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Music

Jun 22, 2012

Bum notes in Australian music education

The troubles of the Australian National University's music school are merely a symptom of a wider funding problem across the creative arts, write Ben Eltham and Luke Jaaniste.

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The Australian National University’s highly regarded School of Music has money troubles. The university has decided to swing the axe, cutting 13 full-time positions in an attempt to address the school’s $2.9 million annual operating deficit to the university.

The battle over the ANU School of Music has been bitter and hard-fought, with public protests, strikes, the resignation of the head of the department and a huge amount of media coverage (the ABC’s Background Briefing ran a long backgrounder).

ANU vice-chancellor Ian Young has had his work cut out explaining the changes. “Oh, I expected lots of public reaction, because essentially the last two occasions on which there’s been an attempt to restructure the school, the public outcry has been such that there’ve only been quite minor changes,” he told Background Briefing‘s Di Martin. “Did I think [the public reaction] would be quite as large as it has been? No, I didn’t.”

The outcry continues, with the National Tertiary Education Union running a strong campaign against the cuts and against Young personally. The NTEU’s Stephen Darwin points out ANU is running a $82 million surplus and the $1.5 million a year being cut from the School of Music is the same amount of money Young will be spending when he creates a suite of new senior executive posts in the top echelons of ANU management.

Funding crises at creative arts schools in the tertiary sector are nothing new. In recent years we’ve seen serious money troubles at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, and the federally run Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM).

What is it about music and art schools that generates so much passion? And why are so many of them facing budget shortfalls? The short answer is they are very expensive. Teaching students to world-class standards of instrumental ability in one-on-one classes is amazingly expensive in the modern, increasingly corporatised university. So is running small classes teaching students skills such as life drawing, sculpture, dance and acting.

And the amount of funding that Canberra gives to universities for each music or visual art student doesn’t nearly cover these costs. The recent Higher Education Base Funding Review puts visual and performing arts into a cluster of underfunded disciplines, suggesting that the studio-based teaching in the creative arts is akin to the resource load of lab-style teaching in medical and agricultural sciences. The report therefore at least tacitly concedes that the current government funding to creative arts higher education is about half of what they would cost to reasonably deliver.

As a result, most, if not all, creative arts institutions have required significant subsidies from their home faculties and the broader university to survive. As universities have become more careful about their costs and less willing to cross-subsidise their various teaching efforts, these subsidies have been wound back. That’s what’s causing the crisis at places such as ANU.

The problems of our art and music schools actually go back a long way, at least as far as the Dawkins educations reforms of the 1980s. That’s when the art, music and design schools — many of were nominally independent, or belonged to the TAFE system — started amalgamating following the  Dawkins reforms. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, these bolt-on acquisitions were slowly absorbed into central administration of the various universities they ended up inside.

Once amalgamated, those schools were subject to the same logic governing other university teaching decisions. University administrations also started to notice how expensive running a practical arts degree is, compared to a lecture-style degree with hundreds of students in each subject. Not many degree courses have one-to-one ratios of teachers to students, after all.

The ANU School of Music is a good example of this trend. The Canberra School of Music was established in 1965; in 1987, the Canberra School of Music combined with the Canberra School of Art to create the Canberra Institute for the Arts; and in 1992, it became part of the Australian National University. In 2004, the National Institute of the Arts was dissolved, with the Schools of Music and Art becoming part of the ANU faculty of the arts. And now in 2012 the School of Music gets hit with a massive restructure. That’s a two-decade long pendulum swing. The question is, will it keep swinging?

Given the broader pressures on university funding — well covered by a research paper by the so-called Group of 8 established universities — the trend seems set to continue. The paper reckons that Commonwealth funding as a proportion of university revenue dropped from about 50% in 1996 to less than 30% last year. Real Commonwealth funding per student has fallen by about a third since 1996.

What this means, in a nutshell, is that art-at-uni dream is coming to an end in Australia. Clearly, some elite creative schools will still exist. The well-supported Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and National Institute or Dramatic Arts (NIDA), along with ANAM, continue to enjoy elite levels of funding and performance. That’s the thing about the elite schools: they have never been grafted into the university sector, and thus have been protected. (We think someone will notice NIDA and AFRTS one day though — their funding per student is roughly five times what a humanities student receives.)

At the university level, courses such as creative writing will continue to proliferate because they are cheap to run and in demand. But rigorous one-on-one classical music training in solo instruments will probably vanish inside universities. There simply isn’t the funding to support it, particularly given the straightened circumstances many universities find themselves in. As ANU’s Young observed last week, the deficit for the School of Music is as large as the entire annual budget for ANU’s philosophy department, which really is one of the best in the world.

The ANU’s Jonathan Powles also makes a good point in a recent opinion piece, which is that the university conservatoria have antiquated curricula that largely revolve around the training of professional musicians for state-funded orchestras:

“The modern music professional needs to be fluent in a wide variety of styles — classical, jazz, contemporary and cross-cultural. He or she needs to be familiar with a quickly changing range of technologies for the creation, notation, recording, manipulation and dissemination of music.”

In contrast, many music schools curricula haven’t change in half a century.

Nothing lasts forever. Music training has been associated with different institutions and power centres over the years. It will likely do so in one way or another. It’s possible to imagine an elite private music conservatorium in the future, catering to wealthy full-fee-paying students. But the decline of music training in Australian universities is daunting for those whose profession it is. It’s also a problem for those who benefit, directly or indirectly, from university-funded music education — especially the state-funded orchestras, who have enjoyed a constant subsidy for decades in the form of well-trained instrumentalists.

But for musicians working outside of the classical world — techno producers or rappers or noise artists — these changes will have little impact. And for humanities students in faculties that have heavily subsidised their schools, the wind-back might even result in healthier allocations of university resources.

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23 thoughts on “Bum notes in Australian music education

  1. Richard Letts

    There is a lot of misinformation going around concerning this issue – including statements by Jonathan Powles.

    Australian governments, Labor at least, have the laudable aim of encouraging as many people as want it to get a tertiary education. Unfortunately, from Dawkins on, they have not wanted to pay for this ambition, so more students enrol but per capita funding decreases. A couple of weeks ago, the press reported an international assessment that Australian university standards are slipping. This is when we are trying to fill in the tertiary funding gaps by selling education to foreigners, especially those from Asia. Stupid.

    The music schools have been casualties. By some miscalculation 20 or so years ago, they were assigned to a funding cluster (a cluster of disciplines getting a particular level of funding per student) which gave them much less money that it costs to deliver an adequate program. Ever since, they have been beleagured financially. They cannot simply cut their programs to live within budget because the budget is not sufficient to support programs that allow self-respect. They are pushed to cut back, nevertheless. For instance, the number of contact hours per student at the Melbourne University Conservatorium has halved since Dawkins, and still it is in debt. All such schools are sustained by internal subsidies from their universities. The ANU V-C has just decided he will cut that subsidy.

    The graduates of these schools will seek work in what is an international market. That is true, even if they work in Australia. Counterpart institutions overseas have not been subjected to this funding disaster. For instance, funding per student in UK is more than double that in Australia.

    Why shouldn’t our artists be supported to be as good as they can be? Why do we have to prefer the cheap fix?

    You can cite alternative models for music schools and they can be appropriate for achieving different objectives. But the conservatorium of music with a program that includes individual instruction of performers and composers is still the model used internationally for producing the finest performers. It already is weakened here and that puts our students at the low end of a sloping playing field.

  2. Simon

    It is not purely about training professional orchestral musicians. Where do you think all the music teachers come from? Or the community musicians who lead community choirs and bands, or facilitate large community music projects? They all had to be trained somewhere. And to be good at their job, they all first and foremost had to be trained to be good musicians.
    It’s astonishingly ignorant of the courses that actually exist now to claim they are purely about training musicians in the classical tradition. It’s particularly ignorant of the Canberra School of Music, which is well known for it’s jazz program – and jazz-trained musicians don’t just learn to play traditional jazz, they learn fundamental musicianship skills that transfer into any musical genre. My studies at Melbourne included playing jazz and Celtic folk music, studying the various music cultures of the world and learning the analytical tools of what is still unfortunately called ‘ethnomusicology’, and generally managing to successfully complete a degree while avoiding nearly every subject that focused on the core classical repertoire. More importantly, I was able to develop the instrumental proficiency, literacy and aural musicianship which have enabled me to pretty much do all the things Jonathan Powles thinks I should be doing – namely work across a range of genres, in a variety of contexts and roles, and to actively facilitate the music-making of others. I don’t know how anyone can expect musicians to develop this kind of ‘fluency’ if they are not well-trained in musicianship skills.

  3. JonPowles

    Richard Letts wrote:

    “There is a lot of misinformation going around concerning this issue – including statements by Jonathan Powles.”

    This is an extraordinary allegation, given that I have written one single opinion piece on this issue. I can absolutely assure you that the statements I made in that piece were a 100% accurate reflection of my opinion.

    Evert fact I cited was true to the best of my knowledge. I will happily stand corrected if I have made an error.

    Richard, you’re chair of the Music Council of Australia. With that role comes a degree of responsibility, one might think. You need to substantiate the statement that I am responsible for “a lot of misinformation about this issue”, and to apologise, or withdraw it. We’ve had quite enough inflammatory nonsense about this issue without the chair of the MCA to start indulging in gratuitous personal attacks.

    I will also point out two significant errors of fact in your post:

    a) “By some miscalculation 20 or so years ago, they were assigned to a funding cluster … which gave them much less money that it costs to deliver an adequate program.”

    In fact, the assignment to funding clusters occured in 2005. Many fine university music programs are delivered within this level of funding. Are you suggesting that the music degrees from UWA, UNSW, QUT and many other places are “inadequate”?

    b) “Counterpart institutions overseas have not been subjected to this funding disaster. For instance, funding per student in UK is more than double that in Australia”

    Dick, it seems to have slipped your attention that in 2010 following the Browne review the UK Government slashed funding to universities, especially to the arts and humanities. As a consequence, institutions such as the Royal Academy of Music now gets no Government funding whatsoever to support teaching places.

    I would have thought that in your role of MCA chair you’d be keeping up to date on such isues.

  4. JonPowles

    Gavin,

    The relative funding model was significantly modified following Brendan Neslson’s Crossroads review in 2003. The Higher Education Support Act 2003 defined the current funding clusters (see http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2004C04467/b6e541c3-afef-408e-95a8-fb9cbc204dd0 p.41), which came into force for university budgets 2005. The level of financial support for each cluster were in part determined by Nelson’s political agenda for HE: for instance, the very low level of CGS support received by Law was to encourage universities to create larger numbers of domestic full-fee places in that discipline.

    I remember thinking at the time that the creative and performing arts had been reasonably well served by the new clusters, especially in comparison to the arts and humanities more broadly.

    Whether they are subsidied by their universities or not, it’s my belief that UNSW, UWA and QUT music programs (as examples) could be delivered within budget. Let me hasten to add I have no direct evidence for this . However, I have spent the last six months working on a music curriculum for ANU that can be, and spent a great deal of time looking at curricula from other institutions. My point is, it’s certainly possible to deliver high-quality music courses within the level of Government funding available. Things are tight, make no mistake. But things are tight for all the arts and humanities. And whether such a program is “elite” is not for me to judge; nor, personally, is it something I have much investment in.

    Yes, the Browne review cuts applied only to England. While we are on this topic, it’s interesting to reflect that England has a similar number of conservatoire-style music schools to that in Australia.

  5. Jonathan Powles

    Thanks for the clarification re Crossroads. I guess the fundamental point is that the funding level for performing arts is 1.6 times the base: high enough to be the envy of most of the arts and humanities but not high enough to fund the “elite” performance education on which the traditional conservatorium curriculum is predicated.

    And let me hasten to clarify: while I do believe that high-quality university music education is sustainable within existing funding levels, I don’t think that the traditional conservatorium model can be delivered with these resources. Certainly, I know of no conservatorium in Australia that operates without considerable subsidy.

    There are around 5000 music students at Australian universities at any one time. They all receive the same amount of Commonwealth support; around $11,200 per annum. For me the real questions are these: is this amount enough to fund the requirements for “elite” performance? Should we publicly fund “elite” performance at all? If so, to what extent? From what budget allocation (higher education or arts)? How many of these 5000 students are genuinely “elite”? How do we identify them? How many institutions can be suited to fund “elite” performance? And how do we define “elite” in the first place, and is it still reasonable aesthetically to link the notion of “elite” to the classical tradition? What should we do for the “elite” death metal guitarist?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions. What alarms me is that we don’t seem to be able to even address them in public debate without superficiality and rancour.

  6. Gavin Moodie

    @ Jonathan Powles

    I agree with all of that with 1 minor qualification with which I conclude this post, and add that there are similar debates in most disciplines.

    For example, the University of Melbourne’s teacher education program has a relatively high level of clinical experience which is closely supervised by expert teachers in schools and by distinguished academics on campus. It can demonstrate that it is markedly better than other teacher education programs. (Incidentally, the elite performing and visual arts schools find it very hard to demonstrate their excellence beyond listing their famous alumni.) Yet the University of Melbourne’s teacher education program is much more expensive than other teacher education programs and is probably more expensive than the Commonwealth’s funding rate.

    The base funding review recommended that universities be allowed to designate up to 5% of their student load in what they called ‘flagship programs’ which would be funded 50% higher than the standard rate for their discipline. This seems to me an excellent recommendation for several reasons and I am surprised that it has encountered so much resistance from some higher education colleagues.

    Even if the Australian Government were to establish flagship programs it is not obvious to me that ANU would designate music as a flagship program. Other strong contenders are Asian studies, law and medicine, and presumably ANU college deans would urge several other worthy candidates.

    The Australian Government’s contribution for visual and performing arts (and clinical psychology and foreign languages) is $11,243 in 2012. To that should be added students’ contributions (Hecs) of $5,648, giving total funding to the university of $16,891 per equivalent full time student. About half of that is typically available to schools in many universities: I’m not familiar with the arrangements at the ANU.

  7. Jaaniste Luke

    Thanks for the comments and extra information given here, Richard, Gavin, Jonathan and others.

    What’s clear is that it is not the fate of music education per se that’s at stake, but the fate of a particular type of music education, namely the conservatorium approach.

    I think this is an important distinction to tease out, and that’s where we get some more level-headed perspectives, some of them teased out in the comments above. It’s not often remarked, but there are many modes of teaching for the creative arts, each with their own traditions, economies, career possibilities, skill bases, goals and criteria, sacred cows and so on. (And, in what’s remarkably pertinent to this issue with ANU and arts-training-at-universities in general, is that they all cost a different amount to deliver!)

    So music is a domain of activity, for which there are many modes of training/education, geared to different things. Based on some ongoing research of my own, I think there’s a least three studio-based teaching modes (expert performance, open creativity, technical proficiency) three professional modes (arts educators, cultural entrepreneurs, and reflective professionals) as well as more traditional humanities/liberal arts scholarship and theory. I’ve experienced many of them first- and second-hand myself, having studied composition and then musicology at the Queensland Conservatorium in the late 1990s, and more recently doing postgrad and postdoc research at QUT’s Creative Industries Faculty which has a very broad range of disciplines and fairly wide range of teaching modes, whilst also gaining the insights of close colleagues from other universities.

    I think it’s fair enough to say that the conservatorium style has for many decades and even centuries been part of the mode of training for expert performance/skills that happens across performing arts, sports, and some fine arts, culinary arts and martial arts. As @Lisa_Donna states, “music education [I think she’s referring to conservatoires] at university level is about more than just the one on one class (though they are important”. That’s true, but for conservatories, the training of expert performers is what’s most important — terms like ‘world class’, ‘producing the finest performers’ (@Richard Letts), ‘virtuosos’, ‘high-level’ etc have gotten used a lot in this debate for those that value this mode of training in the debate around ANU along with what has happened with VCA and now we find over the weekend it’s also a hot topic at WAAPA.

    And the time-honoured format for achieving expert perfomrance is the one-on-one coaching/practice session, along with the group master-class. Take that away, and you take away the conservatorium. What you have left, is all the other supporting modes of teaching, now taking centre stage. Music theory/history/musicology as the liberal arts/humanities scholarship mode, yes. Training for classroom music educators, yes. Some business skills and real-world enterprise learning, yes (something happening more often these days). You could even have training of music performers, but now at the level of baseline proficiency, rather than high-level virtuosity.

    I’m trying to make some analytical observations here. Which is important I think because the differences in pedagogical modes can sometimes be reduced to simply a different in cost, rather than a difference in what can be achieved, how and why. As @Richard Lett’s said, “You can cite alternative models for music schools and they can be appropriate for achieving different objectives.”

    But simply mapping out differences doesn’t produce moral arguments of value. Just because something exists doesn’t per se mean it should be supported, or not, in certain contexts. Likewise, just because certain modes cost more than others to deliver, doesn’t mean that we should, or indeed should not, fund it to those levels.

    What’s the argument to be had?

    Many in the arts sector promote various arguments-for-support that are variations on the art-is-awesome theme. It helps economies, social welfare and cohesion, community development, personal development, spiritual awakening, or whatever. I think art is awesome, and devote a lot of my time to being an artist and part of artistic communities, some of it at low or no pay (composer, sound artist, writer, audience, listening etc). But I’m not sure that sure arguments are really going to get any traction with VCs and the public servants and politicians that decide the fate of university funding models – except for those that are already art lovers (which may not be many). It is simply not in the brief of VCs to love/support/privilege one discipline area. They are charged to delver university charters within budgetary and legal frameworks. They could well say: yes, art is awesome, but it just can’t fit into the frameworks that we must operate in. Then what?…

    I think @Jonathan Powles is asking a pertinent question with ““How many institutions are suitable to be funded to deliver “elite” performance?”. If we use a direct labour force argument, as per @Gavin, then the answer might not be many, but perhaps more than just the minimum; it’s takes training a broader pool of talent to find the ones that will go one and use their talent (the Australian Institute of Sport does not limit it’s intake of athletes to the number that will only make it as full-time professionals). But @Simon and @Lisa argued for something that is like a ‘multiplier effect of human capital’ to use some jargon. For every world-class touring virtuoso, there are many music teachers, community music leaders etc etc, and many of them have been trained at conservatoriums. This diverse ecology of activity is vital for a thriving music sector, the way grass roots activity is vital for sports, so on and so forth. But the question here is whether one needs conservatorium-style music education to achieve these multipliers and spill-overs. It’s hard to really know, because how would we test such a proposition excerpt to run a full-scale rolling social experiment? – ie, we could actually try it, but the changes are so great that whatever is trialled becomes the dominant modes. Get rid of conservatoriums and it’s not like they are going to come back in any hurry. In fact, that could be the experiment Australia is conducting at the moment (and in breaking news, WAAPA seems like the next test case).

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