Specialist performing arts colleges need financial support to continue their success, says Gary Crossley.
The performing arts are buoyant in diverse parts of higher education, yet specialist institutions for drama, music and dance must remain vigilant if they are to defend their excellence.
These are uncertain times for the performing arts - the University of East Anglia's drama department is threatened, and those teaching in, or leading, similar departments in other universities fear for the future.
High costs could lead to exposure for those pursuing practice-centred higher education. The rebalancing by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of funding for band C for the subject has not helped and may cause vice-chancellors to hesitate over investments in the discipline. The Standing Committee of University Drama Departments has expressed concern about the high cost of "practical exploration" by students, and we are told that graduates from such courses do not anticipate joining the mainstream drama industries.
The picture is somewhat different in vocational performing arts higher education, where the requirement for professional alignment, as well as that of practical exploration, raises costs further. The heads of specialist drama, music and dance institutions in England that are dedicated to preparing graduates for careers in their respective disciplines know this well.
In pre-professional drama there is a need not only for specialised accommodation and intensive teaching, but also for a learning infrastructure that is industry compliant and includes dedicated performance arenas, wardrobe, costume design and construction, set design and building workshops, dressing rooms, showers, rehearsal spaces, one-to-one practical tuition accommodation and the capacity to run box office for essential audience-oriented public productions. Additionally, there is the ongoing requirement for a quality academic framework because theory and practice are as co-dependent in undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the specialist institutions as they are in the universities. All of this is expensive.
High costs have been met historically through an institutional premium. The premium recognises the value that the eight performing arts specialist institutions - the Central School of Speech and Drama, the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, Dartington College of Arts, Rose Bruford College, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music and Trinity College of Music - add to diversity across the sector and to the needs of their respective industries. Hefce intends to review these arrangements, no doubt looking at how well such institutions stack up in the light of expectations flowing from the imminent Higher Education Act.
Performing arts colleges can demonstrate that their profiles are exemplary.
A look at the data will show very high application rates to undergraduate and postgraduate courses, good retention, excellent graduate employment outputs, very high scores in teaching quality assessment and commendable student academic attainment.
If we map these characteristics onto the agendas of widening access, fair admissions, collaboration with business and the imminent introduction of variable fees, performing arts institutions should be able to look to the future positively. It is inconceivable that Hefce or the government would seek to do anything other than endorse what has been fundamental to the success of the UK's creative industries - the small specialist institution.
In recent months, leaders of the specialist colleges have explored with the secretary of state the distinctive contribution that they make to sector diversity, the UK economy and society, and to the UK international profile in higher education. We have, via the Standing Conference of Principals, made representations to the Schwartz admissions taskforce about our methods of student selection, which embrace "holistic assessment" by interview and audition as well as, or instead of, threshold academic entry requirements.
We have improved the understanding of the close relationship between our kind of higher education and the industries with which we interact and have shown through outreach activities our commitment to raising the aspirations of non-traditional students.
But there can be no complacency. The maintenance of exceptional educational standards is crucial for the specialist institution, along with its capability to reinvest in its resource. Costs continue to rise, and colleges will be examining the possibility of improving their income through variable fees in 2006.
Gary Crossley is principal of the Central School of Speech and Drama.