How shall we praise the magnificence of the dead?
So start the lines of Conrad Aiken's great poem, Telestai. Most of you may not know about the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing (PWE) program in Carlton, Melbourne but it too is dead.
It was one of the most highly regarded of all TAFE programs in Victoria and one of the best writing programs in Australia. It doesn't matter if you didn't know the program, you will recognise the pathology of its downfall. It's a disease that infects many modern organisations.
PWE was a crucial hub in the intellectual and cultural life of Carlton, Fitzroy and North Melbourne. It formed a nexus between multimedia publishers, desktop publishers, web designers, editors and writers. Its students created exciting new art. Many were aged in there 30s and 40s. About 70 per cent already had degrees.
'Outrageous', you may say. 'They should be paying top dollar!' All students, no matter how rich or poor paid the same. The program had grown organically since the late 1980s and made about $200,000 per year.
The program was killed by ridiculous 'one size fits all' thinking by the former Brumby Government. It leveled the TAFE system in Victoria as fully as any battalion of tanks. It deregulated TAFE courses and opened up fees to market forces. This meant massive fee hikes of more than 500 per cent in some cases.
When I left as director of the RMIT Creative Writing programs in 2004, PWE charged $500 a year or less if you were on the dole or disability pension. Since then, its fees have rocketed 1000 per cent. The tailings of the program will be offered as an associate degree this year charging $5648 a year in fees.
Much of my work at RMIT (which spanned from 1991-2004 – as well as working for Federal and Victorian politicians) was fighting to keep the program within the price range of its traditional market. Even back then people wanted to disband PWE, take it over, internationalise it or dumb down its curriculum.
The drive to commercialise academic programs is almost over whelming. Clearly, programs have to be profitable but there is no need to crush the soul out of them. A few years ago I wrote an article in The Australian on the commodification of creativity not knowing that the program I used to run was itself under threat.
The PWE staff used to brag about the number of novels published but my eye was always on making sure students got jobs. About three quarters of the students earned less than $16,000 gross per year. PWE was one rung up on the ladder of opportunity.
I had students who were heroin addicts, schizophrenics, homeless kids, sex addicts, depressives, alcoholics, princesses, know-it-alls, psychiatrists, doctors, kids who had done jail time, house wives, bullshit artists – you name it, they rolled up to study at RMIT PWE in Carlton. Many earned that brief title 'writer'.
The students not only got published, they got jobs as magazine writers, editors, copywriters, journalists, travel writers, web builders and much more. For those of you who don't know the joy of getting paid for writing, it makes it worth getting up in the morning. This was cultural capital at work. Its value goes beyond the bottomline.
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