Why are funding organisations — student loans, DaDA and so on — so fixated on courses meeting a fifth birthday criterion before participating students qualify for financial support?
Yes, of course, we need safeguards and cannot go pouring what is effectively public money into the pockets of doubtful, fly-by-night exploitative, soi-disant training providers who don’t deliver the goods. But that does not, in my view, mean that only students in a handful (22 to be precise) of CDS schools and dance trainers accredited by CDET should get funding.
‘Accreditation’ is a very blunt instrument. I could take you to half a dozen impressive ‘unaccredited’ schools - usually dedicated to music theatre - which have started in the last couple of years or are launching this year. A school such as Music Theatre Academy, for example, is doing an outstanding job. I have seen its students in action several times. The standard is astonishing and 25% of its first intake is already signed up by agents four months before they graduate. Few accredited schools can match that. Yet MTA’s students get almost nothing in funding support because the college falls short of the five-year rule.
Why cannot each school be independently assessed for funding eligibility by people who really understand the requirements of training which is fit for purpose? The number of years the course has been running, or whether it ‘belongs’ to a CDS school, should have nothing to do with it.
As it is, the only hope for schools such as MTA is private sponsorship, altruism or scholarships provided by the schools themselves. Some - Herbert Justice Academy, whose full-time vocational course starts in September, for example - have the resources to help students in this way. Most do not.
Enter the new 2011 arrangement for the BBC Performing Arts Fund which has helped over 160 students with grants totalling more than £630,000 since the fund’s inception in 2003.
This year grants will — DaDA style — be made to colleges teaching music theatre, rather than to individual students. The average grant is expected to be £5,000 and around 25 colleges should get one.
But buried in the small print is this statement: “Courses must have run for five complete years to be eligible.”
There’s the rub. That same unfairness is built in and students who opt for a new course or college are penalised.
If you take this situation to its logical extreme, you could argue (I wouldn’t of course, but one could) that performing arts students simply aren’t worth funding at all. Most graduates will never earn the £21,000 a year which will be the starting point for student loan repayment from 2016. The threshold is £15,000 until then. So, from the taxpayers’ point of view, and no doubt the Daily Mail’s, these students are bad news.
Or another, more subversive, way of looking at it is to rejoice in the fact that most performing arts students, in effect, will get free training from 2012 when tuition fees rise and new arrangements come into force - but only if they play the system and train with the mainstream providers running established (for at least five years), accredited courses.
Either way, it makes no sense at all to lump performing arts students in with, say, undergraduate historians and economists in universities. Very specific, practical vocational training is a completely different animal from an academic, information-based course of study.
And, worst of all, students who choose to train in any other way, or anywhere apart from with a small number of providers, are on their own. It is almost as if funded training were run as a cartel — illegal in other industries. How can it possibly be fair?
Funding is in a mess and needs sorting out as a matter of urgency - but preferably not by a group of civil servants who’ve never been to the theatre or watched students in training.