Arts in academia

It is time to cease the experiment. Since the Tasmanian Conservatory of Music merged into the University of Tasmania is 1981, most Australian music schools have followed: Sydney in 1990, the Elder and Queensland Conservatories in 1991 and Canberra in 1992. The VCA fell much later, in 2007. These mergers were part of the ‘Dawkins Revolutions’, in which Hawke’s Education minister John Dawkins also introduced HECS and converted all the Colleges of Advanced Education into Universities. With no transition time, the conservatory was forced to act as a constituent department in a hostile environment.

We all know by now that conservatory education is far more expensive than most university courses. This is true across the world, and various solutions have been found. Harvard maintains its music faculty by running large (and admittedly shallow) courses for undergraduates not majoring in the field. The Eastman School of Music simply charges undergraduates $US 50,000 per year, allowing the school to boast the most prominent faculties in the US.

The ANU School of Music has not been as clever as those overseas. There are no more than a handful of people studying music courses that are not music majors, and obviously the School cannot set its own tuition fees. The logic of having tenured ‘lecturers’ (I use quotation marks, because few of them deliver courses in the usual sense of the word) on senior academic salaries simply to teach a few individual lessons a week, and then perhaps supervise a chamber music group or group class is questionable. In effect, the ANU is subsidising these staff to do very little that is measurable in terms of student outcomes.

The School and the university are fairly immiscible. Since the merger in 1992, students do not need college-level education or a tertiary entrance mark to enrol. Yet they are able to enrol in electives across the university. A lecturer has commented to me in private about the appalling nature of some students’ academic ability. No music student would deny that many of their peers fail courses, especially Languages that are required for singing majors. The new structure assumes an ATAR of at least 80 for admission.

The proposal for the School of Music would make it resemble most other departments in the College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS). Greater emphasis will be placed on inquiry and research – i.e. knowledge. Isn’t the concept of a university qualification for performance a bit odd? There is no guarantee of acquired skills or concepts in graduates from the old structure. Many students are graduating to discover that they have few core skills that may be transferred to a variety of professions – at least a graduate in English or History will have some experience in writing. This is not to deny that music students are learning, just that they cannot prove that they have learnt anything.

This raises further questions about other Arts programmes in the university. Is the place of a university to ‘teach’ Visual Arts or Drama? These are not similar to Public Policy or Classics or indeed any other fields at the ANU. The conservatory is a 19th century invention – previously students studied under a master-apprentice model for a lot longer than three years. Pretending that a three year programme with weekly lessons is the path to elite artistry is a fantasy.

If the Creative Arts schools were separated from CASS, either into professional schools or stand-alone institutions, they would be able to change their funding structure to escape the HECS model, and who knows, they might even break even, and allow prestigious courses (in terms of achievement and research output) to florish.