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VIU music department asks ‘why us?’ as university ponders cuts

Vancouver Island University expected to make decision today on program’s future
Rowan Long, left, Scott Tomkins, Lola Woods, Sophia Luvisotto Baird and Ivy Holmberg from the Wellington Jazz Academy warm up at the West Coast Jazz Festival at Vancouver Island University on May 1. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)

With the fate of Vancouver Island University music classes hanging in the balance, teachers and students are preaching the program’s importance.

The university is facing a $9-million deficit for 2024-25. The bachelor of music program as well as a jazz diploma program slated to start this fall could be terminated when the university board votes at a meeting Thursday, May 23, according to Sasha Koerbler, VIU music department chairperson.

Intake for bachelor of music was previously suspended and there are currently 15 students enrolled who will soon graduate. Citing a report from last month, Koerbler said there were 19 applicants for the jazz diploma program and she asserts that there are 41 programs at VIU that have 19 applicants or fewer.

“Twenty-two of those 41 have 10 students or less. Why us?” she asked. “Three of those 41 are in the faculty of arts and humanities. Again, why us? … The only filament of reasoning I can find here is that we’re actually teaching our students out. We don’t have any left, because VIU has stopped the intake for three years. We don’t have any more students to keep in the program, so we are the most immediate way of saving money.”

High school students were on campus for the West Coast Jazz Festival earlier this month and having the music buildings filled with youths was reminiscent of the program in its prime, according to Koerbler.

Annabelle Bentley, a Grade 11 student and Wellington Jazz Academy member, said she appreciates the opportunities afforded to her by the school band. A local program would help her aspirations to get into music education.

“I [would] have to actually move if I want to go into music, which is way more expensive because I can’t live at home – I live right [near VIU],” said Bentley. “I’m going to have to go to University of Victoria or University of B.C. … I love that I had the opportunity in high school and I wish I would have had the opportunity to continue into post-secondary, which I do, but I have to travel to do so.”

Azia Deal, a Grade 12 student and another jazz academy member, suggested a decision to axe the program will affect not only this year’s graduating high school class, but future grad classes, too.

“I think it’s just important for people to remember when they’re making such drastic decisions like this, it’s not just the immediate generations, it’s so many generations coming after us that aren’t going to have this opportunity anymore,” she said.

Ron Gaucher, an Alberni District Secondary School music teacher and VIU jazz studies alumnus, has fond memories of his time in Nanaimo and said it is a good place for a music program.

“It doesn’t have the pressures of Vancouver for rent and prices and everything, but you’re able to study at a place like VIU, with great professors, and in such a great program,” he said. “And it’s got such a vibrant music scene as well … the opportunities on top of studying at the music program, in the industry, at local venues, and everything is just really indispensable. You can’t beat it.”

The program’s cancellation would bring irreversible damage, Koerbler said.

“Once the pianos leave this building, this institution will never have the money to start up music again,” she said. “Buying the pianos, the double basses, getting the studio, the computer lab, 25 keyboards, will be a challenge. So from that point of view, I hope that the board will care about the future of music in this region.”

Koerbler said the community has expressed “encouraging and energizing” support, sending more than 400 letters to the university’s senate and a petition from Gabriola Island with 165 signatures.

VIU added it is trying to rebound from a financial situation that came about because of the COVID-19 pandemic, where enrolment was affected and there was record inflation. These types of decisions are not taken lightly, VIU said in an e-mail.

“VIU must be fiscally responsible as a public university with the funding we receive from taxpayers and tuition paid by students,” VIU noted. “These are difficult but necessary decisions that reflect a move towards financial sustainability and ability to continue to offer programs that meet the demand and interests of our students and the regional workforce.”

Some university programs, such as the legal studies certificate, are operationally embedded within other, larger programs, VIU noted in a statement. These embedded programs are available to students already admitted to, and studying in, other VIU programs. In most of these it is unusual for an applicant to apply for admission directly to the program, so the application numbers only reflect a small percentage of the students who pursue the credential.

Some programs with smaller application numbers, such as the medical device reprocessing technician certificate, have lab space considerations that limit the number of students that can be accommodated, according to the university. Programs with smaller student intakes are budgeted to reflect those constraints and are shorter in duration.

Program intakes may be cancelled or postponed if application demand proves insufficient, the university added.

RELATED: VIU may cut the music due to budget problems

Karl Yu

About the Author: Karl Yu

I joined Black Press in 2010 and cover education, court and RDN. I am a Ma Murray and CCNA award winner.
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