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Ban audition fees

I’ve written about audition fees many times before and make absolutely no apology for doing so again. I shall keep relentlessly banging this drum until something changes.

It is quite wrong for Higher Education Institutions of any sort to charge audition fees.  Students wishing to apply for performing arts courses should be as free to do so as their friends who apply for courses in, say, maths, business studies or biochemistry.

As it is students who want to act, sing, dance or perform are disadvantaged and penalised almost before the UCAS form is completed. Somehow we have allowed a culture to develop in which it has become acceptable for students to be charged anything from around £40, and it’s often a lot more, merely for the “privilege” of applying to a drama school or specialist vocational university department. Yes, they get invited in for a face-to-face audition but too often, at first round stage, it’s a fiasco and applicants are dismissed after only a few minutes. But the institution has pocketed the fee.

A student who lives in, say, Newcastle, Truro or Aberystwyth will probably have to travel to audition much at all. Most of the drama schools people aspire to are in London and the South East. If Emma Bloggs from Shropshire wants to apply to four drama schools the chances are that three of them will be in London. That means that Emma has three expensive rail or bus trips on top of, maybe £200 in audition fees. If she doesn’t have handy friends or relations in London whose floor she can sleep on, and her audition is in the morning she may well also have to fork out for overnight accommodation. And before she knows where she is, Emma has run up a four figure bill and all she has tried to do is to apply.

Many students and their families simply can’t afford this. They are not necessarily “poor” and likely to get much benefit or charity but their disposable income is limited and they can’t stump up an “audition budget”.

Yes – before anyone jumps down my throat – some schools such as LAMDA now operate an audition waiver scheme whereby trusted organisations refer a quota of talented but impoverished applicants who then audition without charge. A number of schools conduct some first round auditions around the country and some are experimenting with allowing applicants to send in a video in lieu of a first audition. It’s a start but it’s not enough. No school should be charging for auditions at all.

I am totally convinced that many drama schools use the whole auditions procedure as a useful income stream. Consider this scenario: The (fictional) Southwark School of Theatre Arts, which is a top drawer establishment, charges £50 per audition and gets 2000 applicants.  A modest supposition. Many get far more than 2000 hopefuls. That is £100,000 which SSTA has just grossed. Large schools run several big oversubscribed courses so you can often multiply the £100,000 a few times.

Well, I accept that there’s a cost to running auditions. Many schools bring in and, presumably pay, freelance assessors. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it pays them £200 a day and I bet it doesn’t because all pay rates are low in the performing arts industries.

How many students can SSTA then process in a day? Well I know one prestigious school which brings in 150 in the morning and another 150 in the afternoon so let’s go with that. It means they need to run seven or eight audition days to get through the 2000 applicants. More sums. Once they’ve paid three assessors, heated and lit the building and had the loos cleaned let’s allow a very generous £1000 costs per audition day – that’s a total of £8,000 if they run eight of them. It isn’t much of a dent in that £100k is it?

Audition fees are a scandal. And I’ve long been puzzled about why more people aren’t making more fuss about it. Does the DfE actually know what’s going on? Isn’t there a case for making such rampant exploitation illegal?

If it costs, say, £10,000 (I’m generously rounding up again) to run a year’s auditions for a single course then this should simply be budgeted for in the normal way. But “free” auditions would mean increased numbers of applicants which would make the system unwieldy, I hear the schools bleating thereby tacitly admitting that audition fees are a disincentive to potential applicants.

That’s easily solved.  Colleges, schools and departments could simply cap audition numbers making it clear that the earlier you apply the better because the number of available auditions is limited. Serious applicants, well advised by their secondary school teachers, youth theatre leaders and so on, will be there – although I’d also like to see some financial support from somewhere to pay travel costs for potential drama and other performing arts students applying to institutions a long way from base.

I’d also like to see a code of practice whereby every drama school had to give every applicant a decent audition experience. These nervous youngsters need time to warm up. The best schools offer workshops, informal Q/A sessions with current students and feedback. Someone who has travelled to Southwark from, say, Berwick especially for an audition deserves more than five minutes’ attention irrespective of whether a fee has changed hands.

A version of this article was first published in Ink Pellet




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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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