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UQ cancelling Museum Studies pgms

David Burton, UQ’s decision to cut Museum Studies spells disaster, ArtsHub, 29 May 2024

The University of Queensland is proposing cuts to its Museum Studies programs, with potential effects felt across the country.

UQ has announced its intention to cut its Museum Studies programs. Image: palg1305, Wiki Commons.

On 10 May this year, Professor Katharine Gelber, the Associate Dean of Academics at the Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland (UQ), sent a letter to all Museum Studies students notifying them of the imminent cancellation of the Faculty’s Master of Museum Studies and Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies.

‘We anticipate that Semester 2 2024 will be the final intake for these programs at UQ,’ reads the letter, obtained by ArtsHub.

Rebekah Butler, Executive Director of Museums and Galleries Queensland, was scheduled to give a lecture to a number of those students that afternoon. Many of them had yet to read the correspondence, and Butler learned that most of the Faculty’s staff had only learned of the intention to cut the programs moments before students were also notified.

‘If this program is cancelled,’ Butler tells ArtsHub, ‘it means there will be no tertiary qualifications in this field in Queensland. We are already suffering a skills shortage, and these cuts will dramatically impact the future of many Queensland museums.’

In the letter to the student body, Gelber cited challenges with ‘enrolments, staffing and market differentiation’ since 2018. ‘Recognising the need to address this, the University has invested significantly in the program, including initiatives to reinvigorate the curriculum, appoint additional staff and strengthen connections with industry,’ Gelber explained. ‘Unfortunately, student numbers remain low and have continued to decline, impacting the program’s ongoing viability.’

Students and concerned stakeholders were invited to a forum on 15 May. The forum minutes note a lack of clarity regarding the Faculty’s rationale for the cuts. The students in the meeting were assured that UQ subsidises specific programs from income generated by more popular programs, but were also given a ‘broad estimate of 36 additional (full-time equivalent) students required for the program to break even,’ the minutes state.

While the initial correspondence made the cuts sound inevitable, the final decision is yet to be confirmed. The UQ Academic Board must note the decision and pass it to the Vice-Chancellor for approval. At the time of the forum, it was unclear whether the programs would be placed on the agenda of the following Academic Board meeting on 7 June. Unless a member of the Academic Board requests for a specific item to be discussed, the proposal will likely be approved in bulk with other items the Board feels are non-contentious.

‘We will continue to support currently enrolled students to complete their studies, with core courses in the programs continuing until the end of 2026,’ a UQ spokesperson told ArtsHub.

A petition has been launched to raise the profile of the students and sector’s concerns.

The cost of cutting UQ Museum courses

Speaking to ArtsHub, Rebekah Butler outlines the ripple effect caused by the cancellation of the Museum Studies programs at UQ. Without a local Queensland option to study, students will likely travel interstate, establishing networks and experience outside of Queensland.

‘We also have a shortage of First Nations staff,’ Butler continues. ‘And in this time of Treaty and truth-telling, we find it extremely difficult to source qualified First Nations curators. It’s already a big ask for some people in regional and remote Queensland to travel to Brisbane to study, let alone interstate.’

The UQ programs also hosted internships and student placements, which some small museums and galleries have grown to rely on. The museum sector in Queensland also depends upon the labour of more than 15,000 volunteers, many of whom have expressed interest in obtaining tertiary qualifications in the field. Without the UQ programs, however, their involvement in the sector reaches an abrupt ceiling.

The programs were established in 2005 after UQ itself researched the sector to see if there was an industry update for tertiary qualifications in the field. Two decades later, it is set to cancel the programs, but the hunger in the market remains.

‘This decision has been made with zero industry consultation,’ Butler tells ArtsHub. ‘The entire matter has not been handled well.’

Butler and the petition authors point out that the absence of a Queensland hub of museums and curatorial nurturing will impact the state’s capacity and workforce in the lead-up to the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games and Cultural Olympiad. The cuts are also counterintuitive to the State Government’s Creative Together 2020-2030 policy and the federal National Cultural Policy, Revive.

The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) supports the petition and says the proposed closures ‘raise alarm’ for the sector overall.

NAVA Executive Director Penelope Barton says the phase-out would create an ‘employment crisis’. ‘Incoming staff will be limited to those trained in an online setting from an open university,’ she says, ‘which limits opportunities to develop local sector-based networks as part of the student experience…Phasing out the postgraduate Museum Studies Program at UQ will drastically affect the Queensland arts sector in the years to come.’

UQ and other universities’ art courses struggle to survive

UQ’s announcement follows patterns of hardship from university creative courses nationwide, particularly in Queensland. James Cook University has now removed its creative arts major as part of its Bachelor of Arts, meaning there are no creative arts university qualifications available in Far North Queensland.

Drama courses across the country have struggled to recover following the COVID-19 lockdowns. As an immediate effect of the lockdowns, seven universities closed or dramatically shrank their drama departments, while many increased class sizes, radically changing the teaching environment. Monash, Murdoch, La Trobe, Charles Sturt and Newcastle universities have all closed their drama departments in the last four years.

As part of its 2024/25 budget announcements, the Federal Government promised a funding boost of $115.2 million for the ARTS8 group. The group includes the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). None of the institutions that are a part of the ARTS8 group are in Queensland, or have tangible links to museum studies.

‘Now is not the time for UQ to be conservative,’ students urged at UQ Museum Studies Forum, ‘but to be brave and to meet the ambition of UQ to be one of the world’s leading universities.’

‘The University will continue to promote the arts and build on our deep connections to the industry through partnerships and student placements,’ a UQ spokesperson told ArtsHub.

The Academic board is set to meet on 7 June. At that time, they will have received the petition.