Saturday, 7 March 2020

Has the education system 'broken' vocational training?

How many wannabe actors or indeed their parents have ever read a casting brief? My suspicion is not very many. Let's face it, when you're young and naive you believe that your talent is so great that one of the great directors or producers is going to spot you in a school play/amdram production, pluck you away from your small-town sensibilities, and whisk you off to the 'bright lights'. As a supportive parent, it's unfeasible to think that your child won't succeed. After all - they clearly have 'it' (whatever 'it' is).

In reality, a casting brief is a set of requirements for a specific role/job - what it never asks for, is your qualification. No brief goes out requiring a BA(Hons) in theatre, or a BTEC in performing arts. So why are colleges flocking to hook up with universities in order to offer these golden pieces of paper then? Quite simply it's all to do with finance. All government funding streams or government top up streams require a college to prove via examination results that they are doing a good job. So when the drama colleges suddenly started to offer degrees just over a decade ago, it wasn't because they felt that it benefitted the future careers of their students, as they know (like we all know), that their degree isn't really the 'back-up' that parents seem to think that it is. If you decide on a career swap, you'll be going back to college anyway in order to be trained in the area that you've chosen your new career to be. However what they don't tell you, is that lots of colleges will also allow you to do these educational top-ups with proof of a different kind of education, and with proof of your career to date. Once you're into postgrad education the criteria for entry is more reflective of life. Of course, by this point you've used up all your government-supported financial help, so you are entirely funding your new career path on your own.

However, for many non-vocational colleges performing arts courses are a complete cash cow. We are in an oversubscribed industry, with everybody secretly thinking that their talent will be enough to give them a career, therefore it doesn't matter where they train. I once did some work with some 3rd years on a musical theatre degree course at a regular university. They had recently just finished a self-led project aka cheap to run as it required no staff involvement aka a waste of time. They were paying £27K to train themselves. I auditioned someone from another university who was preparing for their showcase. . . a student-directed showcase, which staff could be called in to assist them in should they have a difficulty. This particular student acknowledged that the showcase was simply an end of course show - there was absolutely no chance of an agent coming to see them in their student-led performance. They had been working on the showcase (and their showcase alone) for the whole of the term. They were also paying £27K to train themselves.

As drama colleges clambered to get affiliated to universities with the promise of better resources, more finance, infrastructure support, what some of them lost sight of was the training experience. As the universities saw the numbers of people applying for these courses they increased their intake, and indeed in a few instances increased the number of courses that they were offering too. What they didn't do though was increase the quality of the training.

I taught in HE when this was beginning to happen. I suddenly found myself teaching an acting to camera class with a cohort of students that included students majoring in things like graphic design, engineering, in fact, you name it, there was probably somebody in the class that was studying it. The module had been diluted from its specialism into a 'filler' module for anybody in the university. I resigned after 1 semester of teaching, having taught the course for 2 years previously. The students that needed that module were fighting to get on it but had to fight people that had no requirement of the skillset.

We know that we're in an oversubscribed industry. We also know that the situation has got worse,
with new courses and colleges popping up every year. The long-established colleges have also been expanding, be that with new courses or just by increasing their numbers. Courses that once operated with 20-40 students can now have in excess of 150 students/year. It's the simple economics of supply and demand, isn't it? If you're auditioning thousands of people every year for a handful of places, why wouldn't you expand your model in order to accommodate more students and create a bigger revenue? With a bigger revenue stream, you can build bigger and better premises, which will attract more students, which increases the demand.

And so it continues.

Suddenly training actors has become a lucrative industry for some. Alongside the weird and wonderful new courses that are springing up, we have the bread and butter courses which create a cunning revenue stream for the colleges. Students not actually ready for a 3-year training course, can now easily find a 'foundation course' which will charge them to get prepared for training. If you've done a degree where you've been primarily self-taught, you'll need additional (aka 'some') training, so pop on a post-grad course as well. The bread and butter of the already lucrative filling of the 'main course'.

Obviously having founded a college which pioneered the 2-year model I already have some questions about the traditional 3-year model (though also completely understand why lots of people need that time to solidify things, I just realise that not everybody does). So I have even more questions now that training to be a performer is taking some people 5 years - or to be more specific is costing people 5 years worth of fees.  Yet those same colleges are being urged to think about the socio-economic diversity of their student intake.

It's a tough model to break though. Most wannabe performers grow up wanting to go to one of the 'main' colleges. The colleges that they've seen in programmes since they were little. They don't differentiate the fact that they're seeing that college's name so often because they've been going for 50 or more years, or indeed that they're seeing a college's name because that college is spewing out hundreds of wannabe performers every year, so if only 5% of them are doing well, it's enough to make an impact on the programme references. It's interesting to note that none of these established colleges readily publicise their long term stats. How many of the class of 2005, for example, have actually managed to have a sustained career? Instead, they'll (understandably) focus on the alumni that have the more popular public following, even though they might have graduated decades ago.

The market is cornered. You grow up wanting to be a performer going to the college that your idol went to. You're not good enough for that yet, so they pop you on their foundation course (and charge you for the privilege of course). You're happy to be there, as, after all, your idol went there so it's bound to be great, and surely the £10K investment in the foundation course will get repaid when you secure funding for their main course at the end of the year. Of course in reality that only happens for a few people, the others are still unsuccessful at their dream college, but now they're also £10k poorer, their parents have bought into the myth that they need a degree, so off they pop to the nearest university to get the 'golden ticket' degree. 4 years later and over £50K poorer (adding together living costs and tuition costs), they leave college, with no chance of working, haven't got a clue how to get work (as a lot of the university courses genuinely don't teach you that skill, just check a few internet forums for proof of the number of graduates asking really basic questions around working in the industry), are unable to sign up for Spotlight (which automatically limits their career. . . I mean as unfair as that statement is, it is also a fact) and find themselves looking for a new career, with their parents lauding the fact that their 'fall back' degree has proven to be a saviour.

And so it continues.

Meanwhile, for those of us that have resolutely stayed in vocational training, and have remained small by choice, in order to maintain a good staff/student ratio - our students are being hit from all angles. They have the 'grown-ups' getting concerned because they're not getting a formal qualification, financially they are not entitled to any government support at all - even though they are working in excess of 40 contact hours/week. As they scramble around looking for sponsors organisations like Equity and Spotlight, who are quick to take their money to join up to the union and the register, won't put a purely vocational college on their self assessed 'approved' list, which would allow us to at least submit our students for certain bursary awards like those funded by SOLT, solely because we don't offer a formal qualification. Yet we're the only college to maintain an open record of every single one of our graduates - proving that we're more likely to create a sustainable career for our students than a lot of the other colleges on their list. So to recap, the training is valid enough for a career (our students can join both Equity and Spotlight), but we can't knock down the walls of the establishment in order to get closer to some much needed financial help for our students, because we don't offer a 'golden ticket' degree. That'll be the same degree that you never see requested on a casting brief. Where do most of those casting briefs get posted? On Spotlight.

This week we've seen a long-established college that took the poison chalice of a university 'merger' close. We've already seen other courses at other colleges get shut down as unviable. Is this a trend, or just a few much-needed pruning exercises? As the established colleges get bigger and the complaints about the numbers increase, we see no decline in the number of applicants, as parents (and students) accept the 'herd' mentality, as (please refer back to the first paragraph), and believe that the 'cream will always rise', and 'they have to learn to deal with the competition anyway'. Personally I'd rather my child learn to deal with competition at a school sports day, not when they're 16 and I'm being asked to pay £9k-£14k a year, but maybe that's because I don't have access to that sort of money? The college buildings get bigger and better, enticing more and more people that "College X" is the go-to place - just look at the number of rooms it has? Of course, they only need 120 studios because they have so many students, but a college building of that size will also increase its running costs, so best take an extra 50 students a year in order to support it.

And so it continues.

Since I opened The MTA in 2009 I've been shouting about the fact that our industry needs regulating. To be clear - that's not by the old boy network that has been effectively self-regulating since the start of the time. It needs an independent body to look at ALL the courses and ALL the colleges to see who is really delivering what. Audit the staff, audit the finance, audit the true story around pastoral care (don't get me started on that one again), and audit the true facts of sustainable careers. The government should stop funding those degrees that are purely providing 'life skills' yet claiming to be offering a 'career'. I completely buy into the idea that a college education is great, but when funds are short, let's not be funding a degree that isn't worth the paper that it's written on. Fund the courses that are getting the results. In other words let's get some transparency out there and stop the myth that has been co-created by so many people and organisations, all of whom have a vested interest in the findings. Then let's get those facts out to schools and the wannabes and their parents.


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