When you’re forced to close a business, you’re also forced to be self-reflective to work out what went wrong. Over the past few months as the seriousness of The MTA’s position became ever clearer to me I’ve done nothing but self reflect. The obvious answer really must be that the course didn’t work – after all, if it did we’d have people queuing outside the door to come and train with us, except that in many ways we did have those people queuing up – but they all turned away when they found out that our course came with no funding stream. It didn’t matter how much we’d try to reassure them that we’d find a way to make it work for them, we know for a fact that it stopped people auditioning.
This dichotomy of running a college that clearly worked – 100% of students securing agent representation is no mean feat when you’re not massaging your figures with signings with associated agencies. In total we trained 193 students through to graduation, and a further 15 were trained up to the end of their first year. When I opened the college I was told that 95% of our graduates would drop out of the industry within 5 years. I always vowed to base our success on the longevity of the careers that we created. Pre-pandemic a staggering 78% of our graduates were still in the industry with 23% of those having secured West End or No 1 touring contracts. However that’s just the PR headline, as the reality is even richer, our graduates went on to perform all over the world, from Lapland to the USA (via China, Malaysia, Australia), working at the National, the RSC, West End, International tours, open-air theatres, schools, community theatre, on screens big and small.
Hard to see the place as a failure when you’re looking at the evidence, isn’t it?
So where did we go wrong? We stuck to the idea that vocational training was enough to get you a career, we didn’t buy into the Tory-inspired myth that people needed a qualification to succeed in our industry. We invested in the students, not in the system. That ultimately was our downfall. With no desire to expand, the business model literally involved securing enough students year after year to train with us. We had various plans in place for low numbered year groups so we plodded along quite nicely. However, in 2019 with the demise of the PCDL, it became harder to recruit students as we suddenly had no funding attached at all. We saw the drop of applicants instantly during the 2020 ‘audition season’. We started to explore other options but these things take time, so when we were suddenly facing Brexit (20% of our students tended to come from the EU, but we would no longer be permitted to train them), and then Covid right on top of it, all the wheels that we had started to put in action ground to a halt.
We had exhausted our evaluation of moving to a degree model when we realised that to successfully do that we would need to change our course in order to make it financially viable as we could only realise a certain amount of government funding. It was suggested that we could introduce the idea of a reading week (thereby saving us money), or dropping some of the performances, or putting private study time in – basically filling the course with non-contact hours in order to save money, but at the expense of the training. Then we explored taking on extra students in order to make up the deficit that we would hit should we end up running a degree course which didn’t give us the option of adding a top-up. Of course, by taking that route we would once again be diluting the students’ training – so we just wouldn’t do it. However even if we’d opted to sell out that much in order to secure a degree status course we knew that the timeframes involved in all that (pointless) bureaucracy would be too long, and the pandemic pushed those timeframes ever longer.
We were mid exploring applying to get approved for a named diploma. Whilst we’d gone down this route once before, we were stopped by their criteria of only considering 3-year courses. This time though we pursued it and were negotiating the changing of the wording of that one sentence, setting the criteria at minimum hours/year as opposed to naming the length of the course. The organisation was definitely up for it but needed to discuss it fully as a Board themselves as this was a major change for them. That meeting still hasn’t happened over a year later. . . as of course covid has meant that other things have had to get prioritised.
To give you an idea of the timeframes involved, all of this was going on (including independent consultations) whilst we had been forced like every other UK college to put our training online. Even writing that reminds me of the stress that we were under at the time. Desperately restructuring the course to ensure that our students still made progress during 2 terms of online training, attempting our best to pastorally support them all, plus try to strategise how we could protect the college against the oncoming juggernaut of Brexit just 2 years after the demise of the PCDL.
Of course, as the 2021 audition season kicked off the world felt a little less certain after months of lockdowns, so we weren’t surprised when the applications slowly came in as opposed to all land together as they did every other year. The expectation was of course that we’d get later applications once things were more normal. The Christmas Covid wave was on its way – who the hell would be applying for college then? As the applications started to trickle in we also saw a much larger percentage than normal of withdrawals – even before coming to the audition. Now, this was a new pattern for us. On one of our audition days literally, 2/3rds of the applicants withdrew at the last minute. We’d been forced to move their audition date when we went into lockdown in January, but this was still really unusual.
As we always audition late we usually get a steady stream of applications from May-August each year, in fact, several times in our history it was the August auditions that proved to provide us with a large percentage of our year group. However, those applications just never materialised this year. Then when all the applicants dropped out of our June audition date (again, a first for us), it was clear that things were really bad and potentially critical. Board meetings were hurriedly called in a bid to update but also brainstorm new ideas. Friends of the college started to lend their expertise (very generously I must add) in a bid to see what was going on, the marketing spend increased, hell I even gave up 2.5 months going live on social media 4 times a week in a bid to remind people that we were here and still auditioning. Literally, nothing worked.
Other friends came on board with suggestions of where we could raise charitable donations in a bid to support our class of 2022 to finish their year (with the hope that this was just a ‘perfect storm’ situation, but next year would be better). A call to action was sent out to everyone and anyone we could think of, but of the 40 or so emails that I sent out we had just one reply, and whilst that person offered a donation, it was clear that we weren’t going to hit our figure, or indeed get anywhere near it. In truth when it came down the fact that we were going to need to raise the funds I knew that we were stuffed. Over the last 3 years we’d undertaken a brilliant fundraising feasibility study, the consultants involved felt sure that we would be able to raise a regular amount of money/year in order to fulfil my dream of running a college where 50% of the places were funded. Yet a couple of brilliant fundraisers later, and a load of rejected applications, and it was quickly evident that people weren’t interested in independent colleges. How many times did I read that sentence “we’ve already allocated our funds to other institutions” only to see the same old names come up time and time again.
We were aware of the ticking clock of the end of the academic year which meant that students would be putting down deposits on houses for the next year, plus of course starting to pay for their 2nd year (or 1st year) So it was at this point that the Board had to make the devastating decision to close as if we didn’t close we would run out of money by March. The business model could not support the size of the year that we had coming in, and the business model of the course was never designed around just one year group (well. . . other than our first year obviously).
So a week ago I had to start making calls to other colleges to try and secure an alternative for our first years. I mean how bloody horrific for your college to close in the middle of your training, but also how horrific to be planning your new London life at your drama college only to get the rug pulled from beneath you 3 months before? Knowing that we were letting down 22 students was by far the hardest part of this journey. Also going into college to work with them whilst knowing that things were not looking great was horrible, and definitely not a position that I’d ever want myself to be in again, and in fairness I wasn’t scheduled that much during the first few weeks anyway as I was also trying to write a show whilst this real life drama was unfolding. The only thing I could think of to soften that blow was to try and secure them places at another college. I am indebted to Leo at Associated Studios who firstly didn’t just try to grab the money when I called her, but first offered to sit down with me to see if there was anything that we could do to save the college, but then secondly reassured me that as another 2 year MT course in London she could take on our lot if they chose that option. This of course meant that they could continue their training together. Obviously, it’s up to them whether they take this option, but I’m so relieved that the option was offered to them. Plus thanks to Louise at PPA and Adrian at LSMT for also agreeing to see any of our students that were interested in their courses. So nothing here is ideal, but at least there were 3 concrete alternatives being proposed to the 22 students most impacted by this and indeed 2 of those options were considerably cheaper than us, and potentially came with government funding attached.
. . . and so we’re here with the announcement of our closure.
As you can imagine there is so much more to sort out now, and the next few months are going to be difficult for all of us I’m sure. Why the blog? Because I need to remind myself right now quite how hard I fought to save the college that I set up in 2009. I need to hold onto the reality that I really tried everything to save it. 100% I failed, but as no doubt I’ll cover in another blog (now that this one is out of my head), there’s been a massive shift in the training industry this year, and I think that we’re going to see a very different landscape emerging over the next few years unless somebody starts to regulate it.