On October 31, after an entirely inadequate process, Arts Minister Peter Garrett wrote to the board of the Australian National Academy of Music, Australia's world-renowned training ground for our top young classical musicians, informing them that they would be de-funded as of 2009.
In one easy decision, the musician-turned-politician threw some of Australia's brightest young talents on the scrap heap. According to some reports, he didn't even realise that there were students enrolled in ongoing courses at the Academy. I don't know whether that would make the decision less culpable on the basis of it being less cruel, or more on the basis of sheer ignorance from a decision-maker.
Having provoked a bigger storm than he perhaps expected, Minister Garrett was forced to swiftly turn around a replacement, a transition strategy and interim arrangements. The resulting policy on the run is as messy as you would expect.
The National Academy has a tremendous reputation today, although it's true that, a few years ago, it was plagued by problems. But a lot of effort has been put into making it run more smoothly, ensuring that the top quality tuition and training that it has always offered was matched by appropriate administration. That is what makes this decision so bizarre. This decision is seemingly based on prejudices that were formed some years ago and no longer pertain.
In looking at ways to improve the Academy, two independent reports were commissioned by the previous Government into its operation - the Mills Report, which was an artistic overview, and the Grant review (pdf), a business case. It is these old and (officially) unpublished reports which Peter Garrett has repeatedly used to justify his decision to de-fund the Academy. But, in actual fact, both of them call for the funding to be increased! It is true that the Grant review made a series of recommendations for improvements - but these were couched clearly in terms of the requirement for tripled funding in order to meet them!
Instead, Peter Garrett demanded that the Academy Board meet the recommendations without any certainty of existing funding, let along an increase! He made these demands on August 25 this year. When the Board told him on October 3 that they had met as many as they could reasonably expected to meet in his timeframe and within limitations of his funding allocation, he made the decision (on October 31) to de-fund the Academy and close its doors. Several weeks on, he made the weird announcement that he would replace it with with an institution which looks like it will do essentially the same thing as the Academy does now - except that it won't open until July next year - and would kindly offer students the option of going to Melbourne University until then.
This comment is in no way meant to reflect badly on the University of Melbourne's music school. But they are not set up to do what the Academy does - it's not their job! The Academy had an extremely exciting program lined up for its students next year - a program that they enrolled for and were expecting! It involved not just private one-on-one tuition, but also chamber music with their peers, orchestral experience, and master-classes with some of the world's top performers and teachers. This level of performance training is very different from what the University will or can offer.
You can't overestimate the impact of disrupting momentum for young musicians in that way. No government would do such a thing to our young up-and-coming sports stars by de-funding the AIS, replacing with a similar institution 6 months later, and telling the athletes to just go to a University until then! Why do it to musicians? Are they just an easy target?
If the AIS had any administrative problems, the Government would deal with them in such a way as to have the least impact possible on the athletes training there.If there truly were such problems with the Academy of Music, the Government could and should have worked with all stakeholders to provide either improvements or a new school while the existing school cotinued to operate, so that students could continue to learn until the replacement was ready. Surely that would be an appropriate path.
Peter Garrett can still reverse this decision and fund the Academy to run its 2009 program at least while its long-term future is discussed.
He should do so, and you can help tell him so! You can sign a petition to save the Academy here.