Why our Conservatory students should care about the 40:40:20

The first day of the #USydStrike at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music this week

This last week, I was a picket captain for the first time in my life, during the two-day #USydStrike. While I’ve decades of experience in social justice work, from marching in rallies, to picketing visiting politicians, through to my teaching and research/creative work, I only joined and became active in the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) five years ago, in response to the running-down of my university by the management class. Those managers (right up to the highest levels) just kept dumping more and more busywork on us, and taking away all of the administrative support provided by my professional colleagues. To be honest, things had got so bad with my workload, and resulting health/anxiety at the Sydney Con, that I just felt I had to leave, or stay try and make it better. Since I love the job itself (i.e. the teaching and the research), as well as my colleagues and students, I went for the latter.

The strike itself, and being the picket captain, was a mixed experience. We had wonderful speakers, music on the line by both staff and students, and an incredible sense of solidarity and message (mostly about the awful working conditions of casual staff, but I’m going to save that for the next blog). But emotionally I found it difficult to be standing outside my own institution, asking my own students to turn around and go home (or, preferably, stay and jam with us on the picket line). And when I’d finished packing up, I noticed a statement against the strike outside one of the bosses’ offices that I found incredibly upsetting, not because there might not be good arguments against striking, but because it totally ignored the carefully argued points that we, their employees, who feel so under siege in our work, and who that boss is actually responsible for, had shared prior to striking.

So I’ve decided to publish those arguments here, on my blog – they’ve already been shared amongst the student body in hard and soft copy – and then deal with the arguments of the boss. The first one is not on a claim by the union, but by a new position by the university, which attacks the 40:40:20 by turning it into something that has to be negotiated every year with said boss. Wondering what all this means? Well, that’s what I explained to the students in this first document!

What is the 40:40:20 and why does it matter to Conservatorium students?

What does “40:40:20” mean?

It’s way the workload of an academic at Sydney is currently divided. It outlines the understanding between the university and academics that 40% of their paid time is to be spent doing research and scholarship, 40% is to be spent doing teaching (and teaching admin), and 20% for professional & community engagement and administration (often referred to as “service”).

We know what teaching means at the Con, but what does research look like?

The way we traditionally think of research is in terms of experiments or other data-gathering activities, analysis, and the writing up of findings for peer-review and publication as journal articles or scholarly book chapters. Indeed, this is often referred to in the university as “traditional research”.

And you’ll find it in abundance at the Con. Our musicologists and theorists often work like this, and our music education academics also publish lots of traditional research. Publishing in the highest rated journals or with highly esteemed academic publishers shows us that our scholars are “up there” with the world’s best.

However, research at the Con is also very often “Non-traditional”. These are actually formally known as “NTROs”, which stands for Non-Traditional Research Outputs. For instance, if your instrumental or vocal teacher at the Con is employed as a permanent lecturer (not a “casual”), they might spend their 40% research time preparing a performance of a new work, or a new interpretation of an existing work, which adds new knowledge to the world in a different way to traditional research – but it is nonetheless still new and important knowledge.

Similarly, academics in composition, music technology, contemporary music, and digital music often create new groundbreaking music which again establishes new knowledge in creative fields. While NTROs don’t go through peer-review to be published, the university and the government assesses their “impact” by looking at information such as reviews of performances or recordings, publishing, venues and community impacted, and more.

My 2016 album Noise Husbandry, for instance, recorded by Ensemble Offspring and with a permanent installation inside a submarine and a destroyer at the Australian National Maritime Museum on Darling Harbour, was a research output.

OK, it’s great for our lecturers that they get to do lots of kinds of research, but why is that important to us students?

You’ll notice that whether your Con academics do traditional or non-traditional research, both kinds go through rigorous review, and important to both is the creation of new knowledge

The Sydney Con is a prestigious institution that boasts world-class facilities and teaching for its students. If your lecturers lose their right to a 40% research load, how can they, and you, be sure that they have the opportunity to remain working at a truly world class level? Where is the time for them to practice, analyse, write, read, and so on? Conservatorium teaching loads are already the highest of any faculty or university school, so if anything, protecting the 40:40:20 is more important here than anywhere else.

Think of it as the research-teaching nexus, not the other way around

Quite often you’ll hear people talk about the teaching-research nexus – the idea that the best learning experiences in a university happen in the intersection between your lecturers’ research and their teaching, where they can bring their cutting-edge work into the lecture theatre. Naturally this works just as well for someone doing oboe recitals on the international stage as it does scientific experiments.

One of my colleagues in the Business Schools is arguing that it should be called the research-teaching nexus, rather than the other way around: this kind of teaching can only and does only happen when the research has happened first. To experience a world class education, you actually need your lecturers to begin by doing world class work, so they can then bring it to your learning experiences. Why would the university want to get rid of their right to do that?

Please, have your say.

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