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The university vs drama school debate is far from cut and dried

East 15 students performing in Lulu. Photo: Andrew H Williams
Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a journalist specialising in training and education.
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Parents like universities. The concept may be a bit tarnished in some quarters given spiralling costs and graduate unemployment but, in general, university is regarded as a respectable option. Many, however, have serious reservations about what they see as the costly limitations of drama school and the acting profession’s famous ‘resting’ periods.

So what happens when a drama school becomes part of a university, as a number have done in recent years? Birmingham School of Acting became part of Birmingham City University in 2005, East 15 merged with University of Essex in 2000 and Guildford School of Acting became part of University of Surrey’s School of Arts in 2010 – to name but three.

I’ve been to both East 15 and GSA this term, was last at BSA in 2012 (although I’ve seen their London showcases since then) and I often seem to pop into Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD) which became part of University of London in 2005 and is yet another example.

Well, for the students there are all the advantages of being part of much larger student body. Drama schools tend to be relatively small and therefore, if independent, potentially a bit insular. If you’re one of thousands you have immediate access to university-wide student facilities – especially at, for instance, GSA where the drama school is housed in purpose built premises on the university campus at Stag Hill

East 15 – which is still based in its ‘own’ premises at Loughton away from the main university campus – has seen £13 million of investment by the university in its buildings and facilities, so there is now a second campus at Southend including the delightful Clifftown Theatre and Studios converted from a Victorian church.

On the other hand it means that these schools are now departments within faculties (usually). It can’t always be easy to hold on to autonomy as the principals all hint when you talk to them. In most university departments, for example, only six hours or so of contact time per week are provided when students are formally taught by staff. Drama school students are guaranteed at least 30 (and it’s often more). It isn’t always easy to persuade the rest of the university of the necessity for this. And that’s just a single illustration of how an intensive, practical, vocational course is very different from, say, a history degree.

There are also admission criteria differences. Traditionally drama schools have looked for talent rather than exam passes. But universities require, for example, two As and a B at A level. The compromise, I gather, is usually that the drama schools are allowed some discretion. GSA, for example, may admit 20% of its students with lower grades. Surely that must mean that under these rather rigid arrangements some talented students are missing out on vocational training for the wrong reasons?

Like so many aspects of this industry the issues are neither simple nor cut and dried. A university based drama school may seem – and may be – an ideal option but the pros and cons need weighing up carefully.

Read more education and training columns from Susan Elkin

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