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University or Drama School?

Last week, quite by chance, while reviewing a show for The Stage I ran into a former teaching colleague whom I hadn’t seen for 25 years, so there was a deal of catching up to do in a short time.

One of the things she said, in passing, which worried me was this. An English graduate, she has taught secondary school drama for many years and is delighted by the number of ‘her’ students who go on to do drama in universities. “But don’t any of them go to drama schools for vocational training?” I asked. “Not many,” she replied, adding warmly: “I always advise them to go to university first and then go on to drama school afterwards if they want to.” I gulped and muttered something about that being OK if you can afford it but quietly thinking that for most young people who want a hands-on performing arts career, my former colleague’s is totally the wrong advice.

Then, a few days later I received a letter. Now, normally I have nothing to do with anonymous letters on the grounds that if you want to say something you have to be prepared to stand up and be counted… but this one is signed “angry graduate”. As I reached across to bin it, the subject matter caught my eye. So I’m going to break my own rule and refer to it here.

The nameless student graduated from an acting course last year. S/he says: “Having spent three years and nearly £20,000 on the course, it is with great annoyance that I am coming to terms with the deficiencies in it.” And it’s quite a horror story which I will summarise:

  • Only one voice module taught by qualified coach in three years
  • Classes of 40
  • Most ‘teaching’ read to students out of books by academics with no professional experience
  • Promised a London showcase which did not come about
  • Promised exposure to industry professionals but got only ‘a couple of projects run by small, local theatre-in-education companies

The alarming thing is that the student (probably initially advised by someone like my former colleague) had no idea until s/he had completed the course that there was anything wrong with it. Having now compared notes with graduates of drama school courses the problem is all too clear to him/her and the only option is an expensive post-graduate course in a recognised drama school in order, as the student puts it, “to receive the training that I thought I had already paid for.”

It really is high time the performing arts industries - and the training industry within them - found ways of getting the right careers advice and information to school students before they make these big, expensive, life-affecting decisions. Teachers are, in general, hopeless at careers advice - not their field, after all. Creative and Cultural Skills is working hard at this and RSC has run some good careers events, but there needs to be much, much more.

Do post your thoughts, experiences and views below this blog. I think we need a debate on this one. And if that angry graduate is out there, for goodness’ sake get in touch. My name’s Susan. What’s yours?

23 Comments

I went to university, but then I realised some of my friends at drama school paid the same amount but got about 5 times as many "contact hours". So I dropped out of university, and auditioned for Drama School. Best thing I did. Now I am an Accredited Drama school in London, and doesn't even compare to university - more hours, teachers who work in the industry constantly, and generally just more valuable training for someone who wants to be an ACTOR. Seriously, I would reccommend going to drama school over university if you want to get more out of your training.

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I auditioned for drama school 2 years running. It's not that simple to get in for everyone and I was very well prepared. I am at university studying English and Acting and the acting classes are so awful it's really quite depressing. I studied a BTEC in performing arts at college which was to a very high standard and to go from that to a theory based, unprofessional, uninspiring environment really is a let down. I disagree with what your collegue recommends. I would say if someone is truely commited to a career in theatre/film/etc. then they should audition for drama school as often as they can. It's the only real education and I'm gutted I haven't achieved that yet. Not that I will stop trying!

I totally agree I actually contacted the Stage last week showing my concerns regarding the dance and drama awards that have been put on hold at the moment by the government, we are a low income family and cannot afford the dance school fees for our daughter but know that the training given at these schools is so much better and more practically based than universities that seem to like talking about dance/performing arts rather than doing it.
The problem is that there is no loan/funding available for these schools so unless you are from a wealthy family the drama and dance awards where your only hope. The younger generation are given alot of bad press but there are many that have been attending classes for dance drama etc for years and working very hard only to fall flat if they haven't got the money to get the best education that is available, some peoples talent are more practical and its just as important for them to learn their craft, after all we all watch television, go to concerts and shows, these entertainers have had to be trained just like any other profession.

I always believe that drama school is the best for becoming an actor. But if you want to become a director, where do you go? There are only a limited number of directing courses at BA (Hons) level, the majority have to be done at MA level. And of those directing courses, many only take between 2-5 people. So if you can't do a directing course, do you go to university to study Drama? Or do you go straight into it, by becoming an assistant director?Would love to hear what others and Susan thinks.

I went to Kingston University to study drama and the course I did was fantastic. It was very practical, had it's own theatre space and was taught by tutors who have worked as professional actors across a wide range of television, film and theatre. Being in Kingston we also had strong ties to the Rose Theatre and many of us had the opportunity to perform on stage there in professional productions, even alongside Dame Judi Dench, and be viewed by Sir Peter Hall (who has lead master classes with us on a regular basis).

Although I agree Drama school is the most obvious choice for becoming a professional actor I'm afraid it would seem downright snobbish to assume that all University Drama courses are of a poor quality and only produce poor quality actors.

I did not audition for Drama school in London but decided to go to Kingston University as the course appealed to me and suited to my individual learning needs.

Since graduating I have been fortunate enough to gain lead roles in professional productions (ahead of students from Drama Schools) and a professional agent.

Surely a creative industry should be about talent, not where you trained? I can't say I've ever went to the Tate Modern to look at the art but reserved judgement until I'd found out who taught them how to paint.

By the way, my name's Lewis.

Just like 'angry graduate' I too paid around £20,000 to study at University. With approximately 4-8 contact hours a week I was left wondering what exactly my money was paying for? Several shows that I staged myself as part of so-called assessment were missed by my tutor which meant I had to re-do the work or write long essays about the practical work which should have been assessed instead.

To continue in theatre I have now decided to attend drama school as a post graduate director. I am fortunate enough to have a place on an accredited course to go to however I am left extremely angry that I am in large amounts of debt for something I could have read in a text book.

Personally, I think it depends on the University. Most, I agree don't offer anything near the same standard. It is however, unfair to assume that ALL universities are not of a high standard.

At first when I auditioned, I was completely agaist university but coming from a low income family, I couldn't afford many of the audition prices plus travelling expenses and overnight accomodation, so I searched for reputable universities whose courses included the vocational training that I was after.

I am pleased to say that where I am studying, we have visiting professionals who are out there working and making a sucessful living, my class is a size of 14 not 40, all except one of my classes are vocational, our day often start at 10am and can end by 10pm and graduates have also been highly sucessful in the industy.

So although generally speaking, university standard is not the same level as a drama school, there are courses and places which do exist where the actors have the training, the only thing they don't have is the name.

I studied Drama at University, and haven't even tried auditioning for drama school. Purely on the basis that, on a single-parent income, the tution fee's were out of the question. University may not be as in depth but it was certainly easier to get funding and some sort of degree than none at all. If Drama schools/the government could make it more affordable as well as processing talent then I think a lot more youngsters would be more interested in attending drama school. I thoroughly enjoyed my University education, as I still learnt enough to achieve a 2.1 BA (Hons). It is up to the individual as well as the teachers/lecturers to help you progress and I feel that it is sometimes unfair to blame it entirely on teaching staff as, in my experience, are willing to help you if your willing to help yourself.

Well my opinion is that vocational schools do offer far superior training to universities in 90% of cases, there are some very good university courses out there but they are limited. But the chance of getting a funded place at a vocational school is equally scarce and with the possible withdrawal of funding for DADA awards what are low income families like ourselves supposed to do. Our daughter is at a vocational school now on a foundation course and we have found this very hard financially to support just this one year there is no way we could do another 3 years. Students can't get a grant or loan like you can when you study at university so it is a two tier system which the government are now ensuring that only the rich once again will be able to afford. Our daughter will now have to go to university this september to continue her training as we just can not afford to pay the fees, I think this is extremely sad but there are many others out there in the same situation.

As I'm on record stating many times what's the difference between a degree pirouette and a diploma one? How many people have landed acting jobs thanks solely to their academic qualifications? Surely all of us professionals gain work by our actions/abilities/talent/luck during the designated audition time - never due to our academic ability/qualifications. Has this debate been muddied by the fact that a number of supposedly vocational colleges now offer degrees? Is it about time that all colleges became accountable to their client base aka students and state clearly what their contact times are and exactly what their fees are actually being spent on? That way students and their parents could make informed choices. Transparency would soon sort out the good colleges from the bad (regardless of 'class' of qualification obtained at the end) As the Principal of a new drama college we willingly offer up all this information to our students - after all it is their fees that enable the college to function

This is indeed a very interesting debate and as a new vocational drama school, I am sure our position is clear. It is important to remember that it is the industry that dictates the quality of the training and if you look at the evidence, it is stacked heavily in the favour of vocational drama schools. There are basic factors that weigh in favour of vocational training due to the very practical nature of the courses. Primarily universities are centres of academia whereas the job of a drama school is to get students into professional employment. Regardless of the academic outcome, the reason that aspiring young actors train is to work and in most cases universities are limited by the restrictions imposed by numbers of students and course content. After all you wouldn't expect a plumber with a PhD in the metallurgical properties of copper piping to necessary have the practical skills and experience to fit your boiler!!! I think Susan's friend is a case in point that there may be a derth of understanding of the vocational routes into the profession. Obviously there are always exceptions to the rule but the only certain way to gain advantage in an incredibly competitive field is to fulfill the expectations of the industry and train at a vocational drama school. Ironically this may prove to be an easier decision for students and parents due to the raising of university fees bringing some drama schools in line with universities when it comes to fees!!!

Although I agree with The Dorset School of Actings point on vocational schools verses universities the point regarding funding being in line with universities if they increase their fees is still of no benefit to low income families vocational courses have no loans available where universities do, so although that's the education we would prefare it just isn't available to us only the rich!!

This is a tough one, I've known a lot of friends and also ex students who have gone on to do really well at University with drama & performance, perhaps they have just chosen their courses well? I've known a couple of young adults, adamant that they would do everything they could to get into drama school, one an excellent actress and the other young actor was good but did need more experience and training, they both applied every year to various schools but were never successful. She has now given up completely and reluctantly has chosen a completely different career path, the young man is doing work as an extra and has stopped auditioning for now. It's tough when you see how difficult it is to get into these places, is it just a case of 'if they don't get in then it was never meant to be' or 'they just didn't want it enough'? I find this difficult to give advice on.

As much as Drama Schools and University are brilliant for any desirable experience, I personally believe that the industry is 10% what you know, 20% talent, 30% who you know and 40% luck. It's about being in the right place at the right time. I personally believe that the more you get yourself noticed the better. Good old fashioned exprience beats all I think. I have a lots of friends who are in prfessional roles who have been there when the timing was right and been snapped up for roles. Sure studying Drama is good but if you haven't got talent, you haven't got talent and all the money in the world spent on training isn't going to magically make you talented. If you imagine the money that would be spent on studying, now think of what else it can be used for. Why not try having professional headshots taken and forward them on to casting directors, agents, producers etc. Make a show reel. Travel around anywhere possible and become involved in production and backstage work if necessary, even if it means doing it voluntary for a time. There's many other ways to be involved in the acting industry... just think outside the box. Where there's a front door there's always a back door, just persevere. So, all those who haven't studied or physically can't for whatever reason, it's not the be all and end all. Just never give up and never stop trying. Get yourself out there. The world is a big place - there's always going to be something available for everyone and if you're serious enough, you'll go and find it, before anyone else does! Remember, Rome wasn't built in a day! :)

I went to University mostly because of money, also I wasn't 100% sure what I wanted to do and so wanted an all encompassing course rather than just acting, directing, design etc. I enjoyed myself, and got involved with a lot of interesting projects outside of the course and managed to get a nice 2.1 as well. University offered me the chance to get involved in a mixture things from set design to teaching and writing for the Uni magazine. I would love to go to drama school now but can't afford it. University should not be seen as second to drama school, University can work well if you research the course before handing over your cash, if you are pro active and like to try new things it is an excellent opportunity. I know I should of done more, it is only after leaving I realised how much I hadn't done and things that I want to do are so much more difficult without likeminded people on your door step, space to play and try things out and tutors to offer advice.

You have to do your research. If you want to go to drama school or University go to an open day, go to a production. See the quality they turn out. Don't just blindly stick a choice on your UCAS form and hope for the best.
I have known students decide they want to go to a particular Uni/Drama School, pay the money for an audition then hate the place when they go. Gut feeling and research go hand in hand - get out there and find out. I have taught in Drama schools and witnessed some of the most lazy, uninspiring teaching. I have taught in Universities and have been in absolute awe at the commitment and passion of the teachers. Do your research, you owe it to yourself.

I agree with the comment from Sally, it really does depend on how much research you do on a university. There are a lot of university's who only give theory based education but there are a lot of university's giving training which is on the same level as drama schools they just haven't being publicized yet.
I went to audition to drama schools believing this would be best, I have to be honest there wasn't a single one of them which stuck out for me, in quite a few (not all) I felt like the people auditioning me couldn't care less if I did a good audition or a bad one.
At one drama school I went to when I was talking to a student who went there she told me out right I won't get in due to my accent (I don't know if this is true or not)
I also looked at university's and found a small university in Wales which had an acting course and I spoke to graduates from the course and they were more than happy to give me their truthful thoughts on the course.
I chose to audition as everything I had heard was really good; it had only one theory lesson a week the rest all practical. Long hours and taught by people still working in the industry today. They also give you the chance to go on an exchange course in America in the final year.
One big point that pushed me towards this place was the graduate I spoke to had been graduated for 11 months and had being working for an amazing 9 months!

I have now almost finished my first year training here and it pushes you to the limit and beyond but I have learnt so much already. A bonus is we have small classes of 15.
SO yes I agree SOME universities are not up to the standards of drama schools but there are those hidden universities which are just as good as drama schools. SO please don't write off all universities as useless as this is not true.

Hi Susan
We are an agency who work on behalf of Urdang and I was interested to read your post and comments from students. What is evident is that the industry is highly competitive and students will need to not only learn the techniques of their trade, together with self-discipline but have useful industry exposure to Not all colleges deliver this critical mix so it's understandable that some students could feel frustrated and disappointed at the end.
I'd point interested students to always deeply research the destination rates (how many graduates find work at the end), what sort of work the graduates achieve, read Ofsted reports (see Urdang's news here ) as well as attending open days and auditions, talk to current students, visit Facebook and twitter pages to get "a feeling" of the place.
Never leave this to chance! It's your future at stake, get the best start you can!
Warm regards
Caroline

Such a difficult topic considering information and help from the industry is near-impossible to find outside cities, and those we have instead dishing out advice tend to gloss over performance careers with a shocking disinterest. When I left school 3 years ago, (and frankly to this day), the responses I was hearing were that acting is a lovely extracurricular activity but to consider anything more is just a bit silly now, isn't it. I managed to glean for myself that a standard university degree in 'Drama' was not what I wanted or needed, but succumbed to that same notion of 'doing the regular degree first'.

Over halfway through, I am every bit as resolute as I was then to audition for Drama School once I have finished. The unforeseen HUGE spanner in the works is our new government's decisions on tutoring fees. The concept of conjuring the funds for a post-grad course in a vocational field, with scholarships nigh impossible to grasp, seemed impossible enough before. Now, the fear of how I'm going to afford this next stage in my life is overwhelming. I'm prepared to be a broke actor struggling to get by, but I need to find the wealth to GET there first.

I realise this is off topic, however since I am obviously not alone in this, any advice for soon-to-be grads looking to do that which they wanted to do first time around and be properly trained, (particularly in reference to funding), would be warmly and so gratefully received.

I went to Hull University to do Drama and Music before going on to study musical theatre at Mountview Academy. I know that I am very lucky to have done both and if I were leaving school now, there's no way I could have done. Personally, I was far too young and naive to go straight to drama school and I needed to get some partying out of my system before focusing 100% on my training. Hull university has an absolutely fantastic and well respected drama department and I had some incredible opportunities. However, I was very lucky to have found this course at all because I was given SUCH bad advice at school by my careers advisor. I was told that because I was predicted good grades, I should apply to Oxford and Cambridge - even though they don't even offer a drama degree - because I stood a good chance of getting in. To me, this is crazy advice and I'm so glad I didn't take it (I would never have got in anyway!) I think that I definitely made the right decision to go to drama school after university but I had to come to that conclusion by myself after weeks of research and travelling accross the UK visitng various places because there was nobody who could advise me what to do. I think it's awful that teachers are not encouraging vocational training because people mature at different ages and many young people are ready at 18 to head straight to drama school.

I went to a drama school...

I think the real question is not University vs drama school, but looking at the systems already in place and seeing if they are serving the industry and those wanting to be apart of the it.

This is an oversubscribed industry, particuarly in performance. Therefore there is a fear that the drama schools hold a major authority over how the next generation of performers turn out, with many young people beliving that gaining a place at drama school is the gate to a successful career. To be honest, you can often see young performers training a mile off, that is until they learn to inhabit their techniques, refine their skills and through experience develop themsleves as performers. This does not happen in three years. It is not the drama school that makes a performer but what they go on to do next!

Needless to say this next step can be as elitest as in any career path. It is well known that students from Oxford or Cambridge are often given a foot in the door when it comes to contacts and interviews, well the same can be said of the major drama schools.

My course had too many people on it, resources were stretched and as a result alot of people did not feel they gained the experience they had signed up for. Particuarly when they heard of alternative University courses with less than half the intake of students and great contact hours. In contrast however, we did have some excellent tutors and enjoyed graduating with my peers, some of whome have gone on to do some pretty amazing things.

People are right, research and effort are needed to find the right drama school/University (and course within that institution) for you. This may not be the most famous one, but the place that you walk in and feel you can dedicate yourself to for three years.

In my first year auditioning I was often turned away due to my age - something which at the time I did not understand. As it happened the year after I was successful. Apart from being surrounded by other people my age, I wish I had actually taken time in the industry before drama school. This way I would have had the oppertunity to go in asking the right questions and pushing myself to succeed, without the obtrusive school mentality.

So my final point (after too long a ramble...) is that maybe we should be looking to promote training on the job - as old rep companies used to offer, to build up your skills in a real environment - earning as you go.

Just an idea.


This is a tricky one and it depends entirely on the individual.
Vocational training is certainly not an easy option and requires complete dedication at an early age. However, there is plenty of hands on experience and opportunity to meet the right people. This must be an advantage when trying to get that first job?
As a parent, I have some sympathy with your teaching friend who has a talented student and knows that the performing arts industry is over-subscribed and difficult to break into. For some impressionable young people, perhaps 3 years of academic study (or not) with a good degree (or not) at the end and time to mature and assess priorities is not such a bad thing? Contrary to general belief, not all who go on to postgraduate drama school courses have wealthy parents! ( It is no consolation that would be performers may never earn enough to ever have to pay off their mounting loans.)
Agree that what must be improved is the careers advice given to students and their expectations of university as opposed to drama school . University courses on the whole will not teach you to perform or pave the way to a job in performing arts but they could teach you many life skills that would be useful in a performing arts career.
Realistically, either route may see you without work!

Hi Susan, have read this with much interest. Your "angry graduate" story is one that we have heard over and over again at the American Academy - it seems that some (NOT all) drama course just don't deliver what they promise, and we have students who come to our part time Sunday programme having been to drama school and still not feeling prepared for the Business. I read somewhere that it's harder to get into drama school than to get into Oxford or Cambridge University these days(!) so when you do get a place you really need to get the most out of it. I'd suggest asking the following questions for anyone looking for a good performing arts school; 1)if you claim that your tutors are West End performers, how recently were they in a show? 2) what practical skills do you teach your students about the business (besides the performance skills)? 3) how much performance experience do you offer? 4) what sort of emotional support do you offer your students? Finally, I get so frustrated by hearing that people have been to drama school where they "strip you down to build you back up". In my experience of this fragile industry, most people seem to come away remembering having been broken down, but not quite having made it to the building back up part.

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