The training of 'creative thinkers' is threatened by cost-cutting, says Tony Tysome
Drama academics fear that funding changes to their discipline could undo much of its development and growth of the past 40 years. They say cost-cutting by university managers could "suck the lifeblood" out of drama as a practical laboratory subject, confining it to the kind of classroom theory that was the mainstay of drama departments in the 1960s and 1970s.
Developments at the University of East Anglia, where the drama department faces closure, sum up the problems facing the subject.
UEA's planning and resources committee says that while the department recruits well and produces high-quality work, it is too expensive to run.
Talks are being held to look at how the department might be saved, and a final decision is expected in July.
Members of the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments (Scudd), which held its annual conference at Aberystwyth this month, are concerned that one aspect of UEA's financial rationale could threaten the discipline if adopted elsewhere.
A large chunk of UEA's assessment of the cost of drama is based on a new Pounds 150,000 annual charge that has been imposed on the department for use of studio space. Scudd says the introduction of charging for space is particularly ominous for drama. This is not only because the discipline uses so much space, but also because the use of space has become indispensable to the teaching of drama.
Since the 1980s, the practical exploration of performance has become integrated into drama courses that previously concentrated on theory and the study of dramatic texts. Drama has been transformed into a multidisciplinary subject, with academics and students incorporating into their work other subjects such as psychology and engineering.
The laboratory aspect of drama study has been recognised by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which grouped the subject with others, such as nursing, in its banding system for funding teaching. But the weighting for this band has been dropped from 1.5 to 1.3, and some academics fear institutions that previously saw drama as a useful source of funding will make cuts or demand impractical efficiencies.
David Pattie, reader in drama and theatre studies at University College Chester, foresees several possible damaging consequences. He said: "Either departments are asked to bring in more students to compensate for the cut, or the UEA situation is replicated elsewhere because drama becomes difficult to sustain. It is also possible it will lead to a cutback in practice elements so that drama becomes more classroom based. That would be like turning back the clock, and would take away one of its key strengths."
Barbara Bell, head of performance arts at Edge Hill College, warned that it was not possible for institutions to take such action without losing the features that made drama attractive to prospective students and employers.
"If you try to take out the practice and teach the theory only because you think it will be cheaper, you suck the lifeblood out of the discipline," she said.
So far, there are only a few signs that these fears could become a reality.
Many institutions continue to invest in drama facilities, rather than to cut or charge through the nose for them. This is because drama continues to be popular - student numbers have grown by more than 70 per cent in the past five years. Nevertheless, the situation at UEA, combined with the lower Hefce weighting, has made departments feel nervous and vulnerable.
Dan Rebellato, senior lecturer in drama at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: "What is distinctive about drama higher education in this country is the consistent and imaginative ways in which theory and practice work together. The worry is that universities will look at drama departments and say 'you use all this space, surely it will not matter if you take in more students?'. That is where the battle really needs to be fought, because you are doing an entirely different thing if you are in a space with, say, 28 students, rather than 15."
Part of this battle, drama academics realise, has to do with updating perceptions of the discipline. In the 1970s, universities concentrated on purely academic work while private drama schools trained students to become actors. But the two approaches gradually converged, so that practical work is now part of most university courses, and many drama schools run degree courses incorporating more academic study.
Carole-Anne Upton, senior lecturer in drama at Hull University, said this had many positive effects. "One is that because drama schools have had a lot of experience in the assessment of practice there has been some really useful dialogue between them and university departments. Another is that staff have been moving around between different kinds of institutions, and research opportunities have opened up with links to the creative industries," she said.
But it has also led to confusion among outsiders over what kind of work university drama departments do and what kind of facilities they need. Dr Rebellato said: "We need to get across the message that we are both a vocational and a serious academic subject."
Mike Pearson, professor of drama in the department of theatre, film and television at Aberystwyth University, originally trained as an archaeologist. Much of his work is "site specific", that is, set within geographical and social contexts. "It's to do with thinking about how you inform the nature and structure of the performance and its setting."
Professor Pearson said it helped students to prepare for the real world of work. "We are now getting an increasing number of students who may never work in the drama industry, and we have to offer them something else. That can be different ways of thinking about the world and giving them an extended notion of the potential of human communication."
According to graduate employment agency Prospects, last year about one in ten drama graduates from 2001 went into acting or other jobs in the industry. Nearly 7 per cent were believed to be unemployed. Robert Gordon, head of drama at Goldsmith's College, University of London, feels that preserving the practical element of drama is vital if courses are to remain relevant to the modern theatre industry.
He said: "The kind of students who study drama at university are more likely to go into fringe or experimental theatre, rather than auditioning for the role of spear-carrier at the Royal Shakespeare Company. If you look at the most important companies of the past 15 years, they are based on devising and producing their own work. Today, we say we are training creative thinkers and theatre-makers. Acting is now an old-fashioned word."
A CAST OF THOUSANDS
* There are 1,342 drama courses on the Ucas website
* There were 38,000 applications for places on drama courses in England in 2003
* There are 98 higher education drama departments in the UK
* The number of drama students has grown from 10,037 in 1996-97 to 17,175 in 2002-03
* In 2003, 9 per cent of 2001 drama graduates had acting or drama-related jobs. More than 16 per cent were in retail, catering, waiting or bar work, or in clerical or secretarial jobs. Nearly 12 per cent were commercial, industrial or public sector managers.