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ANU School of Music exodus continues amid plans to change degree offerings

A staff exodus continues at the beleaguered Australian National University School of Music as management is now considering a raft of changes to its Bachelor of Music degree "in response to concerns from staff and students".

Another six academic and administrative staff have left or signalled their intention to leave the school after a year of industrial turmoil and the unexpected August departure of Head of School Professor Peter Tregear – who left 18 months before his contract expired.

Harpsichordist and historical musicologist Dr Erin Helyard has accepted a position at the University of Melbourne while popular jazz lecturer Johannes Luebbers is also leaving at the end of the year.

School manager Kathleen Grant left at the end of last month, and education and events coordinator Emma Patterson is also leaving at the end of the year. Student coordinator Harriet Torrens has transferred out of the School of Music.

Senior technical officer Niven Stines has announced his intention to retire at the end of the year.

Despite the university launching an international search for a new head of school, interim head Royston Gustavson has produced an "initial discussion paper on possible revisions to the structure of the Bachelor of Music" which has been given to staff and the ANU Music Student's Association.

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He said the concerns raised "need to be a matter of priority".

"The students raised a number of concerns about the curriculum: the scope of the creative musicianship courses (compulsory for all Bachelor of Music students) being too heavy for the time available to each course, the lack of undergraduate courses in composition, and the restriction of credit to one performance ensemble per semester."

The paper proposes students now complete a minimum of 84 unit points from any of the music courses, down from 96 previously. 

The paper proposes replacing creative musicianship with composition arranging and sound design, abolishing the music research project, abolishing historically informed performance in theory and practice and music and spirituality.

Dr Gustavson clarified on Thursday that "one concern that has arisen is the proposal to disestablish the course Historically Informed Performance in Theory and Practice, which was proposed as the staff member who created and taught the course was no longer available to teach it. However, other staff have now indicated interest in teaching this course, so the next version of the discussion paper will remove the proposal to disestablish it and propose its addition to the performance major".

A new music technology major will be offered, including courses in digital culture, music technology, music recording and production techniques and music and digital media.

The changes have been seen by some academics as broadly following the school's gradual departure from its classical traditions, with senior academic and former punk rocker Dr Samantha Bennett saying in May that the school was moving away from a conservatorium model to have a strong focus on contemporary performance and production.

But Dr Gustavson said: "There is no shift away from classical music. Of the five new courses proposed, none is in popular music. Four are in composition, arranging and sound design and one is an introduction to music technology." 

Students are generally supportive of the changes, believing that by broadening their course offerings outside core music subjects and moving into more "modern" music disciplines, their degrees may be  more relevant to the marketplace.

But the cultural shift, and industrial upheaval over the past year has angered musicologists, with Australia's peak body for music academics taking the unprecedented step of writing to both Chancellor Gareth Evans and Vice-Chancellor Ian Young last month to warn of the damage the ANU was doing to the discipline of musicology nationally.

The Musicological Society of Australia – which is a 260-member professional body representing music scholars, academics and managers – said: "Given that ANU is one of the foremost research universities in Australia, and that it receives National Institute funding, we are concerned about the way in which the university's role in promoting music scholarship and academic training of the highest order in Australia is rapidly diminishing, and consequently its custodial role in matters of cultural heritage."

According to Dr Gustavson in his revision outline "this paper puts forward some possible options to address concerns that have been raised by staff and students, and aims to stimulate discussion on further strengthening the structure of the Bachelor of Music".

"It must be emphasised that the proposals in this paper aim to structure the current content of the BMus in a better way, rather than to make any strategic changes to the content."

The National Tertiary Education Union said it was aware the paper was under discussion but at this stage, "it is unclear what impact of these changes, if approved, may be on staff".