Drama and design courses continue to become more popular
ONCE sniffily regarded as one of the more marginal university subjects, drama and theatre studies is fast becoming part of the establishment.
Bristol University's drama department, the first to be set up, has just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Others at Manchester, Birmingham and Hull are now thirtysomethings.
Courses at London universities such as Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths, relative latecomers to the subject, have become respected members of the academic world.
Applications for drama courses have topped 33,690 this year, up more than 4,200 on 1996, making it one of the most popular subjects.
It is now hard to believe that many drama departments were threatened in the early 1980s. Funding cuts and the impression that drama was one of the more easily expendable subjects nearly spelt its end in many institutions.
But its supporters managed to save it and, with both the addition of the new universities, the number and variety of drama departments have mushroomed. So has the number of students wanting to study the subject. With 6,475 applicants for 2,816 places, drama usually has the pick of high-scoring A-level candidates.
Studying drama at a university has also entitled students to a mandatory award - giving them the edge on drama schools, where students have to apply for a discretionary grant. Sir Ron Dearing said in his report that all drama students should get the same financial support.
This means that while nearly all drama courses include a strong practical element, they also more than hold their own academically.
Heads of departments insist their job is quite different from that of drama schools.
Most university courses will include training in all aspects of theatre, from voice and movement exercises to stage and lighting design. But they will also include lectures on theatre history, texts and theory.
Philip Roberts, chairman of the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments (SCUDD), said: "Some departments are more academic than others but while everyone accepts the notion of practical work being a central part of what goes on, it is not possible to do extremely well in drama unless you can show yourself to be articulate, thoughtful and able to write."
Changes in the way the subject is taught have seen performance theory emphasised. Students are now urged to theorise the practical work they do in the theatre or studio and to practise the theory they learn in the classroom.
Postmodernist attitudes and the treatment of different aspects of life as a series of texts have all influenced the way drama has been taught in recent years.
University drama still has difficulty proving its research credentials because of the emphasis on practical work, but SCUDD is trying to find ways to measure the value of this practical aspect for the publication-based research assessment exercise.
Drama courses have also seen more use of information technology, work placements with professional theatre groups and more emphasis on community work.
Fringe and alternative theatre have had a big impact, taking students away from traditional texts and into other areas such as foreign and translated plays.
Drama lecturers stress that they give students a general arts education, rather than prepare them to be actors or technicians.
While most students who study drama want a career related in some way to theatre, drama graduates are increasingly going into other fields.
Baz Kershaw, professor of theatre and performance at Lancaster University, said: "Courses that combine theory and practice are producing people who are pretty flexible in the skills they have and how they can use them in terms of a career."
* In 1996/97 there were 9,856 students studying drama; 722 were European Union and other overseas students.
lThere were more than 5,980 women on undergraduate drama courses, but only 2,660 men.
* Royal Holloway, University of London,was the only department to be awarded a 5* in the last research assessment exercise.
Source: UCAS and HESA