Irate School of Music students jeered the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Ian Young, at crisis talks between management, students and staff on Thursday.
University management was called to directly address the school community's questions over the shock loss of its head, Professor Peter Tregear, last month as well as its toxic senior management culture, staff churn, course and subject disarray and a failure of quality assurances which was having an adverse impact on students' stress levels and their ability to complete their degrees.
Professor Young was asked by one student to personally "apologise for the chaos of the last few years", including the treatment of Professor Tregear, who had 18 months to go on his contract but is widely believed to have been pushed out of the university after he mounted a campaign to secure more staff and resources for the school.
Budget and staff cuts, which were introduced by Professor Young in 2012, have seen staff and student numbers dwindle to the point where one student suggested the first-year intake for next year would be lucky to reach 10 students.
Numbers have already plummeted to just 30 new enrolments this year – down from 100 before the reforms were announced.
But staff numbers – and the high number of staff taking stress leave or moving out of the ANU altogether – appeared to be one of the most urgent issues confronting the university
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Marnie Hughes-Warrington said she had only become aware of "some critical issues around staff shortages" in May when she had personally intervened.
"But it quickly became apparent to me that while it was nice to address those longer term staff issues which we are continuing to do, there were a whole raft of quality assurance issues, particularly in education, that needed to be dealt with – equipment which hadn't been replaced, incomplete grades, student issues with academic progress cases which I was absolutely horrified to hear of … timetabling problems."
The university had now advertised for three academic positions, including two senior positions – one of which was to replace Professor Tregear – but Professor Hughes-Warrington said she "had to prioritise untangling a whole range of what are primarily academic issues in the school" given the stress they were creating for students.
These issues were also impacting on ANU management's ability to provide a budget for the school.
"To my regret, I'm sorry that the budget has still not been seen by this school – really since three years. That's our intent; to make sure staff and students can see the budget as pretty much all the other schools are able to do that. But we want to make sure this school can too."
The Canberra Times has reported that at least four senior members of staff have taken stress leave over the past year and two have left, with more understood to be in the midst of finding other employment.
Professor Young said "the university has worked very diligently to get those people back to work. Clearly there's been a culture – a set of processes – in that school that has been highly stressful to both students and staff. That is going to change, that's our commitment to actually make the change".
But he maintained his belief that a $2 million subsidy from the university was adequate to run the school successfully – as were staffing levels of around 11.
Professor Young also retreated from the university's commitment to 13 full-time academic staff across the school even though this figure is well documented, including being published in its School of Music Implementation Plan of June 2012 – "the number of staff within the school will decrease from 23.9 full time equivalent academic staff to 13".
"I've heard it said many times that the Vice-Chancellor indicated there'd be 13 staff at the School of Music. The Vice-Chancellor never said that. In 2012 we developed a budget for the school, I was involved in the development of that, which actually had 13 staff and 300 students which is what it was predicated on. Now we never reached 300 students and we also have never reached 13 staff," Professor Young said.
"If you have less students you also need less staff. But you need a minimum level of staff."
Management did commit, however, to reviewing current staffing levels under the guidance of acting Head of School Dr Royston Gustavson and, following further complaints from students that the school was being stripped of its musical performance traditions, Professor Hughes-Warrington committed to reviewing the Bachelor of Music.
Following the meeting, a PhD student who is also a member of the ANU Education Action Group, said some students at the school were in despair about its future.
There was also widespread concern about the reputational damage the school had suffered nationally and internationally.
"We are very conscious that when we speak out and advocate for ourselves we risk further damaging the school's reputation, but there is a sense we are at crisis point now."