Conference Review: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Music HE, 24 Jan 2020

Audience members look towards a speaker attentively

What does the current state of Music HE reveal about the workings of power and privilege, about who and what becomes centred and peripherised, and why? What are the barriers to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and how can we overcome them? These were the questions that framed the EDI Music Higher Education conference on the 24th January. The one-day event was co-convened by the RMA and MusicHE (formerly NAHME), following the workshop ‘Interrogating EDI in Music: BAME routes into and through HE’, in May 2019. Aiming to develop a national picture of activity taking place to address an EDI agenda, and to identify opportunities for future work in the field, speakers and delegates gathered at City University, London, to share their insights. The forum provided the opportunity for stimulating discussions and debates, surrounding a range of research findings, curricula strategies and institutional initiatives, demonstrated across the sector.

Altogether, it is evident that most conservatoires, Russel Groups, new music institutions and universities, UK and abroad, have adopted common strategic approaches to EDI in Music HE. Staff recruitment and student admission policies are increasingly striving to diversify opportunities for musical learning and leadership. These are predominantly focussed on the representation of ethnicity, class and disability, amongst students and staff. Additionally, an impressive array of widening participation and outreach programmes are serving to nourish the pipeline into Music HE. These are also specifically targeted, to support the access and transition of those consistently under-represented in HE. Nevertheless, many of such existing strategies require individuals to openly disclose a ‘disadvantage’, a difference.

Within the conference environment, surrounded by stakeholders in both music and EDI, many with personal investments, a safe space was created. As such, speakers and delegates, celebrated the tenacity of individuals, both historic and present, for unapologetically embracing every aspect of their authentic selves. However, in so doing, this was a stark reminder of the disparate circumstances which still make ‘safe-spaces’ necessary. Pertinently therefore, by placing an emphatic spotlight on difference, even with the best intentions, can EDI agenda’s risk exaggerating divides? Significantly, it is possible that in attempting to remove certain barriers, we may be creating new ones, as one delegate highlighted. Indeed, activism might involve stepping out of our normative spaces, to recognise the overlooked, rather than just the under-represented. This will allow us to better consider who is actually being included under the label of ‘inclusive practice’. For instance, as a subject rooted in sound, decolonising music listening lists for socio-cultural inclusion, does little to address aural diversity. Andrew Hugill (University of Leicester) illustrated the use of sign language and vibrating floors as possible responses to this issue.

Overall, it is clear that a shift in approach to EDI may be necessary: to look for the connections, rather the differences. To hear and see the individual, not a representative. In this regard, Kevin Komisaruk’s (University of Toronto) ‘Encouraging Diversity Through Development of Creative Identity’ shared an innovative curriculum approach that promotes the exploration and celebration of the authentic-self. However, this approach would require students to be particularly introspective. Thus, institutions must ensure they have created a safe enough space to support this, and are able to intervene, if necessary. As an alternative, other speakers, more simply suggested socially-reflexive curriculum reforms, such as in Hussein Boon’s (University of Westminster) ‘The Ways of Making, Dissemination and Reception Have Changed, So What Should We Do About it?.

Curriculum reform at all levels of music education was a key discussion point, despite significant changes in recent years. There is no doubt that course offerings have diversified in Music HE overall. Furthermore, the inclusion of female composers in secondary and tertiary music curriculum is worth acknowledging, in respect of gender equality. However, Classical, Western Art Music still dominates the discourse. The assumptions and preconceptions long-attributed to the canon still seem to influence young people’s perception of music education as exclusionary. As a clear barrier to Music HE, outreach programmes may serve to readdress such a perception. For instance, ‘Opera Nation’, a free programme for 14-18-year-olds, conceived by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and the Royal Opera House, facilitates targeted participatory learning through the various points of entry that opera affords. Nevertheless, as one delegate posited, musics will always be associated with a culture, a society, a belief. Therefore, should inclusive curriculum be using certain ’exclusionary’ terminologies, such as classical versus non-classical, or making any classifications in the first place?

It may be fair to say that more questions were raised than answered throughout the day. This suggests that there is still work to be done. The main purpose of this event was to share strategies, ideas and teaching resources. This was certainly the case overall. However, whilst many positive insights and examples were shared, activities addressing EDI in Music HE are still varied and somewhat inconsistent. Moreover, a full-scope of authentic, personal experiences are not being fully captured by research, nor in practice. Therefore, there is a conclusive need for a more cohesive approach. Some might ask, that, in an increasingly competitive HE market, where ‘successful’ EDI strategies are inextricably linked to metrics and marketing, what is the incentive behind sharing institutional practices? Extending the position of Jennie Henley (Royal Northern College of Music), EDI agendas are not necessarily an institutional or musical matter, but a societal one. Therefore, addressing EDI in and through music is the joint responsibility of all stakeholders in music education.

Accordingly, as agreed, action will be taken to open the floor for discussion. In particular, the worlds of education, teaching, teacher training, and HE need to be brought together, in larger spaces and in different contexts, outside of the academic. Alongside this, there needs to be a consideration of the most effective communication methods to support these cross-collaborative efforts. Ultimately, these actions should serve to foster a consistent approach to EDI in Music altogether, perhaps in some form of manifesto.

Finally, moving forward, all actions seeking to improve EDI in Music should be made with perhaps the most poignant take-away of the day ringing in our ears. Such was offered by Javier Rivas Rodriguez (King’s College, London). Speaking with regard to Inclusive Teaching and Critical Pedagogy, Rodriguez quoted William Cheng’s ‘Just Vibrations’ (2016): ‘In a world where injuries run rampant, what if care is the point?’ Of course, ambitions to overcome certain barriers to EDI in Music HE are somewhat shackled by boxes that need to be ticked and quotas that need to be met. Nevertheless, if teaching, learning and institutional strategy is consistently underwritten by an honest sense of care and empathy for all individuals, barriers should start to disintegrate more naturally.

On behalf of all attendees, thank you to MusicHE and RMA for facilitating this stimulating forum. Thank you also, to all partner organisations: The International Association for the Study of Popular Music (UK and Ireland), the Society for Music Analysis, the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research (SEMPRE), LGBTQ+ Music Study Group and the British Forum for Ethnomusicology. Finally, thank you to City University, London, for generously hosting the event.

A thread of live updates from the conference can be found on Twitter @MusicHigherEd or search #EDIMusicHigherEducation2020

Abigail Bruce (Kingston University)

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