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NMIT runs a ruler over Swinburne

Paul Isbel

NMIT is running a ruler over plans to develop an arts precinct in Prahran on the Swinburne campus site.
NMIT runs a ruler over Swinburne
Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE is running a ruler over plans to develop an arts precinct in Prahran on the Swinburne campus site.

Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT) is the likely buyer of the Swinburne University of Technology Prahran campus site in Melbourne. The sale would be a beautiful solution for both institutions, Swinburne because it has creative and performing arts TAFE courses at Prahran that would have to find a new home should the sale proceed, and NMIT because it has to relocate sound production students when it sells its Greensborough campus.

After a year of uncertainty, Swinburne broke the news on Twitter on March 26: ‘Swinburne has now entered into a due diligence phase with NMIT over its interest in acquiring all or part of the Prahran campus.’ Although the statement identified a suitable suitor for Swinburne, speculation still swirled about the future of theatre arts courses at Swinburne TAFE and the long-term prospects of the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) that has its purpose-built campus on the Prahran site.

Swinburne's head of corporate and government affairs Andrew Dempster confirmed the talks in an email to ArtsHub. ‘Swinburne is currently in discussions with the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT) around the future of theatre arts courses at Prahran, and NMIT’s interest in the campus as a whole,’ he said.’ We have welcomed NMIT’s interest in developing an arts precinct at Prahran and are assisting NMIT with information as they conduct a proper due diligence on the opportunities for them on this campus.’

The prospects of an arts precinct hadn’t been in the news mix before but it does make sense and gives fresh hopes to the theatre arts students who had concerns about their Certificate IV and diploma courses at Prahran. The NMIT Performing Arts Department offers music, performance, music business management, sound production and television and video production out of its principal location at the Fairfield campus, with music also offered at its Greensborough campus and television production at Collingwood.

NMIT Communications Officer James Gardener couldn’t be specific but he did confirm that the Prahran campus was in the frame for arts courses. ‘NMIT is still pursuing the potential acquisition of the former Swinburne site at Prahran,’ he said. ‘If we are successful, some programs would relocate to Prahran, with a focus on vocational arts training.’ And the Theatre  Arts courses? ‘We don’t have a lot of detail, they may well continue but all that is yet to be considered.’

The Prahran site is the home of the David Williamson Theatre. The theatre diploma is one of only a few in Australia that offers a combination of stage design, lighting and scriptwriting. Courses cover theatre arts, live performance, dance, costume and make-up. Their funding almost halved this year to $1.8 million.

As it looks at buying one campus, NMIT is selling another, though that is still to be a done deal. ‘Greensborough is under review,’ said Gardener. ’It is having valuations for a potential sale.’ If it does, 450 students will have to complete their courses on its Collingwood and Preston campuses. Whatever NMIT might get for Greensborough could go to the prospective purchase of Prahran, which comes with a likely tag of $50 million.

NICA complicate matters even more. It has been a wholly owned by Swinburne as a subsidiary company since 1999. The university supported the elite circus training institution with in-kind services most recently valued at $700,000 a year. When former federal Arts Minister Simon Crean announced $3.092 million over four years for NICA in his Creative Australia national cultural policy package in March, the funds would seem to carry those costs for that time while NICA developed its own in-house expertise or found other service providers. If NMIT did want to develop an arts precinct in Prahran, NICA could well be a prominent part of that.

A new constitution separates NICA from Swinburne this year. Last December, the Swinburne Academic Senate endorsed a new accreditation for the Bachelor of Circus Arts that will be implemented in 2014. Students enrolled in existing courses have a bridging program this year to take them through to the new associate degree and degree courses. Joining the dots connecting funding and courses, NICA would seem to be safe where it is at least until the end of 2017.

There are a lot of balls to juggle with the Greensborough site yet to be sold, negotiations continuing at Swinburne and courses being reaccredited and relocated, but the smoke of speculation is clearing. It may become clearer still in a month or two. ‘The due diligence should be complete by the middle of the year as a loose time frame,’ James Gardener said. ‘Then the decision sits with Swinburne and the government.’

About the author

Paul Isbel taught at primary and secondary level in government and private schools and has worked in teacher education at tertiary level. He has worked in online publishing since 1997.