Monash students fight to save Centre for Theatre and Performance | #students | #parents | #parenting | #parenting | #kids

Students at Melbourne’s Monash University are fighting to save the universities’ Centre for Theatre and Performance, which has been slated to close at the end of the year. The university’s cuts, which Monash has attributed to “a shortfall in revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic”, will also affect musicology units.

“Due to consistently low completions, low unit enrolments and insufficiency of work, the major in Theatre and Performance will be disestablished and transformed into a minor sequence, and offered by locating the Centre to within Monash University’s Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music,” the university said in a statement.

Andrew Coshan and Luisa Scrofani in the musical My Brilliant Career at Monash University. Photograph © John Lloyd Fillingham

“This proposal unfairly targets, and would gut the CTP, a globally leading research institution which, through its graduates and staff, contributes fundamentally to national cultural industries,” the #SaveOurCTP campaign’s statement says, drawing attention to the fact that Monash is equal 20th in the QS World University Rankings for performing arts, “which can be attributed to the exceptional work of both the CTP and the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music”.

The campaign has also been joined by a number of prominent arts figures. Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre Matthew Lutton described the news of the CTP’s closure as “devastating” in a statement for the campaign. “It will be another loss for artistic expression and freedom of expression, at a time when we need new voices and new ideas, more than ever,” he said.

Past artists in residence Susie Dee, Patricia Cornelius and Melissa Reeves released a combined statement for the campaign. “This course with its passionate staff and vibrant and  enquiring students is vital to the broader development of a theatre culture that needs desperate sustenance,” they said. “Please stop this short-sighted move, many young creative artists are nurtured here and this will have devastating ramifications within the theatrical community.”

Theatre Works’ General Manager Dianne Toulson described the CTP as a vital pathway for emerging artists and its closure as “a tremendous loss for the entire industry.”

In its statement, Monash said that like many universities it will need to change the way it operates and what it delivers due to the revenue shortfall caused by the pandemic, with international students unable to enrol in the same numbers as previously due to travel restrictions. “This has reduced the funding for Australian universities in 2020 and into 2021, and likely beyond,” the statement said. “The Australian Government has not provided financial support to universities to redress this downturn and so Monash, along with other Australian universities, has had to reduce its overall expenditure and make difficult decisions.”

“The students are gutted,” said playwright Fleur Kilpatrick, a lecturer at the CTP. “It’s really heart-breaking.”

The news has been especially devastating given the challenges of the pandemic. “The students have been really fighting to stay engaged, to reimagine their art form, to maintain their sense of community, and then the university came along and said we’re not interested,” she said. “So I think it feels like a real slap in the face.”

“What the university has said is that the students will be able to finish their majors, but I find it hard to believe that there won’t be an impact,” Kilpatrick said. “What the university is basically proposing, is that one ongoing staff member will be retained to teach out the course – at the moment there’s six of us and we’re flat out, so I do not envy that one person – I imagine that they would be working with sessional staff to support them and to teach into the course.”

While Kilpatrick said the school turns out great graduates, that’s by no means its only role in the arts ecosystem, with the school commissioning swathes of new work – such as Mathew Frank and Dean Bryant’s musical based on Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel My Brilliant Career. “We’ve commissioned four new musicals in four years through the Jeanne Pratt Music Theatre Artists in Residence program – that’s a pretty major contribution to the Australian music theatre industry,” she said. “But also I think that right now, during a global pandemic, this is when you want a group of theatre academics who are intricately connected to an industry. Because actually our industry as a whole is having to rethink itself and redesign its artform.”

Kilpatrick acknowledges that the industry is in a tough position as a result of the Federal government’s ongoing refusal to support the sector during the pandemic, but she would like to see Monash open up the voluntary redundancies to the university as a whole rather than targeting the CTP. “Four of my colleagues were called into the office and told three of you need to take voluntary redundancies – that’s not very voluntary,” she said. “I would also really like them to preserve the theatre major, and to preserve either the name, Monash Centre for Theatre and Performance, or if it becomes part of the School of Music, acknowledging that it is a school of performing arts.”

“Jobs very likely will be lost, but if you don’t have the name, if you don’t have the centre, you can’t rehire, you can’t rebuild – no one’s going to start a new centre for theatre and performance,” she said. “So I presume my job is well and truly gone, but if we can keep fighting for the continuation of the major and the continued presence of performing arts in Monash, there will be hope for the future.”

Meanwhile, the decision to axe musicology units from the Sir Zelman Cowan School of Music has been condemned in a letter by more than 70 academics from universities around the world – including Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard – who wrote to Monash vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner to say the decision would “result in a further loss to Monash University rather than a saving”.

“Musicology units offered at second and third-year levels exist only as electives and are not required by any students for the completion of degrees, majors or specialisations. There have been multiple efforts over the past three to four years to generate increased musicology enrolments that have been unsuccessful,” Monash said in a statement. “The music major within the Bachelor of Arts includes first-year units that include some performance and cultural context studies – these are not musicology units. These units have been taught by a range of Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music colleagues, including musicology staff, as these units are general ones that do not require or rely on musicology expertise.”

“It is proposed these will be reconceptualised and offered in alignment with a focus on performance, composition and music technology,” the statement said.

“The proposed changes at Monash make no sense, other than being seen as a poorly considered, panic reaction to Covid revenue losses,” musicologist John Griffiths, Adjunct Professor of Music at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, told Limelight.

Griffiths, who was Head of Music at the school from 2015 to 2016 after 30 years leading the early music department at the Melbourne Conservatorium, refuted Monash’s public claims that efforts to increase enrolments in musicology have been unsuccessful. “There has been an increase of 120% in enrolments in musicology units over the last four years,” he revealed to Limelight, while he said the university’s claim that the subjects were not required for the successful completion of either the Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Music was true of most units offered by the School of Music. “So why Musicology?”

He also pointed out that the units referred to in the statement have been taught “primarily by musicology staff”.

“International best practice (and normal practice) is to have contextual teaching done by scholars from musicology and ethnomusicology, many of whom are also outstanding performers,” he explained. “The proposed ‘reconceptualisation’ ignores the strong foundational breadth that comes from expert intellectually based tuition” and “narrows the options for the current large student cohort from outside the B.Mus. program.”

Griffiths also refuted the statement’s claim that musicology units offered at second and third-year levels are electives and not required by students for the completion of degrees, majors or specialisation. “The assertion is not true. It also misses the main point,” Griffiths said. “Many units based on musicological knowledge and musicological thinking do not include the term ‘musicology’ in either their name or the subject description. On average, over 600 students enrol in these units each year.”

Griffiths said the official response was expressed only in terms of undergraduate teaching in the Bachelor of Music. “It omits teaching students from other faculties, graduate higher degree study, and the entire area of research,” he said.

According to Griffiths, the Monash statement fails to mention that “approximately $270,000 p.a. income comes to the School of Music for the teaching Musicology/Ethnomusicology units to students from other schools and faculties. This is approximately 90% of the School’s income from teaching.”

He also revealed that 38% of current Higher Degree Research students are currently supervised by Musicology/Ethnomusicology academics, that almost half of Higher Degree Research completions are in the fields of Musicology and Ethnomusicology and that 49% of research income earned by the School is generated by those fields – while they also account for over half of the School of Music’s research output.

“If implemented, the changes will drain the intellectual core out of music studies at Monash, that is, the essential element of why we teach music in universities,” Griffiths said. “It also will annihilate the school’s international reputation.”

Monash University isn’t the only institution facing cuts in the arts, with a recent report revealing that Macquarie University could cut more than half of the majors it offers in the arts. Read our new magazine online

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