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.