Back in 2021 when The MTA first announced that it was closing (don’t ask. . . it turned out to be a dress run for the following year) I said in our press release that we wouldn’t be the last college to close due to financial struggles. The irony being of course, that The MTA was sustainable had we secured a funding stream for our students as we were never short of applicants, just always short of applicants that could pay their fees.

Over the past few years, colleges have toppled – Colin’s, Cossons, Reads, The Poor School ALRA, The MTA (of course) and as of yesterday Evolution will be closing at the end of the year too. Then there are the colleges that have been absorbed by universities, GSA, Urdang, Drama Centre London (which subsequently closed), or taken over by large conglomerates such as BIMM (Performers, Masters). Then there are the colleges that are on the brink of survival. . . . none of which I’m going to name (obviously), suffice as to say that when I spoke to other principals at the time of our closure many of the conversations were in the realm of “there but for the grace of God go I”.

So what’s changed? Some might argue that it’s just evolution and change is good right? Well in this instance it’s very wrong. If a college is in cahoots with a university and offering a degree course, the chances are that the college is in financial trouble – as training to be a professional is a loss leader for so many universities. They gift you the validation usually on the condition that you keep growing – more students and more courses. However the standard Student Loan for an actor’s training hasn’t covered the cost of training for years – hence the reason why colleges like Arts Ed charge a top-up, or indeed colleges such as The MTA had to have a high price point in order to simply break even.

As I said in the 2021 press release – we had reached the point that we were celebrating colleges getting bigger – more studios, more students, without stopping for a moment to evaluate what that change was doing to the standard of training in the UK. I’ve previously written about how elite training was being dumbed down – quantity started to matter more than quality. One college changed its outlook from elite training to a lifestyle choice, another conglomerate college is getting quite the reputation for accepting everyone who applies – regardless of their ability. Many people will applaud the inclusivity of this before working out that oversubscribed colleges lowering the entry requirement means that the industry is being flooded with substandard performers all hustling for the same few jobs.

To balance the books more and more colleges are offering foundation courses and top-ups or masters. One-year courses can make up the deficit of the traditional 3 year course. Once again – those books have to balance so we’ve seen an increase in the number of students doing a foundation course – sadly, at the cost of the specialist colleges who had developed those very courses (eg Reads and Evolution). Students prefer to do their foundation course at their “dream college” in the hope that they’ll get a place on their main course at the end of the year. . . this is despite the colleges offering no guarantee of that.

The small, bespoke training college is in serious danger of going extinct – and nobody cares. The Federation of Drama Schools should be stepping in to try and save these colleges and indeed the decline in training and care – instead it hauled up the drawbridge, pretended to be advocating for vocational training whilst keeping its head down as the majority of its members have been rocked by scandal after scandal.

What about one of the other umbrella organisations? Interestingly they’ve all stayed quiet about every scandal, none of them have jumped in to support an institution in trouble (even when I was shouting about the fact that Trinity might be a bit dodgy given our experience of them and I was genuinely concerned for all colleges being validated by them. . . they all looked the other way). Like my blog earlier this week nobody is going to rock the boat. . . not when they’re all frantically bailing water out themselves it would seem.

Brexit, the demise of the Career Development Loan, Covid, the cost of living crisis, a government that has failed to support the arts in schools, a falling population, all contribute to the issues. The MTA is an outlier here for being brought down by another organisation’s disorganisation (allegedly. . . not that they’ve ever followed through on their threats to sue me for naming them as the issue). Repeated reports of alleged bullying, racism, abuse, toxicity, cover-ups have failed to damage the ‘old school’ as much as one would have thought. However there are some interesting new colleges coming through (new as in the last 15 years) which a) have never pretended to want to be small colleges – so have always had big plans, and b) have harnessed the power of social media much more successfully to build up a following which negates their lack of sustainable success (to date that is).

There will be more sellouts, more amalgamations and more closures, along with more students being crammed into more studios without adequate pastoral care to deal with the issues that training brings up. We’ll see more courses being added, and slowly but surely we’ll see less contact time, and more stories of systemic failings. Vocational training should never have been budgeted within the academic model – it always needed to be so much more than that. Eventually there seems to be little doubt that funding will be intrinsically linked with graduate success – and that, I believe, will be a major tipping point.

I’m clearly biased – I ran a small college. I don’t think that training performers should be done in batches. The exquisite performers are the individuals who have been given the skill set and support, to build on natural talent, and then are courageous enough to play around, whilst humble enough to know that they need to keep on working at their craft. In my opinion colleges should have always been bespoke – never “talent factories”, as our industry is all the poorer for it, and indeed there’s a whole generation of performers in training going to be financially poorer for it too. . . especially when they discover that they were just a number for cashflow.