By Miranda Wilson

Australian colleagues are outraged at the news that the Australian National University is restructuring its School of Music. Prompted by a large budget deficit, ANU administrators have decided on a “curriculum change” that apparently discontinues the performance-based Bachelor of Music programme in the hopes of attracting more enrolments from a significantly different demographic. This change enables them–surprise!–to cut around half their music teaching jobs.

At first I thought the new degree programme must be modelled on the British university-based music degree which, as opposed to the conservatory degree in applied music, focuses on academic music subjects such as musicology and analysis. ANU students, like British university students, will have a “professional development allowance” to take performance lessons with outside teachers, presumably in the form of reimbursements. But that’s where the similarities end.

The vice-chancellor of the university claims that the new degree will better equip students for a career in music.

“The new program acknowledges the fact that successful 21st century music professionals engage in a broad range of activities as they build their careers,” he said.

“They need to be highly-skilled creative artists, who are business and technology savvy, with entrepreneurial skills and a good basis in teaching practice.”

This goal, couched in blandly unspecific terms, seems unobjectionable enough, but there’s more:

The University has said that it expects a “significant” increase in the number of students at the School due to the changes. Currently around 260 students study at the School. Last year the school accepted less than 100 students from more than 500 applicants. Professor Walter conceded that the changes may mean that the School will enroll students with lower standards of music performance.

They said that the changes may allow people from rural and regional areas or lower socioeconomic status backgrounds who have been denied high-quality musical education to enroll in the new programme.

So: drastically enlarge the faculty-to-student ratio and lower the standards? I don’t, in theory, disapprove of opening university doors to those lacking a musical background, because some of the finest musicians of my acquaintance came from remote areas and had no good pre-university music teaching. But I wonder how ANU plans to get its students to professional standard when it has simultaneously banished half its faculty and ensured that students can only have approximately half the number of one-on-one performance lessons offered in the current degree course. (Furthermore, how do we know that the sacked faculty will stay in the area? Who will teach the students if all the music teachers are gone?)

I’m also bemused by the stated goal of producing music educators, journalists, and administrators when it’s pretty difficult to become any of these things without a high standard of training in the actual practice of music. If the ANU administrators looked beyond their own spreadsheets for a moment, they might observe that the lucky few music graduates who make it in the profession are already doing all of these things. When times are hard for gigging freelancers, a private teaching studio or a part-time job as an itinerant school music teacher can be their bread and butter. Many musicians, myself included, write about music to supplement their income. And anyone self-managing a performing career knows all about music business and administration, since oftentimes, for lack of funds to pay anyone else, we have to be our own manager, publicist, book-keeper, travel agent, fundraiser, grant-writer and accountant.

I’m not saying universities shouldn’t offer courses in these subjects, but it sounds as if ANU is putting the cart before the horse in a well-meaning but ultimately misguided attempt to cut costs. I can only hope that the head of the School of Music and the vice-chancellor will recognize before it’s too late that once they destroy what they have, there will be no getting it back.


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