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It’s time for tertiary music education to change its tune

A broad crisis of confidence has, it seems, beset tertiary music education in Australia. Since returning from Europe in 2006, I have witnessed turmoil of often existential proportions erupt in several…

Tertiary music education is currently in a state of crisis. AAP Image/Paul Miller

A broad crisis of confidence has, it seems, beset tertiary music education in Australia. Since returning from Europe in 2006, I have witnessed turmoil of often existential proportions erupt in several of our major tertiary-level teaching institutions. More recently I was appointed to the helm of what was for a short time one of the most troubled of them all, the School of Music at the Australian National University.

At the time I was asked by many of my colleagues why I would take on such a position — it was clear to me, however, that the problems that I faced there were essentially no different to those besetting the rest. Turning down the challenge that ANU presented would have been tantamount to giving up on the whole enterprise.

Consider, for instance, the fact that in 2011 the Gonski Review of primary and secondary school education declared that Australia was a country in general educational decline, and noted a:

significant gap between its highest and lowest performing [pre-tertiary] students … far greater in Australia than in many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, particularly those with high-performing schooling systems.

Those students are then encouraged to enter a higher education system itself acknowledged to be under great structural and financial strain.

The roots of the current crisis

We could choose to understand this situation very broadly and recognise something of what Frederic Jameson famously called (appropriately enough in 1984) the “cultural logic of late capitalism”. That is, we should not be surprised to find institutions such as universities in a state of nigh constant crisis as it reflects, according to Jameson and others, a condition inherent to the political and economic order we now inhabit.

We do not need to subscribe to any grand socio-economic theory, however, to recognise that such a state of ongoing crisis can also serve as an effective, albeit crude, form of personnel management. Academic workforces, once proudly anarchic (albeit within tacitly accepted cultural limits), are liable to become much more acquiescent when placed under the panopticon-like gaze of senior university administrators with ever-tightening budgets to balance.

Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Wikimedia Commons

In Australia, however, the ultimate blame is most commonly laid at the feet of the so-called Dawkins Reforms in Higher Education in 1988.

A wide-ranging set of changes to the way tertiary education was structured, one of its most overt consequences was the amalgamation of colleges of advanced education, teachers colleges, and other vocational institutions (including most of the nation’s once-independent conservatoires) with universities. Former head of the Queensland Conservatorium (which merged with Griffith University) Peter Roennfeldt has noted elsewhere that:

some institutions and their leaders are struggling with an internal culture that was formulated during the [pre-Dawkins] era.

But universities too suffered. The resultant confusion in the public’s (and policy maker’s) mind between humanities education and vocational training has led to an inexorable devaluing of the former in favour of a utilitarian attitude towards education in general. According to its harshest critics, the Dawkins Reforms drove the stake of corporate managerialism into the heart of academe.

The challenge for tertiary music education

Performing arts-related schools and departments such as music have come under particular stress in the intervening years principally because of the size of gap that exists between the cost of delivering such courses as they have been traditionally understood and the income government provides to deliver them.

This situation, of course, has its origins in a series of policy decisions (rarely, however, the focus of informed public debate) around how funds are allocated to universities in the first place (principally via the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, or CGS), and then how universities decide to distribute and internally “tax” them.

Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

University departments have ended up in internal competition with each other, scrambling for their slice of a budgetary pie that seems ever to be shrinking while more and more need to feed off it. That we have thereby arrived at a culture of internal competition in universities will be music to the ears of an economic rationalist, the results, however, are anything but rational, if only we are willing and able to critique them.

It is understandable that music schools and the like focus on such internal institutional stresses as the primary source of their woes, but they run the risk of conceding the field upon which the battle for their future really needs to be fought, which is the broader societal one. As John Holden, an associate at the independent UK-based think tank Demos wrote:

How many people are sitting at their desks with a tune going round their heads? Why then does government cling to the notion that arts and culture are just about “leisure” and “recreation”, and only happen after the real business of the day is done? This is nonsense and does not reflect lived experience. Yet the government insists that culture can be confined to the smallest ministry with the smallest budget.

To put it another way, the size and manner of distribution of university funding is ultimately a matter of value judgement or, if you like, politics in perhaps its highest form, not management.

The value of music education

The fundamental question we have to address is not, then, financial. It is why what we study and do matters to Australian society at large. Answering such a question, after all, used to be what the arts and humanities did. They helped us understand how we define ourselves, and how we express ourselves through cultural choices.

The ultimate threat to traditionally conceived tertiary music education is, in fact, not to be found within universities and their custodianship of now-subsumed conservatoires. It is in the failure to address the fact that the cultural capital we used to accord the kinds of disciplines and art forms central to a traditional conservatorium education seems to be inexorably declining.

In an article for the Chifley Research Centre last year, for instance, the former leader of the Federal Labor Party, Mark Latham opined that:

[B]y any objective test, classical music, opera and ballet are insufferably boring. They have no social worth other than in the treatment of sleeping disorders. But that’s how the elites like it, safe in the knowledge that people below their station in society are unlikely to join them in the jewellery-rattling rows of the Opera House. Their abstraction from “ordinary people” is secure.

To be sure, Mark Latham is not a source we would generally turn to for moderate commentary, but it would be a mistake, all the same, to dismiss what he says outright. At the very least we should acknowledge, as Ben Eltham did in Crikey, that audiences for this kind of music are not, it appears, growing; and “our nation’s largest orchestras, operas and theatre companies face significant challenges in maintaining and renewing their audiences in the coming decades”.

Can the Australian Ballet, here rehearsing Paquita at the Sydney Opera House, maintain its audience? AAP Image/Jane Dempster

No surprise, then, that today we rarely see, or read a media report of, a senior politician of either of the major political parties attending a symphony concert or opera house. We have drifted very far in a very short space of time, it seems, from the days when a Labor leader, indeed a former prime minister, could declare that he had “reformed the Australian economy on Mahler and Bruckner”!

Instead, in the post GFC world, our public life is largely dominated by economic (and certainly not aesthetic) discourse. Such a state of affairs only serves, among other things, to underline how impotent the arts, and particularly music, now seem to be.

Classical music and modern jazz can appear to have little to say to, or about, contemporary Australian life, while popular music can by the same token appear to have little to offer by way of a critique of it.

And both the old and new musical traditions can be seen to perpetuate problematic conceptions of class, race, and gender, as well as exclusive and exclusionary subcultures. If, however, Jameson and others are right, and it is not just our economy but our culture itself that is dramatically changing around us, what do musicians, and above all those in tertiary music education, have to contribute to it, or say about it?

And if we don’t like what we find, what — indeed — we hear, what are we going to do about it?

Regaining a sense of purpose

An underlying premise of my Platform Paper is that if tertiary music education is to remain relevant and flourish in such dynamic times, then we who deliver it need firstly to move beyond a default position of victimhood, from a stance that suggests that musicians can be at best only passive observers of both departmental and broader societal change. For, how are we going to give our students a sense of agency in the world if we don’t act as if we have it ourselves?

Currently, however, our music faculties seem to have arrived at a point of crisis without a clear purpose. We all know things are not working, but, beyond the usual complaints of a lack of government funding, we are not clearly articulating why, or – more particularly – why our fate should matter to those not otherwise interested in music at all. We know why it matters to us more immediately; we have jobs to keep, administrative targets to meet, students to recruit, and so on.

Opera Australia rehearses La Traviata in 2012. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

But we also know, even if we rarely declare it, that just maintaining the status-quo will not be enough to trade ourselves out of our difficulty, or reaffirm our claim on an increasingly stretched, and sceptical, public purse.

We need, instead, to rearticulate and reformulate the case for such funding. To my mind, the case must start with a refocusing and re-energising of music’s potential to play a role in the broader mission of the humanities to sustain civil society, no less. Our key educational challenge will then be to find a sustainable accommodation between the obligation we have as educators to engage with the rapidly changing broader cultural and political circumstances of today, while at the same time preserving, and where necessary defending, what we believe to be the core values (technical, ethical, aesthetic etc.) of our discipline.

While the solutions arrived at at ANU of course reflect in part circumstances peculiar to the Australian Capital Territory, they are also responses to questions that I think all Australian tertiary music institutions will in some form need to address.

Ultimately, I would suggest that if universities across the nation are to continue to affirm and commit (both financially and culturally) to higher education in music there is an urgent need to become advocates, as the ANU has been doing, for not just about how, but also why, we teach music on campus.


This is an extract from Platform Papers 38, Enlightenment or Entitlement: Rethinking tertiary music education, by Peter Tregear. It is published by Currency House.