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OPINIONOpinionJune 30, 2023

Giving universities autonomy to slash and burn does not serve the national interest

red musical note and dollar signs against a peach background with large red cracks running across
Image: Tina Tiller

Eroding the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University with funding cuts would be a significant loss to Aotearoa, writes former school head Peter Walls.

Throughout the current crisis in funding for our universities (Victoria and Otago particularly), the government has emphasised their autonomy. On June 2, the prime minister insisted that “The universities make their own decisions about how they manage their finances”. In announcing a relief package on June 27, finance minister Grant Robertson used virtually identical wording: “Tertiary institutions are autonomous and make their own decisions on how best to respond to their financial situation.”

In financial matters, this autonomy is illusory since the primary element in university revenue is government funding. The universities’ ability to recover costs through student fees is also limited by annual maximum fee movement rules that lock in, and over time amplify, the disparities that existed when the system was introduced. Essentially, financial autonomy exists only for expenditure – universities can disestablish staff positions and cut courses without regard to the national interest. Meanwhile, a competitive model ensures that significant sums will necessarily be committed to marketing. This version of autonomy undermines quality education by inhibiting any overview of a particular disciplinary area. (Medicine is a notable exception, given that the ambitions of both Victoria and Waikato to establish medical schools have so far been thwarted.)

Music provides a great example of the way the autonomy to slash and burn does not serve the national interest. We await Victoria’s response to the new funding which amounts to $6m for two years (less than 20% of the projected deficit). The vice chancellor (whose predicament I do not envy) has estimated that it might save a third of the positions scheduled for cutting. In other words, we still have a problem. 

Under the original proposal, the New Zealand School of Music – Te Kōki at Victoria was to lose its director (Professor Sally Jane Norman), one administrator, three academics from the composition programme, three from classical performance and two from music studies – in the latter case, a professor and associate professor who both have stellar reputations internationally (and who have attracted significant PBRF and Marsden funding). Even two thirds of this proposal would be devastating. Plans to develop the NZSM’s side of the National Music Centre (touted by the Dominion Post as “the Juilliard of the Pacific”) have been put on hold. (Incidentally, back in the 1990s, a review of the School of Music called it “Juilliard on a shoestring”. I’ll come back to that.) Across in the School of Languages and Culture, German and Italian would be disestablished. (My doctoral supervisor in Oxford told me – with good reason – that I couldn’t expect to do advanced studies in western music without at least Italian, German and French. That is true – and it applies even more obviously to those aiming for a career in opera.) The proposed cuts seriously undermine the viability of the university’s school of music. That’s a significant loss to the university, and a massive loss to Aotearoa New Zealand. The autonomy of the university to take steps that are so damaging to advanced music education nationally seems wrong. 

What does a music school that gives New Zealanders access to an education comparable with the best internationally look like? First, it needs critical mass. The classical performance programme would have students in sufficient numbers (and with the right balance of instruments) to support quality orchestral and chamber music training. It must be located in a city with a major symphony orchestra – a source of revelatory listening experiences, internationally-rated artist teachers, and a provider of early-career experience for the most talented. Singers, too, can’t exist in a vacuum. They should be admitted in numbers and balances that make opera training possible. They need to be working alongside a piano department that includes collaborative pianists. Those intent on a solo career need to have the pace set for them by first-rate colleagues (students and teachers). These students should benefit from having jazz, world music and popular music programmes nearby to allow for crossover and to ensure that, at least in terms of their listening experiences, they are not confined to a silo. 

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Such a performance programme is an asset to a composition department. Composers get to write for and hear the full array of what’s out there. Music studies (musicology, analysis) are vitally important in providing skills and context for performers and composers but, even more importantly, as a humanities subject. The inestimable value of studying rich material without the sometimes-distorting blinkers of a vocational outcome is enriching and empowering. A recent Oxford study concludes that, “Students, graduates and employers noted that the resilience and adaptability developed during a humanities degree is particularly useful during big changes in the labour market.” All of this is enhanced by embedding the school within a university that can provide access to languages, literature, history and the humanities in general. 

That, for me, is what any kind of Juilliard – a “Juilliard on a shoestring” will do – might look like. (Incidentally, in 2021 the Juilliard reported total revenue of US$182m and net assets of $1.6bn.) There’s a more affordable model, three hours away. The Sydney Conservatorium has the student numbers, access to the excellent Sydney Symphony, and superb facilities that – like the National Music Centre – are an imaginative mix of heritage and new build. (New Zealand students can enrol there and pay domestic fees.) I have been a guest lecturer at the Juilliard, the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. In each of these institutions, all of the above apply, including a strong emphasis on musicology and musicological research. 

The NZSM is so close to fitting the bill: a decades-long partnership with the NZSO providing artist-teachers of outstanding quality, a famously strong composition programme, excellent academic teaching and research – and a pathway to excellent facilities. The problem is that, in 2023, it is supposedly not paying its way. There’s no room here to get into the real cost of training musicians or the inadequacy of the TEC’s funding categories. (In 2019, the Juilliard posted an operating deficit of US$3.6m.) Disestablishing positions would seriously compromise the present operation and threaten the vision for the National Music Centre.

But – here’s the important part – Aotearoa New Zealand needs the NZSM to flourish. We should be alarmed at a system that treats this as a single university’s problem – one that can be fixed only by undermining a school that offers talented New Zealand students an education comparable to what could expect offshore. 

Where does autonomy get us? Classical performance is taught at Auckland, Waikato, Canterbury and Otago universities. None of our music schools attain critical mass. With a population of under six million and a seriously diminished capability for quality music teaching at pre-tertiary level, that seems unsustainable. I write with great sadness, since I am currently enjoying guest teaching in Madeleine Pierard’s opera course at Waikato University (a course made possible by generous philanthropy) and recognise the excellent work being done by dedicated colleagues in all our universities. I want a government that funds universities properly and keeps an eye on what each disciplinary area needs across the motu. Former attorney general and arts advocate Chris Finlayson has suggested a return to the University of New Zealand (though with Auckland remaining separate). This makes sense – including the Auckland exception (given the population base and the university’s proximity to the APO and NZ Opera). Let’s decide what kind of music schools we need and where to put them. Let’s give the right institutions the opportunity to build critical mass. Competition is producing multiple uneconomic and educationally suboptimal institutions. 

Peter Walls is emeritus professor of music at Te Herenga Waka | Victoria University of Wellington. He was chief executive of the NZSO from 2002-2011.

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