Dramatic tension as theatre college mulls privatisation

Silence over premium funding leaves Rose Bruford head pondering role change. Simon Baker reports

February 17, 2011

Credit: Mere Words
'Akin to a medical school': Rose Bruford offers 'high-end technical training'

A drama school head has said he has little option but to consider going private because of a lack of guidance from the government over funding.

Michael Earley, principal of Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance, said the only things that gave him reason to "pause" before implementing such a plan were his commitment to widening access and worries about the impact on jobs. He said that despite ministers listening to the fears of specialist arts institutions - which are set to lose all their mainstream teaching grant when higher fees are introduced - they remain in the dark about the extent of the cuts and face a "perilous" future.

Rose Bruford, which offers vocational training for the theatre industry from its South London campus, currently receives extra targeted funding of almost £900,000 to top up its mainstream grant of £2.5 million.

Professor Earley said this "premium funding", which is also awarded to other institutions with similar remits, has allowed it to meet the higher costs of providing intense tuition, which can exceed 30 hours a week on some courses.

But he told Times Higher Education that it remained uncertain whether this funding would continue, despite the government's December grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England recommending that specialists continue to receive help.

"I can't be confident because we have been also told by other parts of Hefce not to depend on it and that our premium funding has to be seen as 'at risk'," he said. "We won't know until they have made some kind of decision. But no one is talking to us and no one is mentioning it - that's the sad thing."

He said David Willetts, the universities minister, had been "incredibly open" and "willing to listen" at a recent dinner with drama school heads, but displayed a lack of knowledge about the sector and seemed to think that it was just about "training entertainers".

Professor Earley, who previously taught theatre studies at Yale University, said the "high-end technical training" offered by colleges such as Rose Bruford was often closer to science than arts courses, despite being seen as a branch of the humanities.

"It is full of toil and is almost scientific in the way it trains both the human psyche and the physical self, and there are elements of it that are almost akin to a medical school," Professor Earley said.

He added that although the excellent employment prospects for Rose Bruford graduates and the reputation of the college meant that it could command tuition fees of £9,000, the government would likely seek to prevent it doing so because of its stated desire to keep fees down.

If premium funding were withdrawn, the college would have to consider privatisation, Professor Earley said, despite worries over the risk of sacrificing the college's "exceptionally good" widening participation record.

He cited the University of Buckingham and Regent's College London as models "we are forced to look at and analyse" despite the risk of privatisation shifting the balance toward overseas students.

"There is nothing stopping us, but we always have to hit the pause button," he said. "What will be the impact on jobs, and what will be the impact on providing training only for the top end of the market and those who can afford it?"


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