With the bushfires, COVID-19 and the cultural change precipitated by the Black Lives Matter movement, this has been a big year for AFTRS. It has brought challenges, opportunities, and valuable learnings for us as a school. And, to the credit of our brilliant staff and talented students, we have achieved significant outcomes during this time.
Teaching in a Time of COVID
From the energising busyness of the building during Orientation Week in February, we moved just a month later to a near silent building. It has been a difficult period for staff and students, but we have drawn on the strength of our School community and understood what incredible things we can achieve working together. Within weeks of the WHO declaring a global pandemic, we had moved our teaching and learning online, maintained the outstanding quality of our course content and delivery of teaching, and all staff were working remotely. From payroll to production support staff, the library and of course, teachers and students, we pulled together with tremendous resilience and agility to keep the School running with the same sense of creative discovery and ambition. We also achieved outstanding outcomes: we had very low numbers of students withdrawing from courses, and we managed to launch a new, very popular national program of quality online courses.
In June, with the pandemic curve flattening, we laid out an AFTRS COVIDSafe Plan, aligned to the Federal Government’s Road Map, and a staged return to COVIDSafe on-campus working and learning. Students and staff have been collegial, patient, and responsible for ensuring we met this plan and returned to face to face activities safely.
The student experience remained front and centre during this period. Prior to the pandemic, we reviewed how our Student Centre runs to ensure we are meeting student needs. This led to a beautiful redesign of our Student Centre space and to the recruitment of two new Student Engagement Managers and a counsellor for students. COVID-19 has seen many of our students experience significant financial hardship and additional housing stress. Prior to the pandemic, we completed a Housing Affordability Study that explored options to support students living in Australia’s most expensive city. The new Student Centre team has risen to the challenge and provided our students with extraordinary support, from increased hardship funds to mentoring and accommodation support.
National Reach and Online Learning
One of the most exciting discoveries of this period has been the School’s capacity to deliver AFTRS’ uniquely industry-focused, collaborative learning in the online space. As COVID-19 hit, we moved quickly to transfer our short course and industry certificates online. Enrolments were soon outstripping cancellations, and feedback from students and teaching staff was extremely positive. Yes, there is the COVID-factor, but we also know, as reflected in the Ernst & Young’s 2018 University of the Future Report1, that 42% of prospective students have a strong preference for online learning. As the national screen and broadcast school, our expanded accessible online offering allows us to extend our reach across Australia.
Our Purpose in Focus
In light of the events of the year, our purpose to empower Australian talent and deliver future facing, industry- relevant research and training has never been more keenly felt.
AFTRS’ graduates continued to make their mark on our national and international screen and broadcast industries, with outstanding, audience-focused Australian work. The MA Screen’s first feature film, Sequin in a Blue Room, having won the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival, went on to secure national and international distribution – an incredible feat for the many talented graduates who worked on it. Graduate Diploma Radio graduate Pariya Taherzadeh won two New York Festival Radio Awards for her radio documentary Escape from Iran. Hattie Archibald’s MA graduate project, the web series Gut Feeling, secured distribution with ABC iview.
While these graduates’ impact is remarkable, let us also celebrate the hundreds of AFTRS graduates working together to tell the Australian story, across film, television, radio, podcasts in community radio stations, charities, and multinational streamers. We are equipping an industry that holds our national story. And in a year like this year, we have learned how important good Australian stories are to our lives.
AFTRS’ engaged relationship with industry is critical to us fulfilling our purpose. In response to the business skills gaps identified in last year’s triennial industry survey, we worked closely with our industry advisory panels to design a series of highly popular seminars called Short, Sharp and Immediately Useful, taught by top industry specialists and covering topics such as emerging technologies, lean business planning, and exploiting IP. We launched the first seminar in February: Blockchain For Creative Business, co-presented with Screen Australia and the Australia Council.
We have worked closely with industry partners to design the talent pathways that reach all the way from high school outreach programs to Graduate Program traineeships to ensure the most talented storytellers across Australia can access our unique AFTRS teaching and learning, and become the best work-ready graduates in Australia. This year, over 80 students accessed internships, attachments, and placements. We were also able to offer incredibly exciting traineeships with the Marvel/Disney productions Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Thor Love and Thunder. We know these opportunities count: our latest Graduate Outcomes Survey brought the news that two-thirds of our most recent graduates are working in industry.
Our Strategy: Find Support Develop Talent
We continue to focus on finding talent across Australia, so our School, and future industries, reflect the true population of Australia. Across the year’s recruitment activity, we were particularly excited to participate in ‘Be the change’ Girls Academy Careers day with over 200 Indigenous female students attending from across Australia. We also hosted an AIME Program day that saw over 100 Indigenous kids visit AFTRS in October.
We have partnered with a number of organisations to provide short course scholarships and fund community workshops, including Dubbo Filmmakers Group (Regional NSW), Cinespace (VIC) and Wide Angle Tasmania (TAS). Last year we secured five new scholarships for our Award course students: the UNHCR Beddie Scholarship; the Audible Inspiring Voice Scholarship for Women; the Onbass Giant Steps Scholarship; the Commercial Radio Australia scholarship and the AFTRS Equity & Craft Excellence Fee Scholarship.
Outreach activities were impacted by COVID-19. We ran our Talent Camp workshops in partnership with Screen Australia and all state screen agencies, between September and November, with nearly 90 participants. But the National Talent Camp has had to be postponed until safe face-to-face networking, and collaborating can resume.
We continued to build on Media Lab, our online resource for high school students and teachers, and we had over 800 downloads this year, demonstrating the value of this material to teachers and students across the country.
Following last year’s restructure of our courses, we continued to hone our commitment to excellence in practice-based learning through our Bachelor of Arts Screen: Production; a Master of Arts Screen; a Master of Arts Screen: Business & Leadership; and a Graduate Diploma in Radio. This was the first year we had all courses complete their first cycle and this warrants a massive congratulations to staff across the School who worked so hard to continue to enrich and strengthen our courses. Evidence of their success is that our award course applications increased this year, driven by an 8% increase in BA applications.
Alongside our industry partnered training and our newly extended online offering, our Applied Research and Innovation projects have remained a critical part of the support we offer industry. We partnered with those extraordinary innovators Grumpy Sailor to explore alternative forms of script development. Our Re:Frame event in October, on the theme of ‘audience engagement in the attention economy’, had more than 100 people attend and was live-streamed via AFTRS Facebook. Lumina series two podcast was launched at Screen Forever in November and tackled the theme of how to thrive as a creative in Australia’s evolving economy.
First Nations and an Inclusive AFTRS
Underlying everything AFTRS does is our commitment to our First Nations Culture and an inclusive AFTRS. The impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on an Australian conversation about voice and representation has shown us how important it is that our Australian story must be told by many different voices.
In July, AFTRS Indigenous Unit launched its first podcast series Talk Talk: Indigenous Language and Storytelling from a First Nation’s Perspective with an event titled ‘Indigenous Language and Knowledge Keeping’. Our Elder-in-Residence Uncle Bruce Pascoe spoke, and acclaimed filmmaker and AFTRS alumna Rachel Perkins gave an insightful keynote address on the Arrente Women’s Project, which was part of her AFTRS Indigenous Creative Fellowship.
This event was also memorable as it marked the conclusion of Uncle Bruce’s term as our very first Elder-in-Residence. I would like to thank Uncle Bruce for his outstanding support of the School and our Indigenous students. In August, we welcomed Sonia Smallacombe as our new Elder-in-Residence. Sonia, from the Maramanindji people from the Daly River region of the Northern Territory, worked at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations in New York for 12 years and before that, as a senior lecturer in Australian Indigenous Knowledge systems. We are so fortunate to have this extraordinary continuity of First Nations leadership at the School.
Our Indigenous Unit was busy through this period, ensuring our First Nations community here at the School and in industry were supported through the COVID-19 period. We have held a fortnightly series of Indigenous Masterclasses showcasing Indigenous storytelling talent. Prior to COVID-19, we worked with a range of partners, including the Remote Indigenous Media Festival, NITV, the South Australian Film Corporation and Screen Territory, to provide ongoing training and professional development support for First Nations content makers.
This year marked the 3rd anniversary of the Screen Diversity and Inclusion Network (SDIN). During the year the SDIN, with AFTRS’ support, launched The Everyone Project; a tool industry can use to measure and track the diversity of practitioners, both on and off screen, and we are looking forward to continuing to work with our dedicated industry partners to see the impact of this very exciting initiative.
And drawing back the curtain, this period has also seen some exciting advances in our organisation. We have been working hard to generate own-source revenue from our newly revamped corporate program. A highlight for the year was the success of AFTRS’ bid to partner with the Australia Council’s Business Model Innovation (BMI) Lab, with the anticipated rollout later in 2020. Our People & Culture team also, with great prescience, led a whole-of-school flex-working initiative back in January that allowed us to transition to working remotely with incredible ease.
As the new CEO of AFTRS, I am proud to present my first Annual Report and its outcomes. These are a testament to our AFTRS staff who care so deeply about the School and our students. There is a genuine desire here to work together for the common good and to do great work. I would like to extend my thanks to Acting CEOs Dr Georgie McClean and Shomal Parekh. And a heartfelt thank you to all members of Council, the Academic Board and the Finance, Risk and Audit Committee for their ongoing confidence in, and support of, the School and its management.
AFTRS is a unique organisation. We exist to support industry and our telling of the national story. Yes, there are enormous changes going on in the industry, but there is one constant, and that is the importance of story. I am confident AFTRS is providing our creatives with the skills and knowledge they need to tell the Australian story to our nation and to the world.
Dr Nell Greenwood
Australian Film, Television and Radio School
EY, 2018, Can the Universities of Today Lead Learning for Tomorrow? The University of the Future↩