Quality concerns take centre stage as staff quit over dramatic changes

QAA looks into claims that lack of practical focus is harming theatre training. Hannah Fearn writes

May 14, 2009

An investigation has been launched into claims of a decline in standards in a university drama department following a string of resignations by academic staff.

The allegations about Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University, which are being investigated by the Quality Assurance Agency, come after seven staff quit over concerns about the quality of practical teaching.

Queen Margaret's new campus does not have a theatre, they say, and forthcoming changes to a BA in drama and theatre arts have robbed the department of its practical focus.

The staff who resigned wrote to Norman Sharp, head of QAA Scotland, saying: "Change is positive only when the paramount aim is to provide a programme of the highest possible quality within available resources. Queen Margaret's proposal does not do this."

Theatre lacking

The letter, leaked to Times Higher Education, cites the lack of a theatre and "poor studio provision" on the new campus, and says that marginalising practical teaching "threatens the preparation" of theatre workers, writers, directors and arts journalists.

Its authors ask the QAA to investigate the risk to quality and academic standards and for validation of the changes to the drama degree to be postponed.

Despite this, the course was validated last week. Questions are now being asked about whether the validation process followed the correct procedures.

Letters have also been sent to members of the arts community, warning that "there will be no avenue for adequate theatre training in eastern Scotland" if the changes proceed.

Jo Clifford, who taught playwriting at Queen Margaret before she resigned, wrote to the university's dean of the School of Drama and Creative Industries, David Dunn, outlining her concerns as early as March 2008.

"The new campus disables me. It prevents me from getting on with my job," she said. "Right now our problems are such that I could not in all honesty recommend to anyone that they come to our school to study, or to teach, or to do research."

Final decision

In an email to staff in December, Dr Dunn said: "The fact is that it is Pauline (Miller Judd, head of production and cultural management) and I who will take the final decision about what we take to validation."

Donald Pulford, a former employee who also resigned, said: "By looking at what's happening at Queen Margaret you can see the slow withdrawal of the commitment to practice-based theatre education and training ... The dean is keen to turn the drama course into something more conventionally academic, of which there are a myriad in the UK."

Earlier this year, Nicholas Hytner, director of London's National Theatre, also raised concerns about the demise of the practical approach nationally. "I'm not convinced that time spent on education in theatre theory is time well spent in a drama school," he said.

Joyce McMillan, visiting professor at Queen Margaret and theatre critic for The Scotsman, said of the changes that there had been "a very serious loss of an important cultural facility in Scotland".

Allegations 'unfounded'

Anthony Cohen, Queen Margaret's principal, said: "We have seen the letter (to the QAA) signed by several former members of staff, all of whom left the university's employment over a period for different reasons. Whatever their motivations may have been ... the university is satisfied that the allegations that it contains are unfounded."

The QAA said the early stages of any investigations are confidential, and could neither confirm nor deny its involvement.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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