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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15494

Ms KING (4:40 PM) —In this adjournment debate I wish to add my voice to those of the Ballarat arts community and students and staff of the University of Ballarat in protesting the university council's decision to close the theatre production course. This course is one of only two theatre production degree courses in Victoria and the only one in regional Victoria. It is a course whose students enjoy a high employment rate on graduation. Well-trained production teams are the backbone of the performing arts. The students are not just part of the University of Ballarat; they are part of the arts community throughout the whole of Ballarat. They assist not only in University of Ballarat productions but also in the theatre productions staged by the many theatre companies that exist in Ballarat. They also participate in the staging of the Begonia Festival that we hold each year.

The closure of the course is somewhat ironic, given that the Minister for Education, Science and Training only opened the brand-new campus at which the course was run in 2002. The minister at the time of the opening rightly pointed out the importance of all the arts to the Ballarat community. The Camp Street precinct on which the theatre production course is sited was created especially for the thriving performing and visual arts in my community. The university received generous funding from the state and federal governments and the local council, as well as donations from many local business communities, in order to build a high standard theatre production centre and theatre precinct for the community.

The major reason given for the course closure was lack of funding for perceived low enrolment figures on the course. Ironically, the number of students entering the course has been steadily rising. The new arts academy was to attract more students internationally, regionally and from around Australia. Is this simply the first of many courses to be rationalised as the incentives and numbers for fee paying students grow? The university, one would think, would take a proactive approach to the advertising and promotion of the course; perhaps this is one of the reasons that the course has had a decline in its numbers in recent times.

The university commissioned a confidential report—despite there having been a review of the arts faculty, there currently being no head of the arts faculty and the fact that that position was also currently being advertised. I think that the new head of the arts faculty would probably like to have had some input into any decisions regarding course closures. The report was, I understand, finalised in February—some 2½ months ago—and the decision to actually close the course took 2½ months. It was taken in camera. The university council announced that decision on 5 May. No input to this report was sought from the university's students or staff, the local community or the union. No consultation with staff, students, the local community or the union was undertaken in the period of time between the report being made available and the decision.

On Thursday, 8 May the university engaged the services of six security guards to assist the faculty and university management in `counselling' students and staff about the phasing out of the course. If this is an example of the type of industrial relations the minister for education thinks is appropriate and wishes to encourage through his new university package, frankly, he can stick it. Ballarat University has had to engage in overenrolments in order to survive the savage cuts of this government. The University of Melbourne may have the luxury of charging $150,000 for a degree under the minister's new higher education package, but the University of Ballarat will not have such a luxury. In order for it to be on a firm financial footing, it will not be able to charge the high fees that the minister seems to think are appropriate.

The university, in defending its decision, has stated that the course was underenrolled and that current students will be accommodated. It fails to understand that it is not just about current students; it is about future students and the role they play in participating in the arts community in Ballarat.