The Australian National University has hit back at government claims it dragged its heels on talks to save a prestigious pre-tertiary music program as it steps up calls for eleventh-hour funding.
An ACT inquiry into the decision to cut money to the "H Course", which has opened the ANU's School of Music to talented year 11 and 12 students for more than 30 years, has descended into finger-pointing between the government and the university.
While the course is now in its final semester, Dean of the ANU's College of Arts Raelene Frances said its staff and infrastructure would stay in place should the education directorate stump up the missing $275,000 which had been cut by artsACT for the program.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Yvette Berry said funding for the program at its old rate was not available, but the government remained open to continuing talks with the ANU.
Canberra's music community warn the program's end could be a circuit-breaker for the ACT, as less students access the elite training necessary to compete for conservatory places and join the discipline professionally.
Ms Berry said the government was still waiting on a proposal from the university to keep the course alive under a more cost-effective model.
Fronting the inquiry on Wednesday, Professor Frances refuted the claim, saying officials had promised to "give it some thought and get back to us" after a meeting in March.
The next the university heard from the government was yesterday afternoon following the minister's remarks at the hearing, in an email suggesting they reopen their dialogue, she said.
But Professor Frances stressed that, while the ANU had tried to rejig the course to fit government requirements, it could not scale it back without risking its university accreditation.
We were caught between a rock and a hard place.Professor Raelene Frances
The course was good value for money, she said, proving its worth not only in the success of its graduates but in the school communities with which they shared their music knowledge.
Professor Frances also made to clear the air on suggestions from government officials that the H Course was not funded under the $255,000 in artsACT money that was cut and redirected into community outreach programs last year.
Government documents show that, while part of the program is now administered through a share of the $120,000 the education directorate pays the ANU to run accredited extension courses for college students, the bulk of its funding has long come from the arts portfolio.
Professor Frances said that $120,000 supported 400 college students studying across the 13 different H course disciplines, including music.
"[It] can't stretch that far," she said. "[artsACT] have made it very clear [the music course] doesn't fit with their priorities anymore...It seems to me to that it sits with education."
Internal emails reveal senior education staff had raised repeated concerns about artsACT's decision to pull funding in 2017, but someone in the directorate had agreed to the idea "prematurely [and] prior to undertaking due diligence" to assess its impact. The minister had later asked for more work to be done and insisted that funding continue over at least 12 months given the "short notice" for both the ANU and students.
Professor Frances acknowledged ANU also received about $300,000 in Commonwealth funding to run the H courses but said the programs still ran at a loss overall as they could not charge school students fees.
While those studying disciplines such as physics and language could join existing undergraduate classes, music had to run specialised classes. This made up the bulk of the program's expense, she said, rather than its weekly half hour of one-on-one music instruction, which cost about $60,000 annually but had come under fire as wasteful.
President of the Friends of the School of Music committee Tony Henshaw said that almost all other jurisdictions in Australia had a high performance music pathway like the H Course. Without the course, which he stressed was still a relatively inexpensive way of delivering the training, Canberra's music students would face a significant disadvantage.
Lindy Reksten, a cellist and a former teacher in the program, said students wishing to study at a high level would now be left with only school-level general music at college.
She warned more talented musicians would be lost to Canberra unless they had access to the right training early. Worse still, they could be lost to music study itself.
"Students in the UK and the US, they have access to these amazing music schools not because they're more talented or more dedicated, they just happen to live there," Ms Reksten said.
"Our kids are just as talented and can be just as dedicated but they don't have that opportunity."