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What use is a university drama course?

It’s dead easy to get into university. It’s very hard to get into a good drama school. Why?

Applicants should reflect on the reasons as term starts this month for many and the next batch begin to fill in their UCAS forms for next year.

All you need for most non-Russell group universities is a couple of low grade A levels or equivalent. Huge expansion in recent years, and the trebling of the tuition fees in 2012, has made universities very hungry for students. They have to pay the massive salaries of their Vice Chancellors, somehow after all.

This year university application numbers were down on previous years which led to some universities lowering their admission criteria.  Fill the coffers at any price?

It doesn’t do much for standards of course. And only last week  a report (commissioned by Joe Crossley, Business Development Director of QUBE Learning  listed the ten most useless degrees and yes, drama studies was on the list, along with acting, film studies, dance/choreography.

If you really want to perform, or become a theatre technician, then you almost certainly need the hands-on approach of a drama school with at least 30 hours tuition a week, people with proper industry experience to teach you, lots of opportunities to perform and all the rest of it. It must be practical if it’s to be vocational.

The fact that most drama schools now give you something called a degree at the end of it is merely a technicality originally introduced to get funding for drama school students. The training is about as far from a handful of hours a week in lectures on a university drama degree as you could possibly get.

And at the end of drama school training, you have some chance of working in your chosen industry. Your theatre job prospects at the end of most university drama degrees are minimal.

The evidence is in every theatre programme you pick up. The cast have almost always trained at one of about 30 well known drama schools. That’s the traditional 20 or so which used to form Conference of Drama Schools plus a handful of others which really deliver the goods. When did you last see an actor, designer, composer or other creative declaring that he or she trained at some minor university? I’m not saying it never happens but it’s pretty rare.

This, of course, is why most acting courses in drama schools get around 2000 applicants for 30 places. I rest my case: it is much more difficult to get a place in a drama school than in a university. And for very good reason.

Two caveats. There are a few universities which vociferously claim that they train performers as well as developing academic interest in drama and developing “leaders and thinkers”. Some of them seem to be doing a reasonable job but – if performance is your passion and you want to work professionally – quiz them very hard indeed about how many of last year’s graduates are now working in shows as performers and technicians. Insist on hard facts before you agree to sign away nearly £10,000 per year.

Second, a number of very famous drama schools have merged with universities. East 15, for example, is part of the University of Essex and Guildford School of Acting is part of University of Surrey. University of London is Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s parent body and the former Birmingham School of Acting is now part of Birmingham Conservatoire which “belongs” to Birmingham City University. In practice, such drama schools usually occupy separate or discrete premises and plenty of autonomy to run their courses as drama schools traditionally do rather than being under pressure to reduce teaching hours and get the students to write lots of essays. It wants watching though – question the staff carefully about the pros and cons of being part of a university before you decide to apply.

And never lose sight of the fact that if you get a place easily it probably isn’t that you’re supremely talented (although you might be). It’s far more likely to be that they want your money. Buyer beware.

Illustration: Drama Studio London combat class



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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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