18 September 2018

The School of Music H-Course, an investment in the future

| David Howe
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The Llewellyn Hall at ANU. Photo: ANU.

The Llewellyn Hall at ANU. Photo: ANU.

The ACT Government has embarked on an ideological battle over a highly successful and long-running H-Course offered by the ANU School of Music. Arts ACT has been funding the ANU Open School of Music through its Community Outreach Program and announced earlier in the year that the Music for Colleges program would transition off Arts funding in 2019. The School of Music responded by confirming in August that the H-Course would be axed after 2019.

Frankly, none of this adds up and the focus on Arts ACT Community Outreach funding frames this decision as an elitist whinge in contrast with the stated objectives of equal opportunity and access enshrined in the 2015 Arts ACT policy. This framing blinds decision makers to some of the most important considerations relevant to this debate, in particular, it ignores the value of a music education for our future generations.

The H-Course and its predecessors has been running since 1982. Thousands of students have benefited from the course which gives them high level music theory tuition and supervised instrument practice in a tertiary environment. The results go towards their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and is one of a number of H-Courses available to ACT students. The 2017 Education Directorate Annual Report says 169 students from 17 colleges completed an H course through the Australian National University Extension Program in 2016. Thirty students completed H-Courses at the School of Music but some of the other courses offered by the ANU Extension program include numerous language programs and advanced STEM courses.

This raises some interesting questions. The ANU Extension Program is obviously a valuable addition to Canberra’s educational opportunities and as such, is probably funded by the Education Directorate in some way. However, there seems to be little transparency or accountability. Education is an unquestionable good so tipping a few more dollars into the ANU’s coffers in return for enhanced educational outcomes is probably a good thing – but here’s the catch. Such programs, while available to all, are restricted by a selection process and will by their nature, tend to favour higher performing student or those with well developed aspirations in their chosen course. Again, we should applaud young people who want to go on to be great engineers or mathematicians or linguists but should we not also encourage those students who want to advance their musicality? Closing down the music H-Course essentially says to students who want to pursue a musical interest that society at large doesn’t really share their values.

This is really an appalling decision when you think about. My first hand experience with students in the music H-Course has shown the vast majority of these students to be highly motivated and engaged by the School of Music course. The availability of the H-Course comes at a crucial time in young people’s lives when life attitudes are forming and it gives them invaluable insights into the landscape of their future directions. For those with the inclination or desire, the H-Course is a pathway course to future study and a possible music career.

This Open School of Music H-Course is seen by some as an elitist luxury. Yet, paradoxically, the course offers content to students who might not ordinarily be able to access it. Let’s briefly consider the alternatives to a subsidised education such as the H-Course. Say a student was interested in music or came from a family background where music was prominent and they wanted to develop their understanding of music or their abilities. Privately pursuing and facilitating a comprehensive tuition in music is expensive. Some families could easily afford it but one might be tempted to suggest that those families are already paying for a private education. Rather than seeing the H-Course as a subsidy to a small elite group, we should instead focus on the fact that two-thirds of the current intake of students come from the public school system. Scrapping the H-Course will adversely affect the opportunities of those students to a far greater extent.

The mixed demographic of students in the music H-Course has another interesting feature. Students come to the class from different schools and mix with other like-minded students. While musical skill is a personal attribute, most performed music comes from a collective body of musicians such as ensembles, bands, and orchestras. New music emerges from the shared experiences of musicians and the H-Course provides young musicians with a very unique opportunity to experience this and in the process, it bridges social divisions through shared learning, cooperation and mutual respect. Surely these are qualities we want to enhance and encourage in future generations?

Finally, I would ask the rather simple question: The ballpark annual cost for the School of Music H-Course is approximately $270,000. It would seem to be an incredibly small amount of money to invest in the education of our young people and it seems extremely petty and small-minded when you consider some of the other budgetary decisions made by the ACT Government. That the School of Music seems happy to axe a 36-year-old course is another matter.

David is a documentary maker and active in the local live music scene.

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My son was excited at the prospect of doing the H course next year. He goes to a public high school and our family collectively pays for private tuition in two instruments outside school hours. We are not part of the elite. I believe Canberras need avenues to extend very talented musicians who are at risk of turning off because their college music programs already cater to the middle level of ability. The music teachers I know are aghast that this really valuable program will not proceed. An e-petition has been started and already has 824 signatures. Consider adding your voice: http://epetitions.act.gov.au/CurrentEPetition.aspx?PetId=92

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