There are serious questions to be raised about the operation of the James Morrison Academy of Music, writes Matilda Duncan.
WHEN THE OPENING of the James Morrison Academy of Music at the University of South Australia (UniSA) was announced in October 2014, Jay Weatherill, then the Premier of South Australia, was quick to publicly predict a large student body. “Once [the Academy is] established, Mr Morrison is forecasting an annual intake of 70 students building to a potential student body of up to 200 students by 2020," Weatherill said.
The James Morrison Academy of Music was awarded $500,000 by the State Government of South Australia to enable its opening and the offering of a Diploma of Music to students, as announced in October 2014. Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) records show the Academy is a for-profit business, owned privately by James Morrison.
The State Government funding awarded to the James Morrison Academy came after closures of VET music courses elsewhere in South Australia, for instance at the TAFE Noarlunga campus. This affects students in Adelaide's southern suburbs and at the University of Adelaide.
After four years in operation, student numbers at the James Morrison Academy of Music have shifted little from the initial 50 that were enrolled when the Academy opened in March 2015.
A post on the University of South Australia Mount Gambier Campus Facebook page showed just 15 new James Morrison Academy of Music students attending Orientation Week earlier this year. UniSA would not confirm new enrolment numbers in 2019, stating instead: "There are currently around 60 students enrolled in UniSA programs offered through JMA".
Conditions for the $500,000 government grant were outlined in a contract established between the James Morrison Academy of Music Pty Ltd and the SA State Government, drafted after the announcement of the funding in October 2014.
That contract, released under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, shows that special conditions were placed on the funding, including James Morrison meeting targets for student numbers.
Other requirements were that Morrison managed the Academy:
[in a] competent and professional manner ... [devoting] sufficient time and attention to personally teaching students of the Academy, as well as participating in the ongoing management and promotion of the Academy, to the extent reasonably necessary to ensure that [he] is able to attract and retain a sustainable number of students on the basis of [his] reputation.
Despite the Premier's 2014 projections, the State Government set low expectations for student numbers in the contract that would have required a sudden influx of 100 students between 2019 and 2020 to reach a cohort of 200 students at the Academy by 2020.
Special conditions in the contract required the Academy to meet or exceed student number targets of 70 students in 2017, 80 students in 2018, and 100 students in 2019. Despite public announcements that the James Morrison Academy would be opening with 50 students in 2015, the Government's contractual target was just 30 students in 2015, increasing to 50 in 2016.
A spokesperson for the Department of the Premier and Cabinet would not comment on what actions the Government had taken to evaluate whether James Morrison had met the conditions of the contract, stating only that the funding agreement "is evaluated in line with its terms and conditions".
The funding period for the contract ends on June 30, 2019, at which point the James Morrison Academy must provide a "report on the level of any unexpended funding" and repay any unexpended funds to the Government — unless the company receives written approval from the SA Arts Minister advising that they can retain the money.
The James Morrison Academy has maintained unexpectedly low student numbers despite an email suggesting an incident of the Academy straying from usual university admission practices.
An October 2014 email appear to show Judi Morrison, James Morrison's wife, offering a prospective student full admission to the Academy outside of usual application processes required of other prospective students.
The email, seen by Independent Australia, is signed with Judi Morrison's name from a James Morrison Academy email address, showing an immediate offer of acceptance to the Academy being made, despite the prospective student not having undergone any audition processes.
Thank you for your interest in attending the James Morrison Academy of Music.
Normally the next step in the process would be to arrange an audition, however both James and Graeme Lyall (Director of Studies) have heard you play and have decided an audition is not necessary in your case. You will find attached a letter of offer.
The young musician did not accept the offer to study at the Academy. They have stated that in the years that have since passed, the offer has struck them as unusual as they were unsure of how James Morrison Academy staff could have had evidence of their musical ability.
They told IA:
I hadn't posted anything [online] of myself playing in 2014 ... the only way [James Morrison Academy staff] could have heard me was in person, but I don’t know where or when they would have done that. It think I would have been aware if they were in the audience at a gig I was playing due to their fame.
The James Morrison Academy of Music did not respond to a request for comment.
Matilda Duncan is a writer from South Australia.
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