Declining Government Funding

Many universities in Australia offer music degrees at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and while it may seem from the outside that things are moving along nicely, the tertiary music education sector is facing serious challenges. An ongoing concern is the level of government funding for tertiary music. It is well known inside the sector that the level of funding is below the actual cost of the training for young musicians.

In many cases the finger is pointed at the very expensive one-on-one instrumental teaching in music performance, which places music departments in a difficult financial position. The need for a university to cross-subsidise its music programs creates tensions with those parts of the university that have to make up the funding shortfall. This often results in pressure on music departments to reduce their spending. The options for such a reduction are limited and include the offering of non-performance streams, such as music technology, that promise to be financially more viable. Music technology can be taught more easily in groups and requires less one-to-one lessons than music performance. However, music technology students might perceive an equity issue when they compare their group classes with the one-to-one lessons enjoyed by performers.

Also along the lines of diversification is the option of offering music courses that integrate the teaching of a range of different music skills. So rather than being specifically trained to become a performer, music students would learn about such things as music business, concert management, music technology, together with more traditional options like music composition, music theory and musicology. The obvious risk here is to offer courses that lack focus and create the proverbial Jack-of-all-trades.

Another frequently made suggestion is to reduce the number of one-to-one lessons offered to performance students during a semester. Understandably, many performance teachers are critical of this because they are concerned about a drop in standards. A more radical idea is to make all one-to-one lessons private, that is, one would expect performance and composition students to pay for these lessons themselves. A music course would then only include such things as lectures in music history and music appreciation, music theory classes, ensemble studies, and a selection of music electives.

Given the trend of consecutive governments to reduce rather than increase university funding, the financial pressure is not likely to go away in the future. This cannot be healthy, even if the need to reduce cost might in some instances lead to innovations in the delivery of music programs, such as online music theory and ear training or video conferencing for performance classes.

Grant Regulations versus Pure Research

Another challenge for music at universities is the trend of increased government regulation of tertiary education, mainly in the form of competitive grants that academics are expected to apply for on a regular basis. The enormous amount of time spent on grant writing is one obvious issue here. Less obvious but equally problematic is the need to come up with projects that are geared towards the government’s grant categories and specific funding objectives.

Not everyone’s research matches these objectives. Music academics who specialise in performance and composition are at a particular disadvantage because the Australian Research Council rarely funds practice-based projects in which the focus is largely on non-traditional research outcomes such as creative work and performances. Even though there has been a proliferation of practice-based research over recent years in terms of the actual programs offered in non-text-based research, musicologists with their focus on written publications are still more likely to attract large grants.

This situation mirrors the broader decline in support for pure research and an increased emphasis on industry-linked projects that promise instantly tangible results. And yet it is well documented that pure research conducted without clearly defined outcomes has often led to the most significant breakthroughs in unexpected ways.

There is also the government’s desire to evaluate the quality and impact of Australian research against national and international benchmarks. This means that university administrations and individual academics have to engage regularly in the collection and documentation of large numbers of research outcomes in order to demonstrate that their research meets the required standards. The time it takes to collect, document, explain and justify one’s research outcomes is significant.

Academic Freedom and University Rulebooks

University administration and management are yet another challenge. The desire to make academics more accountable has led to a range of time-consuming activities that have little or nothing to do with music. These include elaborate professional development plans, which are often in a generic format that can be in an oblique relationship to the nature of an academic’s teaching and research activities. For example, music performers and composers need to respond very flexibly to opportunities that might arise overnight. They would therefore find it difficult to be locked into a three-year, or even a one-year plan, that might have been based largely on speculation in the first place. Similarly, the so-called chief performance indicators are often defined generically with traditional rather than practice-based research in mind. This can result in lengthy processes to establish equivalence between different activities and outcomes.

University administrations also tend to be mindful of delivering their teaching programs in a standardised fashion and consequently require academics to follow prescribed rules of teaching and assessment. Again, these requirements are often generic and individual academics might spend a lot of hours to adjust their teaching, which is often based on many years of experience, in order to comply with an ever-changing set of rules about contact hours, nature of delivery, nature of assessment, timing of assessment, timing of feedback to students, and so on. A number of excellent music teachers leave universities because of this trend alone.

These and many other administrative initiatives have over the years resulted in an inevitable increase of administrative staff employed at universities. One of Australia’s major universities has recently announced a sizeable reduction in their administrative staff, which has been lamented and quickly placed in relation to the budgetary challenges facing the university sector.

One of the perceived corollaries of this reduction is the increase of administrative work academics now have to accomplish themselves. I am actually not too sure whether this necessarily follows, or whether the university in question might have identified ways to eliminate some of the redundancies in the administrative superstructure that has sprawled over the years. Maybe this adjustment is also about re-addressing the balance between teaching and research, which taxpayers rightly expect to be funded, and the administrative apparatus required to support those activities.

Australia’s Cultural Identity

Finally there is the deeper societal issue of cultural illiterateness in a country that has often been called a sporting nation. Success in sport can be measured by the number of medals and games won in any given season, and many Australians might define their cultural identity not so much in terms of artistic endeavour but in terms of the number of goals scored by their favoured team. That leaves music to be largely treated as a form of entertainment rather than as a serious art form that expresses how we feel and who we are. So when we talk about a social contract between tertiary music institutions and Australian society, we need to consider ways to understand and hopefully increase music’s cultural and existential traction.

In other words, tertiary music institutions have to address fundamental questions about music’s meaning and role in society, and they need to equip students with the intellectual tools to find answers to these questions. This is particularly crucial in the light of an increasing diversification of musical styles, performance practices, and modes of music dissemination. Of course, performance skills and a deep knowledge of performance traditions will remain a vital part of tertiary music education for years to come, but the decisions about which skills and traditions to include in any given curriculum are best guided by an understanding of how music students might keep their music making relevant beyond their university years.


Thomas Reiner, Brunswick, July 2014. Entered on Knowledge Base 3 October 2014.

Associate Professor, Monash University. Also a composer winning many international and national awards.

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