Seldom have I been so frustrated than I’ve been this weekend reading the media (legacy and social) coverage that Central has had over the fact that they’ve decided to scrap their audition fees. People lauding them as trailblazers, industry professionals asking when the others will follow. . . all the usual stuff, except that Central are BEHIND the curve not leading it.

Liverpool Theatre School scrapped fees back in 2018, Manchester’s Arden Theatre School scrapped fees in 2019, as did Fourth Monkey and Leed, In 2022 LIPA scrapped their fees and ALRA reduced theirs to £5. Countless smaller colleges scrapped their audition fees years ago – I know at The MTA we stopped charging before the pandemic struck – I wrote about my reasons behind that decision here, questioning why the practice was continuing when so many colleges had made the shift. I’m mindful that there are countless others that have made similar decisions too.

The fact of the matter has always been that audition fees are a valuable resource for the colleges as they cram in the applicants for a relatively extortionate amount of money with (for so many applicants) very little return. We’re talking about thousands of pounds worth of revenue that the established colleges did not want to lose, even though those same colleges have substanstial financial support from various benefactors, local councils etc. As with all things in our industry it doesn’t matter how much you shout about it, the establishment keeps its head down and carries on as “normal”, with no desire or necessity to make a change.

There is something laughable for all colleges that have removed this “obstacle for training” under the guise of making our industry accessible though – as it’s frankly ludicrous to suggest that the “poor” will suddenly be able to access quality vocational training by dropping the £50 audition fee. How do they afford to get to the audition, how do they afford the audition prep with many colleges being so specific about what it is they need to see in order to assess if you’re good enough for them, then the zinger of all zingers – how the hell do they afford top up fees, equipment lists and living expenses when their families are struggling to survive?

The argument is always – “well at least it’s a start”, without acknowledging that it truly isn’t. It’s clickbait to make an elitist industry feel virtuous.

It was so disheartening to read the comments under the announcements, where were the comments demanding that all FDS colleges scrap audition fees? Even more telling (IMO) was the absence of the questions asking why now? Call me cynical but at the moment vocational training colleges are really struggling to recruit enough students to be solvent. Government funding does not cover the cost of the courses, the flow of overseas students that the colleges used to fleece in order to make up the deficit has been stemmed by Brexit and the Tories. The FDS colleges are facing some serious competition from the conglomerate upstarts – LCM, BIMM to name just a couple, both of whom now mop up an extraordinary number of students per year.

I said when The MTA was closing the first time (I mean. . . you’ve got to laugh), that vocational training was at real risk. The smaller schools that used to train the people rejected from the bigger schools are struggling as fewer people get rejected as it’s now a numbers game in order to balance the books. Colleges that once had huge reserve lists are now struggling to fill their places because the new kids on the block are snapping up the students with truly brilliant social media marketing campaigns, generating viral hits and making them look like the most exciting places to train.

Dance colleges are a fascinating study of how the training industry has evolved as legions of alumni are being usurped in the marketing campaigns by endless videos of tricks and punchy routines – you now need to go to a “cool” school as opposed to one with a proven track record for success. That said those proven track records are looking a little ropey over recent years too as the vast majority of students leave colleges never securing a contract. The perfect storm of an industry struggling to get back on its feet after the pandemic, colleges lowering the standard of entry as Brexit took hold, a cost of living crisis, the rise of the conglomerate colleges, and a population decrease.

So forgive me if I don’t celebrate Central’s much lauded decision, whilst commending their publicist for the decision getting such great coverage. However I would have prefered all those column inches to have gone on the crisis in our vocational training industry not a virtue signalling act from a college that could have found the resources to have done this years ago.