Expensive drama courses face axe due to funding cuts

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Drama schools providing university-level tuition have raised fears that funding cuts to the higher-education sector could lead to a reduction in the number of teaching hours they provide and the termination of some courses.

The government’s spending review last month revealed a reduction of at least £45 million to the budget of the body that distributes public funding to higher-education organisations for 2015/16.

While the schools are still waiting to find out exactly where the cuts will be made by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, they have warned that, if distributed evenly, the impact would be severe.

A specialist type of investment, known as institution-specific funding, that some smaller schools receive from HEFCE for providing intensive training could be under threat, they say.

Gavin Henderson, principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama warned this would lead to expensive courses being removed.

“We [Central] are the only provider of professional puppetry training in Britain. It is very difficult to recruit to, and it is the most expensive course we run.

“We offer it because we believe this is an important aspect of the cultural profile of the country, but that would be one that inevitably would go and therefore Britain would no longer have a major puppetry course at all.”

A number of Central students who trained on this course have gone on to appear in the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, a commercial and critical hit in the West End and Broadway.

Henderson also warned that Central would have to consider increasing its intake of overseas students, who can be charged higher fees, and diminishing the number of home students.

“We are absolutely committed to that not being the case, but if we are talking about the survival of an institution then those are issues we would have to look at,” he said.

Around 10 performing arts schools currently receive £1 million each a year from this scheme, which is due to be reviewed in 2015.

While HEFCE has been sympathetic in the last few years to sustaining this specialist funding, added Henderson, a campaign involving sector support must be “marshalled immediately” to protect it from 2015 onwards.

Schools have also expressed concern that HEFCE might reduce its financial support for expensive subjects, which the performing arts falls within due to its high number of contact hours.

Mark Featherstone-Witty, principal of Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, said: “Courses that cost a lot to deliver, which are outside STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects, will potentially be vulnerable, which would mean that teaching hours would have to decline, as teaching is the most expensive resource.”

Ian Kellgren, Drama UK chief executive, said it was not only smaller, specialist schools that could be affected. Drama and related disciplines taught as courses within larger universities offering other subjects could lose out if cross-subsidy arrangements come under threat, he said.

He explained that, currently, some universities able to charge higher course fees for postgraduate studies than undergraduate ones – capped at £9,000 – use the profit they make to subsidise more expensive subjects.

However, if universities were squeezed, said Kellgren, they might choose to distribute this money elsewhere. “The concern for conservatoire training and related subjects at higher-education level is that we have to do everything we can to protect that training for the benefit of the profession,” he said.

Michael Earley, principal of Rose Bruford College, agreed that the loss of specialist funding would be critical. However, he said it was encouraging that drama schools were now looking at different forms of income generation.

He said: “In most institutions, everybody has development officers and are all running a different kind of business alongside their core teaching. They contribute to closing any funding gap that is left from the student fees.”

A spokesman for HEFCE said: “Performing arts institutions are a key part of a diverse, responsive higher- education sector.

“They make a distinctive and valued contribution to our culture, society and economy, and HEFCE will continue to support their work.”

An announcement on how HEFCE will distribute its funding for the 2015/16 tax year is expected in early 2015, after it receives its annual grant letter from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.