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Susan Elkin: Doom-mongerers overstate danger of scrapping grants

Drama school principals Stephen Jameson, Joanna Read and Michael Earley Drama school principals Stephen Jameson, Joanna Read and Michael Earley have come are against the scrapping of maintenance grants.
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So we’ve seen the last of maintenance grants for less well-off higher education students.

Cards on table: my generation benefited from publicly funded higher education and paid nothing directly for either tuition or accommodation and food. Means testing meant students from better-off families received no cash-in-hand grants for books. That was the most civilised possible way of doing it, but it’s clear that we shall never return to that so we have to live with the situation as it is.

Last month, the principals of LAMDA, Rose Bruford, Mountview and RADA were quoted in The Stage expressing grave concern that the lack of maintenance grants would work against diversity and inclusion. Now, I have the greatest of respect for each of these principals, all of whom I know personally. But on this point I’m not sure they’re right.

For a start, the new rules affect the whole of higher education, of which drama schools are a part. Most students earn money to help fund themselves during their training as they always have done. The argument is that it’s difficult to do this if you have a 30-hours-a-week commitment.

Excuse me? What about the four months of the year when most drama schools are not in session (unless they’re running accelerated two-year courses, but that’s still only a minority)? And I’ve met many drama students who rush off at the end of the day to work in a pub or front of house. Then there are weekends. It’s perfectly doable. Yes, it’s hard work but no one ever pretended that training was easy, and neither should it be.

The real problem with lack of maintenance grants is one of perception. Students from families who wouldn’t traditionally have considered performing arts careers have to be informed and persuaded. The quality of what they hear from secondary-school teachers and careers advisers is, at best, patchy. Drama schools work very hard at finding these students because everyone wants the industry to be as inclusive as possible, but these young people are not called ‘hard to reach’ for nothing.

And every time a well-meaning actor is reported in the press lamenting that drama school is now off limits to “working class” (code for ‘poor’ in this context) people, more are deterred from applying. The sad truth is that Julie Walters, for example, who was quoted in a big-circulation tabloid, has more impact than any drama school running informative careers events, however excellent they are.

What worries me still more is that if the principals themselves start publicly saying the same sort of thing then the prophecy that cutting maintenance grants will “darken the future of the arts” is in danger of becoming self-fulfilling.

In fact, these students will be entitled to loans that they need not start to pay off until they’re earning a minimum of £21,000, when repayments cut in like a small tax. Realistically, it will be a very long time before most drama students earn this money, and some never will. As we all know, very few actors earn decent money.

Rather than talking negatively about “spiralling debt”, we should be teaching potential students from all backgrounds that drama training really is possible for anyone, providing they have the talent and the potential to succeed professionally – which, in the real world, most applicants have not.

Important as inclusivity is, though, drama schools need to continue recruiting the very best and keep numbers low. No sensible person wants to see box-ticking, tokenist recruitment. Irrespective of background, there are far more trained performers (around 17,000 a year from training providers of all types) than the industry can possibly absorb. There is absolutely no case for expansion and there may be one for contraction.

As for the doom, gloom and hand-wringing about maintenance grants, I remember exactly the same sentiments being expressed in the 1990s when modest tuition fees first came in – and quite quickly rose to current levels. Has it made any difference to drama school application numbers and to higher education in general? No. After an initial hesitant dip, numbers shot up again. All the major drama schools still often see about 100 applications for each place on their acting courses.

Read more plays

I’m thinking of starting a Read More Plays campaign. Of course, plays are meant to be staged and seen rather than read. But you can learn a great deal by reading play texts. All the major specialist publishing companies such as Oberon, Nick Hern, Samuel French and Aurora Metro produce new texts every month. Typically these are new plays currently running or that have premiered recently. A foot-high pile of texts is always on my desk. Many are very enlightening, especially if you haven’t seen them on stage. Let’s all read more plays.

Read more from Susan Elkin

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