The Future of the School of Music – Andrew Podger's report and ANU's response

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Last Tuesday the 4th October, Vice Chancellor Schmidt came to the School of Music to discuss ANU’s response to Andrew Podger’s extensive community consultation into the degree structure and operations of the school.  Joining him was outgoing interim Head of School, Will Christie, and the incoming interim Head of School, Malcolm Gillies, a former student of the school and a former Deputy Vice Chancellor of the ANU. Having no permanent Head of School since August 2015, the school has been in operational turmoil.

VC Schmidt presented a list of 26 recommendations for the future of the school, the core of which involved; ensuring the Head of School more autonomy from the College of Arts and Social Sciences; the abolition of the Personal Development Allowance (PDA); and a return to the employment of dedicated performance based teaching staff. Everyone in attendance agreed that the loss of teaching staff in favour of a PDA system – where performance students find their own instrument teacher privately and purchase individual lessons – had largely failed, and was a major influence in the mass exodus of students since 2013.

Even More noticeable than the decline in funding and staff has been the decline in student enrolments. Having started my first year as a jazz trumpet player in 2012, I have witnessed this mass exodus first hand. In my first year there were roughly five or six trumpet players in the jazz stream, and a similar number in the classical stream. Today, I am the only trumpet player currently enrolled at the school.

As I watched students leave the school at an alarming rate, I was not immune to give in to the temptation. In December 2012, I took a trip to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to audition for the Bachelor of Music program. As I sat down with other prospective students to take the required diagnostic test, I noticed that a large number of fellow ANU students were also in the room. Naturally, those who leave the ANU School of Music seek enrolment at more attractive institutions around the country – but this is further exacerbating the issue in Canberra. Plus, there have not been enough new enrolments to replace the number of students who are graduating – enrolments were as low as 10 students last year and roughly 15 this year. Even with the best of intentions, it is not possible to offer new programs and courses, and separate streams for different areas of specialisation, if there are insufficient student numbers. The biggest challenge, therefore, remains increasing the size of the student body – which cannot happen until the school regains at least some of its former reputation, or without significant time and investment.

In Podger’s report he outlined two proposed options for the school. The first option includes an elite performance stream with advanced programs and regular visits from top performers, both domestically and internationally. The second option is a somewhat scaled back version of the first, and would see a medium sized expansion of performance programs and staff, and a strong focus on related disciplines of music composition, technology and musicology. Everyone agreed that the first option was highly favoured, but in order to be implemented, an additional $800,000 per year will need to be obtained from sources outside the university – most likely coming from the ACT Government and various community organisations.

If achieved, this would see a return of the significant government contributions made to the school prior to 1998, which were paid in recognition of the community outreach of the school, the school’s contribution to creative arts across Canberra, and also as a leftover legacy of the school’s history as an independent autonomous institution before it was handed over to ANU in 1992.  As commonwealth cluster funding is largely insufficient for music performance, declining subsidies from the government have, at present, been met by cross-subsidies from the university. Following the meeting on Tuesday, ACT Labor has pledged $250,000 in funding if they are re-elected on the 15th, and has promised to provide assistance in reaching out to community organisations for the remaining $550,000.

In short, it seems that all concerned parties would like to see the school’s reputation rebuilt, a return to healthy student enrolments and a strong performance program – this will take many years to fully achieve, and largely depends on external factors. Only time will tell, but hopefully, the next generation of students will, one day, be proud to study at the ANU School of Music.