The Stage have been covering the news of ALRA’s sudden closure this week, and they’ve even attempted to address the issue of vocational training under threat, in a great article by Georgia Snow which I was grateful to have been invited to add a comment to.

However in the article what isn’t explicitly named is how the vocational training ‘establishment’ chased what they believed to be the golden goose of funding, and in doing so sold our industry down the river without a paddle.  Let me explain.

You categorically do not need a degree per se to be a performer. For sure you need a skill set, and techniques to enhance your talent, but you don’t ‘need’ the piece of paper. A casting breakdown will discuss a look, a skill set, and possibly mention that the person needs to have undergone training – it will never mention a qualification. In fact, the introduction of formal HE qualifications is a relatively recent thing eg Birds introduced the first dance degree in 1997 – just 25 years ago. Of course, it wasn’t that long before every established college was offering degrees – and why? Well, it’s actually quite simple – they thought that a degree would open up a pot of money which would attract more students. A degree guarantees the college between £6K-£10K per person. Now back in the 1990s that must have sounded idyllic.  What a way to ‘open up access’ and get funding to all. . . including the colleges’ bank balance too.

Of course, this is also when things took a nasty turn – because the colleges & universities that validated these degrees (as very few colleges actually have the right to issue their own degrees) also saw the golden goose, and also wanted in on these highly desirable courses. These courses were for many, a pathway to “the dream”. So universities also started to advertise “industry-ready” courses. Some of them on realising quite how much demand there was to be a performer starting adding courses all over the place. They’d have their “jewel-in-the-crown” course, but they also had some mop-up courses too (hello foundation courses and a whole range of Post Graduate courses). 

The difficulty though was obvious quite soon – degrees are like the ASDA world of training, pile ’em high and sell them low. Cram 200 students into a lecture theatre, pop one lecturer in front, introduce the idea of private study and Bob’s your uncle, it’s a course running on a healthy profit, throw in long holidays, an occasional reading week/half term and sit back and watch your profits grow.

So this it where it’s gone wrong, as training to be a performer just doesn’t work like that. You need small classes as you need to work on the individuals – you can’t ‘batch teach’. You also need a lot of contact hours, as there’s just too much to cover if you want to do it right. Then add in the fact that you really need to be doing a show or two (and they’re not cheap to produce) and suddenly those figures don’t look so healthy. So what happened? They all started to take more students to increase the income, forgetting that with more students you needed more studios, more teachers, more productions, we started to see things double/triple cast. . . yet nobody said a word. They were applauded for getting bigger! Their size became synonymous with their success, whereas in reality they were slowly selling out.

The universities didn’t even play the game from the outset, they made sure that the figures added up, so simply cut the number of contact hours. There are currently courses that only do 16 contact hours/week with cohorts ranging from 30 – 60, they don’t do any shows – but they’re still claiming to get people industry-ready. Step forward the ‘mop-up’ Post Grad programmes at the drama colleges ready to take more money to provide what their undergraduate course should have – but couldn’t afford to.

The vocational colleges slowly faded out the diploma courses or at least merged them enough with the degrees so that nobody noticed, as their business models became volume over quality. Elite courses that were once the very best of the UK vocational dance/drama scene became ALDI, loads of stock, loss leaders helping to support the creme de la creme (if you have over 100/year and run several courses it’s relatively simple to have enough good news stories to cover up the fact that a large majority of your graduates haven’t done as well as you’d hope, add in decades of history and alumni that can keep that PR flame burning and those loss leaders will still fight to get into your college).

Now add into the mix the fact that the government haven’t increased the fee structure for a number of years, yet all of the costs have increased, and some 25 years later after they all found the “Money Tree” not only has it stopped delivering – it’s now asking for money back. To train a performer effectively costs around £14K – £16k/year (depending on what other courses you have running, and what facilities you have free access to) – so suddenly that £6k-£10k golden goose has turned into a headless chicken flapping around looking for more revenue.

Lots of them found additional revenue from fleecing overseas students. There’s never been an explanation as to why they felt it was OK to charge overseas students thousands of pounds more than UK residents, other than of course, it was still deemed to be a bargain compared to courses in their own countries. So it was the supply of the market I guess. However, Brexit meant that a huge chunk of that additional revenue dried up, as a surprisingly large percentage of vocational colleges are not permitted to sponsor a student visa. In other words – the “Money Tree” has well and truly been felled.

Here’s the really sh*t bit though. When they chased the “goose” (apologies for using two metaphors), they left behind the true vocational training. They didn’t fight one iota when the government stopped the PCDL – the only loan available for vocational training in the UK. They didn’t fight because they weren’t affected. The colleges within the FDS had long forgotten their roots – more than that they’d drawn up the drawbridge from the start to ensure that they were safe. They didn’t care about the training industry – they cared about themselves. Those self-appointed elite colleges abandoned vocational training and opted for self-preservation. When people started to question their teaching methods they looked the other way. As investigation after investigation started over (now) proven racism and abuse they have said nothing! They protected their own – when they should have been protecting their students. 

So here we are – the goose is cooked, the Money Tree has been felled, and those of us that stuck to the belief that training was about talent, nurturing, and individuality are all on the outside deemed to be collateral damage. Yet this week that damage happened to one of their own and ALRA folded.

Equity suddenly got involved – but they have done absolutely nothing to help to protect vocational training in the UK.  In fact more than that, they perpetuate the myth of ‘you need a degree to become an actor by only accepting colleges that do a recognised diploma/degree onto their graduate programme and let’s be clear – they do absolutely nothing to regulate the training industry, they do nothing to hold the colleges to account. 

We will lose other colleges – bring on some more articles in The Stage discussing why, bring on more voices of shock from within the industry – but it all happened when you all watched from the sidelines.

Just this month another brilliant vocational college was sold off to a uni, in the past few years another couple of brilliant colleges were sold off to a conglomerate. You can keep celebrating the buildings – but the people inside those buildings the staff and the students are now just numbers on the database, and numbers on some accountant’s spreadsheet, and when those numbers don’t add up – more doors will be forced to close.