would have some idea it was going to occur and you would be asking questions about it.

This new arrangement was devised by Will Deally.  It was an informal assessment that did not get to the approval stage.  The program was unsustainable because of diminishing numbers, as the member for Launceston has suggested.  Without the income from other strands, it was uneconomical so this new program was devised.  It will give students a theatre and performance major.  This course has been developed by Dr Jane Woollard and Dr Asher Warren.  I unfortunately missed the meeting to hear what they had to say.  Basically the hope is to stop the leadership churn with those people I have mentioned, spend less - it is an economic decision - and enrol more students.  We hope this has appeal for those students we would like to see come here.

Mr Dean - You are right about the changeover of staff because both Dr Woollard and Dr Warren have only recently taken over those positions; I think 12 months ago.  Then Kate Darian-Smith was involved in this in a very senior position; she had only recently taken on her position, so that is right through it -

Ms Armitage - Kate took over 12 months ago and she employed Asher and Jane.

Mr Dean - They have all been there recently.

Mr FINCH - We are talking about the new dean of the College of Arts, Law and Education, Professor Kate Darian-Smith.  She is very keen to continue to work very closely with all stakeholders to ensure that the Launceston-based offerings in 2019 and beyond reflect the needs of local industry and draw potential students not just from northern Tasmania but also from throughout Tasmania, and from interstate and internationally.

While talking to her, I made a note about what she was saying.  She said that while it is still in the planning stages, the aspiration is to rebuild the Batchelor of Arts program at the redeveloped Inveresk Precinct to over 250 students within the next five years.  She said she hopes a good proportion of these students would have theatre and performance as a major. 

The long-running concerns about the strength of the UTAS courses outside Hobart continue.  We in the north must monitor things carefully.  To be fair, though, we must listen to the arguments and presentations from all sides so we understand what is being driven at by the university.  In this sense we are also supporting our local creative arts community and what has developed through that course at the university over those 22 years.  We had a career opportunity whereby each year a student was selected as the CentreStage apprentice or trainee of the year.  They were paid a salary to work at the university and devise projects or programs, and to direct, write or use whatever their major skills were to put into productions for CentreStage.

Ms Armitage - But the money came from a business in the community, not the university.

Mr FINCH - That is right.

Ms Armitage - And they withdrew it; they stopped the sponsorship.

Mr FINCH - But the point is that there would have been an opportunity to look for further sponsorship of that program.

Ms Armitage - It was a lot of money

Mr FINCH - Yes, but I arranged it in the first place, and if you can arrange it once, you can arrange it twice.

Ms Armitage - If they did look at it, I don't think they could repeat it.

Mr FINCH - No, I did not look because I was not on the board at the time and I was not asked to look.  I did talk with Brian Ritchie  at MONA about sowing a seed, but not officially, with David Walsh.  However, that money came from the community, from Federal Hotels, which supported it over 22 years.  My point is that the students who received that award went on to terrific opportunities, and many of them have stayed in our community and helped build our creative arts community.  It was very important to our creative arts community in northern Tasmania in that respect.  The residual effect of their study kept them in our community while others went away.  Remind me, member for McIntyre - Paige Rattray was one of our recipients:  where is she now?

Ms Rattray - Sydney.

Mr FINCH - She is in Sydney doing?

Ms Rattray - She is running a theatre company.

Mr FINCH - That is one example - there are many - of the success of that particular program.  It is in the past and has gone.

Ms Rattray - She is head of the theatre company, not running the theatre company.

Mr FINCH - She is head of the theatre company.  The point is that we are very keen to hold this program at the highest possible level the university can achieve with what comes through into it.  Those funds drawn from 250 students coming through the course make it economical to continue to be offered in the north of the state.  I will be interested to hear what other members have to say and will probably comment on anything that might be left out.

[5.16 p.m.]
Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Mr President, the points of this motion have been well and truly covered.  Point (3) is about the impact on the local creative arts community, which relates to how the course developed and grew with the people who came through the course, who were part of the community or stayed in the community and developed their theatre skills, and how we are feeling the benefit now.  Let us hope that does not diminish and in fact grows with this new course.

I thank and suggest we offer our support to Dr Asher Warren and Dr Jane Woollard, for the work they have done in developing this course.  We wish them every success for the future, and for this course.  We want to see it become a success in our community.  We will be offering them our support.  Hopefully, with the work they have done, they have been able to nail down what is needed for our young people in Tasmania.  If this is what they want to do, it will offer them a better pathway to the job creation suggested.

This course has been refashioned and given curriculum renewal as the numbers were down to 40 over three years, which was not enough.  Hopefully we will see growth.  I do not know where I got that figure of 250 from.  I have been through the notes of the discussion we had with Professor Kate Darian-Smith and the 250 is not there.  I hope it is somewhere in one of the many conversations I had. 

Of course, the other concern expressed by Cheyne Mitchell is that he has developed students at the Launceston College, and they are fearful and concerned about the fact they now require an ATAR and might have to do a third year at the Launceston College.  Professor Kate said it will not disadvantage any year 10s now.  Hopefully, that will remain the case and we will not see students concerned, because they will be given the opportunity to continue what they thought they were going to do.  Hopefully, this will be taken into account in that transition period.

Professor Kate mentioned that this as a 'flagship major' for the university.  Let us hope we can keep this as a heading when we think of this course, that it is a flagship major for the university.  Not a downgrading, but in fact an expansion.  She reiterated that there were no plans to move it to Hobart - no plans in the future - but if it did, it would be as well at Launceston, which was a point of concern. 

She stated the new campus has to be connected to the community.  Yes, all well and good, let us achieve that.  Let us have communication and consultation in a more fulsome way.  That connection to the community was highlighted and an exemplar for connection from community to university when we had the CentreStage operation.  The professor said it was unfortunate the entire theatre community did not feel informed.  We would like the university to take on the message that its consultation was not sufficient to make people feel comfortable about what should be a very exciting development for our young people.  That idea was not sold, and it still has to be sold to others to come to Tassie and to be part of this course. 

I appreciate the work Dr Asher Warren and Dr Jane Woollard have done in getting the course to where it is.  We are in good hands with Professor Darian-Smith because she has a liking for theatre.  I think that is her background.  She appointed the two people to come north and she expressed a strong desire for it to grow.

Mr Dean - Before you sit down, what did you make of the change in which two of the elective units from the old degree have been cut because they are outdated and/or they do not have the resources?

Ms Forrest - That is getting rid of those sessional lecturers I mentioned.

Mr FINCH - Say that again, member for Murchison.

Ms Forrest - Part of it has been because they have cut costs on sessional lecturers.  If they grow enrolment numbers, they can employ them again.  It is a bit of a catch-22.

Mr FINCH - These courses you are talking about, member for Windermere, were developed using examples from Monash and Deakin.  They are successful courses and I think they have taken the lead from those courses to develop the one for Launceston.  I trust this has been a constructive debate for the development of theatre for all of Tasmania.  Thank you.

Motion agreed to.