Music department faces chorus of complaints over lack of choice

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Music students at Lancaster’s Institute for Contemporary Arts have complained that their degrees are being increasingly compromised by a lack of choice. The absence of any modules focusing singularly on music from before 1950 and the merger of the Composition module with its Music Technology counterpart has left students with the impression that they are studying a degree they did not sign up for.

“The changing of the modules, lack of communication and rearrangements was awful,” Craig Cummings, a Music student who has since transferred to another university, said. “The composing side of the course was utterly terrible. It seems like they shoved the music composition students with the technology modules, which is exactly what happened.”

One anonymous current student added: “A lot of modules [which have been dropped] people actually joined the University specifically to study, so you can imagine just how vexing that was for a lot of them. The lecturers have tried to make compromises, but the fact remains that our education has been compromised as a result of this and the choice for the students has been drastically reduced.”The issue began back in March, when Music students received an email stating which modules would and would not be running in 2009-10. Those not running included Orchestration, Conducting, Paris and Mozart. The lack of information as to why these modules were not being offered sparked confusion and anger within some students. In response a further email was sent out, this time explaining to students the reasons for the changes and mergers. A dormant module, Approaches to Musicology was also revived to teach units on French music and Mozart’s operas.

Marsden argues business as usual

According to Alan Marsden, a senior Music lecturer with LICA, the changes have been less than what some students believe. “Several of the changes were made at an earlier stage, and were all made according to due process,” he said. “The cumulative effect might well have been that some students found that they could no longer take the combination of modules they had hoped, but this happens every year despite our best efforts to avoid it.” Marsden added that this was an “inevitable consequence” of changes in staff, budget, policy and organisation.

The University’s new policy on contact hours meant that less time was available to put on additional optional modules. The department’s budget for paying for teachers who are not regular university staff has also fallen in recent years. Despite some students belief to the contrary, this is not a result of the department having been incorporated in LICA. Sabbatical leave and retirement has also affected the choice of modules.

“I can understand students being disappointed, but I do not think any can legitimately feel cheated. […] The fact that students evidently misunderstood indicates that we could have done things better in the original communication. On the other hand, we did act very quickly to clarify and respond to students’ concerns by reviving Approaches to Musicology,” said Marsden.
The Music and Music Tech modules on Composition have been combined, adapted from the original Music Tech course. The merged modules accommodate composition with instruments as well as composition purely with digital technology. But Music students have been argued that it is not the type of course or degree they arrived at Lancaster to study.

Students argue ‘last straw’

Laura Woodhead, another student who transferred to Leeds University after the module changes were announced said: “They changed the modules and left us basically with popular music and music tech modules, which was the last straw. When we complained about the changes there was then a meeting with staff which was just them trying to cover up the huge cracks appearing in the plasters.

Cummings added: “Students should not be merged with other courses that were not stated in the prospectus as this alters their module pathways and career prospects. […] The disappointment and treatment of composing students being ignored and subject to merger was the last straw for me.”

Other music students have said they too felt the composition module was too focused towards Music Technology, and was not taught in a way they felt to be insightful or useful. The change was proposed and approved early on in the last academic year having been discussed at a staff-student committee. It was reasoned that the Music module, being the smaller, should be written off.

Marsden added: “It is a false distinction to say that there is composition on the one hand and music technology on the other. From one perspective there are many kinds of composition – not just two – producing many different kinds of music in different kinds of environment. From another perspective there is only one kind of composition: the act of making music, by whatever means. Our principal objective in composition is just that: making good music.

“Many of the employment opportunities for graduate composers involve technology, and much novel ground-breaking artistic work involves technology. Students should not be surprised to find this reflected in our teaching, but they should not confuse this with the rationalisation of modules.”

LICA was formed in 2004 with the merger of Art, Theatre Studies and Music. Having the word ‘contemporary’ in the title was met with some opposition from inside the Music department. Two members of staff who specialised in early music left, one explicitly due to the changes and one partially. The staff who replaced them were specialists in more modern music.