“Significant financial concerns” lead to major curriculum changes, including cutting solo vocal studies.

Australia’s oldest music college, the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide, sparked outrage among its student population when it emerged on Monday that the institution is to discontinue its solo classical vocal performance degree, as well as making several other major changes to its curriculum. These include a significant restructure of the conservatorium’s centre of Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM), which is to be absorbed into Adelaide University’s School of Humanities as part of a new Centre for Aboriginal Language and Music Studies. Jazz Performance, Popular Music and Creative Technologies, and Music Education and Pedagogy courses will also be subject to restructuring measures and staff losses.

Although the details of the proposal are yet to be formally communicated to the student body, the major changes to the Elder Con’s curriculum were revealed in a leaked staff memorandum. In the memo, written by Professor Jennie Shaw, Executive Dean of Adelaide University’s Faculty of Arts, “significant financial concerns,” and “competition for students from other tertiary institutions” were cited as the catalyst for the proposed changes. These latest cost saving measures follow cuts to the Elder Conservatorium’s vocational music courses in August last year, which saw certificate III, certificate IV and the diploma of music courses discontinued. This was said to be in response to losing State Government VET funding.

The prestigious Classical Voice Department at the institution has produced a number of notable alumni including Sally-Anne Russell, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Grant Doyle and Greta Bradman. Under the proposed changes vocal studies at the Elder Con will be absorbed into the Conducting and Ensemble Studies portfolio elective, as “vocal/choral singing” studies. The two full-time specialist solo classical vocal staff at the Conservatorium are set to lose their jobs under the proposed changes, with any ongoing vocal tuition “potentially being under taken by visiting national and international experts and industry leaders,” on a more ad hoc basis.

Professor Jennie Shaw

Retained academic teachers “will be expected to teach across at least two portfolio areas within the Conservatorium (one of which will be their specialist area),” implying an increased workload and a reduction of specialist staff in certain disciplines. Directly impacted staff members have just 14 days to lodge written feedback on the restructuring proposal before a “Final Change Plan” is agreed upon and implemented in July.

The revelations of the leaked memo have prompted an angry response from students of the Elder Conservatorium who have rallied to petition the senior management of Adelaide University’s Faculty of Arts. A statement released by the Elder Conservatorium Students Association (ECSA) said that “there is unease among students… as they face uncertainty over the future quality of their education.” The statement continues, “ECSA recognises the need for the reinvigoration of cultural organisations such as the Conservatorium, however our first concern is students and their wellbeing. The current situation is untenable, and it is critical that the University recognises that a student response of this magnitude requires more adequate communication.”

Speaking to Limelight, a student source within the Elder Conservatorium said, “I am angered that the University is even considering such action, as the artistic benefits that these specialisations bring to Australian music are incredible. I am concerned that such cuts will only mark the beginning of a larger process of combining/removing specialisations, until the ability for all Conservatorium students to study at a high level is compromised.”

A petition to save the Classical Voice Performance course has attracted over 2,500 signatures in the past three days. The petition states, “The absence of Classical Voice Performance training will have a colossal impact on the wider South Australian arts community, eventually resulting in a lack of quality trained local singers in all the areas in which they are currently active.” It continues, “The tremendous contribution Elder Conservatorium Voice students and graduates make to the arts in South Australia, and both nationally and internationally, only serves to highlight how widely this loss will be felt and the damage that will be done both to the community and to the reputation of the University.”