Decolonising London university penalises too-classical music department

Decolonising London university penalises too-classical music department


norman lebrecht

June 22, 2021

The respcted music department at Royal Holloway University has been informed by email of a 25 percent budget cut.

Among other losses, this may mean the dismissal of a couple of senior, internationally renowned professors. Insiders tell us that the college’s decolonising administration want to punish the music department for providing serious focus on western classical music.

This is a trend across British universities and it is gathering steam.

Here is what the union rep is putting out:

The Department of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London is one of the most respected music departments in the UK: ranked 3rd in the UK for the quality of our publications in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework; hosting the only Regius Professorship in Music, awarded by HM the Queen in 2014 in recognition of our department’s distinction in research and teaching; and ranked 6th in the UK for Music in the 2022 Complete University Guide. Recognition for our current research is shown by grants awarded from UK research councils totalling almost £1.4 million since September 2020.

However, as part of a College-wide initiative in ‘Academic Realignment’, we have been informed of proposals to severely cut our staffing and research provisions. We believe these proposals to be based on seriously flawed estimates, conducted at an internal College level, rather than seeking expert knowledge from across the sector. The proposed ‘realignment’ stems from a forecasted loss of college overall income across the next ten years, despite no evidence offered for this (and a healthy financial situation at present). The Music Department is targeted for two reasons: 1) that our staff-student ratio is claimed to be low compared to sector averages, and 2) that our Music curriculum should be more ‘integrated’ and ‘broader’. From this position, management has put forward proposals amounting to losing 2.5 fte positions, most likely at a professorial level, as well as removing research from a 0.5 fte composition post, and a further loss of 1.0 fte in instrumental and vocal teaching. This amounts to a loss of almost 25% of our staff.

We contest these proposals in the strongest possible terms: management have neither disclosed their methodology for calculating staff-student ratios nor provided any evidence that our department is generating any loss for the institution. We have a headcount of 287 students, and our recruitment has been strong in recent years; around 20% of our undergraduate students are joint-honours, fostering a vibrant atmosphere of interdisciplinarity. We are addressing concerns about inclusivity through an innovative entry route for students who have not taken A-level Music; this has increased our intake of students from non-traditional backgrounds to constitute c. 33% of our intake this year. Our application numbers are also rising, with an 8% increase in undergraduate applications in the current academic year. We have one of the best records for graduate outcomes of any department: 95% of our graduates were in highly skilled employment or further studies within 15 months of graduation, according to official UK government statistics (DiscoverUni).

Our curriculum could hardly be broader, considering our multiple strengths in Ethnomusicology, Musicology, Sound Studies, Music and Media, Theory & Analysis, Composition, and Performance, including a long list of honours courses options. In our student recruitment, we have long found our broad curriculum to be one of our greatest strengths. Looking forward, from September 2021 the department is launching a new pathway in Music and Sound Design for Film, TV and Interactive Media, innovative modules on Musical Theatre and on Digital Tools in Music, and also a collaborative module with Dance. These innovations are already contributing to rising student recruitment. We are at the forefront of efforts to decolonise our discipline, and our modules on Music, Environment and Ecology show our established work addressing the climate emergency.

The proposed cuts threaten to significantly hinder our ability to maintain a vibrant environment for teaching, research and college music-making. They also completely ignore our substantial income from research and our contribution to the intellectual, cultural and musical life of Royal Holloway and the local community.



  • Emil says:

    Where does it say anything in the Union rep’s statement about the department being “too Classical” or too Western? On the contrary, it seems that the Union rep is stating that the Uni doesn’t like their focus on decolonising and ethnomusicology.

    • V.Lind says:

      Fair question. I imagine it is futile to hope that the local contact will pursue it. Which is why I opened below by asking what this was about? I am more concerned about admission procedures at this stage.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It says clearly:

      “…. 1) that our staff-student ratio is claimed to be low compared to sector averages, and 2) that our Music curriculum should be more ‘integrated’ and ‘broader’.”

      SO, ‘not enough students in relation to teaching staff’ and ‘curriculum too narrow’.

      • Emil says:

        Yes – neither of those things have to do with ‘decolonising’. The low student-staff ratio is probably normal for a music school (where one teacher can only give so many individual lessons), and administrators tend to hate that that costs money. And having an “integrated” and “broader” curriculum can mean absolutely anything – it certainly does not automatically mean ‘you’re too Western’.

        • John Borstlap says:

          That is true, strictly speaking. But given the current cultural climate, ‘broader’ is mostly considered as including world music, pop, rap, women music, queer theory, and BLM musicology. It is a bit like a dog whistle.

          • Emil says:

            …no it is not. You’re clearly unfamiliar with UK academia, where a whole raft of universities – Leicester, Sheffield, Northumbria, Liverpool, among others – are using similar language to introduce more market-driven ‘research’ and gut departments at this very moment. Leicester, for instance, is gutting its business school from academics doing “critical management studies” – which they define as anything deviating in the slightest from market-aligned imperatives. To assume “broader” means ‘woke’ – whatever that is – is simply laughable in the current state of UK higher education.

          • John Borstlap says:

            How is world music, pop, rap, women music, queer theory, and BLM musicology not woke, I wonder.

          • Marfisa says:

            Borstlap fighting ‘woke’ = Don Quixote fighting windmills.

            Emil is right, university administrators are far more interested in money (to be fair, that is part of their job) and teaming up with business than in anything academic, and academics have to fight for the integrity of their subjects and the right to pursue wide-reaching research. UK universities went through all this under Thatcher, and have never fully recovered.

            How can anybody going through life with mind, eyes and ears closed to all of ‘world music, pop, rap, women music, queer theory, and BLM musicology’ be enlightened or awake?

          • JYF says:

            ‘How can anybody going through life with mind, eyes and ears closed…’

            We’ve got better things to do. I wouldn’t waste one minute of my time on ‘rap, women’s music, queer theory, and BLM musicology’.

          • Marfisa says:

            Well, at least it seems you listen to world music and pop. There is hope for you yet.

          • JYF says:

            ‘a whole raft of universities – Leicester, Sheffield, Northumbria, Liverpool, among others’

            1. You might want to look up the etymology of raft.

            2. Leicester and Northumbria are joke universities (they were formerly polytechnics).

            3. You haven’t said anything about the mess Oxford is getting itself into.

          • Marfisa says:

            1) Originally, a rafter, spar, and fr. Icel. raptr, a rafter; akin to Dan. raft, Prov. G. raff, a rafter, spar; cf. OHG. rāfo, rāvo, a beam, rafter, Icel. rāf, roof. Cf. Rafter (n.) Happy?

            2) Apart from Oxford and Cambridge, all English universities are jokes.

            3) Whoops – only Cambridge left standing.

    • Saxon says:

      Basically, the department has been told that it isn’t generating enough money from students to fund itself (the funding from research will be fairly small and not make make-up the shortfall). And the rest of the university isn’t willing to subsidize what they do at the level it currently does.

      So, the department will have to reduce its costs to more closely match the revenue it generates.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Let us see the facts: our high culture is being degraded in favor of barbarism. When only barbarism remains, we have nothing.

  • V.Lind says:

    What is this about? Royal Holloway getting into “Music and Sound Design for Film, TV and Interactive Media, innovative modules on Musical Theatre and on Digital Tools in Music, and also a collaborative module with Dance” sounds like a very practical direction — much of the work available to musically qualified people will, after all, lie in these areas.

    I am a little concerned about their “innovative entry route for students who have not taken A-level Music; this has increased our intake of students from non-traditional backgrounds to constitute c. 33% of our intake this year.” That sounds like affirmative action at its absolute worst — a third of the student body unqualified to participate at university level, in an institution that seems to have had very high achievements.

    Can nobody at the decision-making level stand back and see what is happening here? This is not expanding into “the real world” by preparing music graduates who are not all going to be concert pianists or opera stars — they seem already to be headed, quite properly, into the directions where the careers lie. This is opening up higher education to people who have not done the preparatory work. Do they not have entry examinations or auditions or some other way of selecting students capable of coping with the rigours of an academic higher education?

    Is this all about minorities? Is it about class? Or is it just a generalised dumbing down? Are these people just to be handed certificates they have not earned? How will they cope in that real world of they have not grasped the basics?

    I have seen it in my own field, which is language and literature. I occasionally mark senior student essays and despair at the grammatical incapacity, which I am told not to mark down, just to correct absolutely glaring things (to me, the inability to form a basic English plural without a superfluous apostrophe is glaring, but I seem to have lost that battle, as I have the idiosyncratic grammar that says people “would of got it right” instead of “would have,” etc. But apparently we can all understand these things despite the horrific grammar and spelling, and only the utterly incomprehensible is to be marked down. Nobody fails, nobody gets a D, they all graduate with B.A.s — honours, in some cases).

    And we do see the results — even formerly rigorous publications like The Spectator run with misspellings and grammatical errors, and books are as bad. Is there still an editor left alive who knows the difference between the verbs “to lie” and “to lay”?

    Bad enough in our benighted fields. But when it hits medicine and engineering, be afraid — be very afraid. Do you really want your surgeons and the people who build aeroplanes and bridges getting this sort of academic treatment? And all of these protesting yout’ can’t be artistic — or maybe the scientists have more sense. In which case, could they get into the argument and call some of these very stupid woke attack dogs off?

    • Symphony musician says:

      What I think you’re missing is that so many schools don’t offer ‘A’ level music any more or can’t afford to run it for one or two students that many young people who love music miss out on the chance to do the ‘A’ level. Why shouldn’t there be alternative routes to music at university, then?

      • V.Lind says:

        Hence my question about exams or auditions or something — I have no objection to a university offering some sort of remedial course for those who got as far as O level and were not given the A level option.

        But 33% admitted by “innovative” methods?

        • Peter San Diego says:

          We don’t know, from the Union’s statement, the nature of the “innovative” methods. They could be exams or auditions…

    • Marfisa says:

      What you say about senior students and grammar raises the question about how useful the UK examination system really is. I would guess that the students all got A grades in English at A-level. Perhaps innovative methods make good sense?

    • Scientissimus says:

      We live in a degenerate society. There have always been ignorant students but tragically, we now have ignorant teachers.

      Science seems to be reasonably well protected, partly because it’s difficult to undermine and not least because few would be prepared to relinquish their phones and cars, but I’m not sure the scientists can save the arts.

  • Novagerio says:

    Isn’t this madness over yet? Or are they just shooting themselves in the balls, while miscrediting themselves and all universities in the UK and the US?

    Nota bene: “Transforming CSR Education through Post-Colonial Lenses” – and with the Royal emblem on the top of the title “ROYAL Holloway University London” – an emblem precisely representing the mightiest Colonial Empire in history with hundreds of colonies, apart from the current Anguilla, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.
    You couldn’t even make this up.

  • Patrick says:

    Is it deliberate that you have a picture of Holloway prison rather than the University?

  • John Borstlap says:

    Obviously, Royal Holloway is not decolonizing and fighting climate change ENOUGH. So, we cut their income so that they can perform better.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I’d love to know what ‘Environment and Ecology’ have to do with a music degree? Perhaps Beethoven’s Pastoral needs decolonising?

    • V.Lind says:

      Was wondering that myself. Perhaps a course in carbon-minimal travel to gigs!

    • Freewheeler says:

      The Pastoral needs to be made relevant, i.e. rewritten so it evokes the feeling of living in a Brutalist apartment block.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The Pastoral Symphony does not enough to make audiences aware of the climate crisis and the storm episode is by far not frightening enough, not to speak of the Szene am Bach which does not mention its pollution by the nearby chemical plant. So, Beethoven merely serves the big corporations instead of taking a stand for the future of the planet.

  • Scientissimus says:

    I’d like to see someone try to decolonize a maths faculty. There wouldn’t be much left.

    • SVM says:

      One could start by going back to Roman numerals. It is a crying injustice that we have committed the cultural appropriation of stealing Arabic numbering and the Indian concept of zero.

      There is a good resource for doing mathematical operations with Roman numerals at:

      Time to train the next generation to do it fluently! There will be plenty of jobs available for them rewriting all books and software to use Roman numerals and helping the rest of us cope with a return to that system.

      Then, I suppose we will need people to calculate the royalties/reparations (in Roman denarii, of course) due to the Arabs and the Indians for all those centuries that we utilised their intellectual property without permission.

      • John Borstlap says:


        By the way, the old Indians invented the zero when an old guru could not possibly think of anything interesting to say after a whole life of profound philosophizing, and when asked for what was on his mind, silently drew a circle in the sand. Which gave an eureka moment to the onlookers who ran to their houses and began to calculate.

  • Nel Romano says:

    Check your photo: this is not Royal Holloway, Londin University: it’s Holloway Prison!

    • 18mebrumaire says:

      I think you missed the joke but ‘Londin’ University is a good one but not as good as the postcard I once received from ‘Harvard Univerity’!

    • Hilary says:

      One of the most photogenic of campuses as it happens. I had a piece played there in the early 2000s. I’ve also been to the prison of the operas in a prison project organised by Wasfi Carne.

  • Jack says:

    Sadly, Holloway’s actions are hastening the arrival of the day when classical music will be dominated by the Chinese.

  • Tone row says:

    Whoever wrote “We are at the forefront of efforts to decolonise our discipline, and our modules on Music, Environment and Ecology show our established work addressing the climate emergency” arguably deserves more than a budget cut…

  • Ironically, while we are so busy destroying these institutions and the Arts, we do not realize that we are destroying ourselves.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Hi Norman- I was a music student at Royal Holloway in the 90’s- in fact one of its more distinguished alumni. A sad story you report. But on a funnier side note- the photo doesn’t look like the RH Music Department- the big giveaway being the ‘HM Prison’ sign!

  • Eric says:

    At least put enough effort into the article to get an actual picture of the university and not a prison- fine journalism.

  • Royal Holloway alumnus says:

    Just wondering why you’ve got a photo of Holloway prison on this piece (clearly signposted too!!) as opposed to Royal Holloway, University of Lodnon?