by Isobel Knight
Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 Broadway flop “Merrily We Roll Along”, the story of three kids trying to make it in theatre, has had a millennial cultural renaissance. Appearing memorably in the Oscar-nominated “Ladybird” and in a new Sondheim documentary this year, it has also drawn a full house to Marrickville’s Depot Theatre on a sweaty Wednesday in 2018. Seated in the back row are a group of 2017 Bachelor of Musical Theatre graduates who, despite unsuccessfully auditioning for the production themselves, are here to support their friend and classmate who is appearing as a member of the ensemble. The chat before the show begins is all about rent, work and what they know about the cast – where they studied, where they’ve worked before, how they got the job here. Like the myriad of young people who study the creative arts after high-school, their world matches that of “Merrily” in that it is full of a competitive combination of endless rejections and hope.
In Sydney alone there are more than sixteen private performing arts tertiary institutions, including both music and drama, and seven have opened in the past five years. UNSW, Sydney University, UTS, WSU and Notre Dame now additionally have Bachelors of Music or a Performance Studies Major in their arts degrees. There is high localised demand for tertiary creative education, with NSW containing nearly a third of all students completing tertiary arts education, but with less regulation across the private sector and the removal VET help from a number of creative degrees, the experience of completing one can be expensive and difficult. Education Minister Simon Birmingham said in his official statement about the changes to VET help that that particular scheme was aimed at increasing technical skills not supporting “lifestyle choices”.
Rhianna Miles was a member of the 2018 graduating class of the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) with a Bachelor of Music Composition and Production. When she entered into her degree she was in a class of sixty and it was slated as a two-year course. Her graduating class, three years later, was six people, and “…it’s officially a three-year degree now,” she said, laughing. She fell into a music degree after having IT on the top of her preferences going into the HSC. She applied for AIM alongside a bunch of friends, “almost as a joke…” but has left with “a tonne of technical skills – [a] really big focus on people skills.”
“It was worth it for me because I learn best in an academic environment,” she said. Some classmates dropped out to pursue musical projects that needed more time than the accompanying theoretical or technical studies at AIM would allow. “Other people didn’t realise it was actually work, didn’t realise it was hard.”
Skills in audio-editing software and technologies, music theory and history and plenty of teamwork and collaboration were, she said, the focusses of the degree. While the speaker at her graduation encouraged the outgoing class multiple times to “…fail and pick yourself up and keep running, keep chasing your passion, your calling…”, Rhianna said that they didn’t talk about rejection so much as resilience throughout her degree.
Though her Centrelink careers advisor told her weekly to look for Barista jobs, she said she knows she wants to work in music. After a time of no success in entry-level music jobs, she has now secured a part-time job outside the industry. “The job I have now is to pay my bills, so I can spend as much time as I can doing music. Not everyone is willing to, but I’m happy to work that way for now.”
“The skills I learnt in my degree are applicable in any job: I can self-motivate, I can organise people. I can get people with different skills to work towards a common goal and have all high standards about the end product. I can collaborate. They’re skills I’ve learnt in a really in-depth way that employers might not understand because it doesn’t say “Communications Degree” on my resume.”
Federal Government data released in 2017 revealed that university drop-out rates across the board are at a peak, with a third of all enrolled first years not completing their degrees. The two reports that these figures based on were a graduate survey from 2017 and a survey of graduates four, six and nine years after graduating. The numbers varied greatly from university to university, with UNSW, Australian National University and University of Sydney reporting record high levels of degree completion. Smaller universities and private colleges had the highest rates of non-completion.
The graduate survey revealed that the short-term employment prospects have declined in recent years for all graduates, with many not being employed in their field up to four years after graduating. Medicine had the highest rate of employment directly out of university. The creative arts joined sectors such as hospitality and services, science and mathematics as the least likely to be employed in their field directly following graduation. One in every four graduates said their training had no relevance to the employment market.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of the number of people employed in the arts, a comparatively small number hold a relevant qualification in that field, but as the number of creative degrees increase, that is likely to change, even if the options for employment in their field immediately after completing a creative degree may not.
The fresh graduates at “Merrily” work, between them, at a bookstore, a suburban Bed, Bath & Table, in an Entertainment Quarter ‘Smurfs’ show and at a make-up stand. The show itself ends with the three main characters looking up into the New York sky and singing about their dreams, the doors they’ll open and how now is their time. The graduates step out into the sticky Sydney night and do the same.