Campus close-up: The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts

The financial woes of its early years forgotten, LIPA’s head explains how the oversubscribed creative hub is extending its reach

August 21, 2014
Source: Alamy
Difficult birth: financial woes in LIPA’s early years have given way to a stable existence with eight undergraduate courses

Mark Featherstone-Witty, chief executive of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and co-founder of the institution with Sir Paul McCartney, pulls no punches when describing the early days of his institution’s existence. “Times Higher Education gave them the oxygen to say lots of negative things about us,” he says of critics who came forward at the time.

In the first years after it opened its doors in 1996, LIPA was beset by scandal. Refurbishment costs for the main building (Sir Paul’s old school) amounted to £13.5 million, £6 million more than estimated; senior academics quit following what was described at the time as “a breakdown in morale”; and a 2001 Higher Education Funding Council for England report told the institution to “conduct a full review of the effectiveness of its governance arrangements”.

In those troubled times, several LIPA employees contacted THE to blow the whistle on what they felt were unacceptable practices at their institution, as Mr Featherstone-Witty recalls.

He said: “It was more than just a job for me – it was quite personal.”

Thirteen years on from the Hefce report, LIPA now offers eight undergraduate courses across performing arts disciplines, in addition to three foundation courses. All are validated by the nearby Liverpool John Moores University.

“Nobody in living memory has started a higher education institution from scratch in the UK, except us,” Mr Featherstone-Witty told THE when asked about the initial difficulties. “You might be right to say we were naive, but there was no blueprint either. As we did what we could, the bureaucrats were filling up the holes behind us to make sure it didn’t happen again. So you still can’t start a higher education institute from scratch in this country like you can in the US. Various things become universities, like polytechnics, but you can’t start at the very beginning.”

The institution is now oversubscribed (with 15 applications for each place), and LIPA interviews every one of its more than 650 successful applicants (or, more accurately for its performance-heavy courses, auditions them). According to its most recent accounts, the institution has reported a combined surplus of about £2.5 million over the past two years.

It is a far cry from the early years, when the institution’s financial position was so perilous that Mr Featherstone-Witty was forced to explore more creative ways to make money. One, he said, involved a national newspaper who had claimed “that this whole thing was falling to pieces and somebody needed to be blamed. They couldn’t blame Paul McCartney so they blamed me. In the end they lost a libel case and paid out £15,000; I thought this was a rather novel way of making money.”

LIPA also tried to pass some of the financial burden on to students. “To get ourselves out of revenue issues, we started charging students a £500 facilities fee,” he says – adding that they were subsequently told that they “couldn’t do that”.

LIPA is now extending its reach further down the education system. A free school that will eventually accommodate 364 primary students will be opened by LIPA in partnership with Edge Hill University in September, while a LIPA sixth-form college is hoping to receive accreditation from the Department for Education in time to receive its first intake next year.

“The primary school is part of our widening participation agenda,” Mr Featherstone-Witty said. “We have to engage with primary schools, but how the hell do you do that without doing something completely superficial? We thought, let’s do it properly.”

In numbers

96% of LIPA’s graduates are in work three years after leaving the institute, and 87 per cent of them work in the performing arts

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