Nov 20, 2023 6 min read

Oxford Brookes University to close music department

The music industry has responded to the news that Oxford Brookes University is closing its music department

Oxford Brookes University to close music department

The music industry has responded to the news that Oxford Brookes University has decided to close its music department, with Deborah Annetts, CEO of the Independent Society of Musicians, stating that “it is profoundly worrying to see opportunities to study music in the UK being further reduced”.

Nitin Sawhney, in his role as Chair of the PRS Foundation, calls it “awful news” that is “a direct result of music being undervalued as an academic subject for too long”. Meanwhile, the Musicians’ Union has confirmed that it is urging Oxford Brookes to reconsider its decision, while also calling “on the government to step in to halt the decline in university music provision”.

The university announced last week that its music department, which was first opened in 1979 when the institution was still known as Oxford Polytechnic, would close. In an open letter, the department’s lecturers then urged the music community to respond.

In that letter, posted to the music department's social media, the lecturers wrote: "It is with great sadness that we have to inform you that Oxford Brookes University has made the decision to close its music programme”. They conceded that music degrees have been under massive pressure everywhere, with student numbers in decline. Meanwhile, at Oxford Brookes specifically, music was hit by the phasing out of combined honours degrees.

Despite all that, they went on, the music team was "cautiously optimistic about the future", not least because the university announced a plan to open two new buildings, in part to enhance its creative industries activities, with a new dedicated performance space included in that plan. Plus the music team was developing a number of new specialist music programmes to attract new students.

"Rather than giving us time to explore this properly", the letter goes on, "the university has decided that was not to be, and one of the ironies of Brookes history will be that the university will finally offer a proper performance space at the same time that it is closing the doors to music students".

The university will wind down its music teaching over the next two years as its current music students complete their courses. The lecturers added that, while it is unlikely that university management will reverse this decision, "we are sure that you share our sadness, anger and exasperation at this move, and you are welcome to express your solidarity in any public forum you consider appropriate".

As well as ISM, PRS Foundation and the MU, organisations like UK Music, Music Mark and MusicHE have also responded to the news. You can read all of the responses, as well as a statement from the university itself, below…

Deborah Annetts, CEO of the Independent Society of Musicians: “We're extremely disappointed that Oxford Brookes has decided to close its excellent music programme. It is profoundly worrying to see opportunities to study music in the UK being further reduced.

This will also completely overshadow the experience of the current music students, particularly the first years, who are only a few weeks into their degrees and will be part of a skeleton department by the time they graduate. We urge the university to reconsider this decision and give the department more time to continue its development of new music programmes”.

Nitin Sawhney, Chair of the PRS Foundation: “This is awful news. This is a direct result of music being undervalued as an academic subject for too long. I still remember this government recommending that I retrain as something ‘better’ during lockdown.

I am horrified by this government’s position that music and the arts have little vocational value when the study of music enriches lives immeasurably. Besides the obvious benefit to mental health of both listeners and practitioners, music is a hugely successful industry for this country commercially.

Most of all, music is a universal language that allows composers and performers alike to collaborate with just about every discipline. The myopic view that music has less value than any other subject is more about ignorance and lazy prejudice than constructive input.

At a time when AI threatens to take so many jobs, we need to hold on to valuing the subjects that make us most human. Music demonstrates that more than any other subject”.

Chris Walters, the Musicians’ Union’s National Organiser For Education: “It is devastating to see another UK university music department at risk, following a number of similar consultations and closures in recent years. The MU urges Oxford Brookes to reconsider its decision. Additionally, we call on the government to step in to halt the decline in university music provision, which is vital to support and sustain the UK’s multi-billion-pound music industry”.

Dr Oliver Morris, Director Of Education & Skills at UK Music: “We were saddened to hear of the closure of such a long-standing and well-established music programme. A healthy offering consisting of a variety of routes across creative subjects is so important to encourage, engage and support young people as they develop their interests and careers.

Creative skills and creative thinkers are desperately needed across all sectors of society and a healthy education and skills landscape is also vital to support the music industry that was worth £6.7 billion in 2022 with £4 billion of exports and employment of 210,000. We support a vibrant, accessible to all, and diverse music education and skills offering and our thoughts are with Oxford Brookes' music staff and students following this terrible news”.

Bridget Whyte, CEO of Music Mark, the UK association for music education: “Music Mark is saddened to read of the planned closure of the music department at Oxford Brookes University, as part of a recent trend of the closure of music and performing arts departments. At a time when the importance of progression pathways from school have been highlighted in a new National Plan For Music Education by the Department For Education and the latest report from UK Music demonstrates an industry that is growing, this decision seems counterintuitive.

Music education remains a priority for government as demonstrated by the publication of both a Model Music Curriculum and a refreshed National Plan For Music Education. Together with a focus on the subject by Ofsted this is resulting in reports that schools are increasing time spent teaching the subject. The removal therefore of progression opportunities beyond eighteen is devastating and we would strongly suggest that Oxford Brookes pause their decision and consider the impact it would have on the music wider music ecology”.

Dr Roddy Hawkins, Chair of MusicHE, the UK’s subject association for music in higher education: “Since the decision was announced last week at Oxford Brookes, the response has left colleagues at Oxford Brookes in no doubt as to the support they enjoy not only within academia but also in the wider worlds of music education and the music industry.

Closure will deprive students in Oxford and the region of the opportunity to study in their local area and raises yet again wider questions about the diversity and accessibility of arts and humanities subjects in the UK education sector, and the vital critical thinking skills and employability that they foster.

The stories and statements posted online from former students have shown that the teaching at Brookes has left a lasting positive impact on the lives of those working in a wide range of sectors, and not only in music.

Underpinning that teaching is a culture of research excellence, the loss of which is bad enough in and of itself; but it would also deal a hammer blow for the department’s record of collaboration and wider cultural impact, including amongst policy makers.

We are writing privately to the Vice Chancellor and the Board of Governors to express our alarm and wider concerns about the proposed closure, as well as to offer our support in enabling the university to rethink its plans”.

A spokesperson for Oxford Brookes University: “Like many institutions across the sector, the university is experiencing increasing financial challenges due to a range of external factors, such as inflation, flat student fees for UK undergraduates for over a decade, and increases in staff pay and employer pension contributions.

As a result, the university has taken the difficult decision to reduce staff posts in some specific academic areas, and to make other pay-related staff cost savings across the university.

We recognise that this will be difficult news for some colleagues and we are supporting them closely. We would like to emphasise that redundancy is, and will always be, our last resort, and we will always seek to identify savings through other avenues where possible, such as reducing non-pay spend, realignment of resources and voluntary severance.

We remain committed to all of our current students, and will ensure that changes to staffing do not interfere with our students continuing and completing successfully their programme of study.

The university continuously reviews the courses it offers. We propose to close two courses - Music and Mathematics - to new students for a number of reasons, including declining student numbers enrolling on the programmes. Staff who currently teach on the maths programme will continue to teach maths within other programmes, such as engineering and computer science.

The two courses will not take any new applicants in the next academic year and, subject to the normal consultation and committee processes, will commence a period of ‘teach out’ before final closure in due course when all students have graduated”.

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