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.

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. Gavin Moodie

    I thank Eltham and Jaaniste for this informative piece which puts the issues in perspective.

    Elite ‘arts training bodies’ (as the Department calls them) are funded by the Australian Office for the Arts which is currently in the Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport. The Office currently funds the Australian National Academy of Music in South Melbourne and the Australian Youth Orchestra in Sydney.

    I suggest the issue is whether Australia should have more than 2 elite music schools. Others are more expert than I, but I understand that state-funded orchestras are not increasing in size or performance schedules, and there was a recommendation to cut the size of at least 1 orchestra. Further, I understand that the competition for jobs as professional classical and other musicians is intense. If this is true there is no labour force justification for an elite music school in each city.

    There are of course cultural and other benefits of elite music schools, but this argues for the schools to be funded by the Office for the Arts, not by the education portfolio. Or to put the point the other way, if a university music school wants elite funding it needs to get funding from the Office for the Arts, not seek ever increasing cross subsidies from other schools in the university.

  3. deccles

    What’s the point of having tertiary music education departments when secondary music is being slashed and burned at an alarming rate in all states and territories?

    It was only a matter of time before Canberra was closed or amalgamated as has befallen the VCA in Melbourne.

    Frankly the tyranny of distance for tertiary study is no longer such a big deal. Our best students are on the whole already heading to tertiary institutions in Europe and the US and this closure will just accelerate that trend.

  4. Gavin Moodie

    ANU isn’t closing its school of music, just keeping it within the funding it attracts from the Australian Government.

    Tertiary music schools are worthwhile regardless or perhaps in spite of what is happening to secondary music education, similarly with university languages schools.

  5. 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.

  6. Gavin Moodie

    Music teachers can continue to be trained by non elite university music schools, just as science and humanities teachers are trained by non elite university science and humanities schools.

  7. Simon

    *what* other music schools? Victoria used to have eight tertiary campuses offering music – now there are only two

  8. Gavin Moodie

    If you want to train music teachers and community music performers and leaders what is important is not the number of music schools but their number of students. 1 music school is quite enough for Victoria, just as Victoria is served well by 1 dental school, 1 veterinary school, 1 school of mining engineering, etc.

  9. Richard Edlin

    Of course there’s no money for music; it’s all going to sport institutes to get Olympic gold.

  10. Simon

    Given the shortage of competent qualified music teachers in this state (to take just that example), clearly what we currently have is not enough, let alone cutting it in half again, or increasing the number of students within a school if the problem of the funding available per student is not solved.

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