The UK has long enjoyed a global reputation as a centre for excellence in the performing arts, both as an exporter of talent and a destination of choice for lovers of culture. We gain a lot emotionally from the industry, which boosts our mental and physical health. But performing arts are also part of the fastest-growing sector of the economy, the creative arts, which contributed more than £100bn in 2017. Despite all this, the performing arts in the UK are facing an existential threat.
The decline of formal performing arts education in schools and the impact of the Ebacc have been well documented. In 2017, the number of entries for GCSE drama declined by 8.5%, while A-level entries for dance fell by 42%, drama by 33% and music by 38% between 2010 and 2018. A BBC survey in January 2018 showed nine out of 10 secondary schools had cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject. Meanwhile, cuts to local authorities have further decimated opportunities for young people to participate in the performing arts.
These cuts feel shortsighted when creative jobs are thought to be some of the least vulnerable to automation. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, historian Yuval Noah Harari notes that many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs — critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity” – to prepare the children of today for the workforce of tomorrow. All four skills are hallmarks of a performing arts education.
Meanwhile, universities are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the government’s review of post-18 education funding. Two of the rumours around its recommendations could hugely damage performing arts courses. If headline tuition fees are cut without government funding to make up the shortfall, universities may struggle to fund high-cost, studio-based education and training. Equally, minimum A-level grade requirements might exclude many prospective students considering a vocational career in the performing arts, including those who start their higher education journey at 16.
Added to this pressure are the anti-immigration messages coming from the wider debates around Brexit. This has made overseas students wary of studying in the UK, while uncertainty surrounding our departure from the EU is causing us to lose world-class talent to other destinations.
My institution, the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, is one of a number of world-leading specialists which focuses on dance, drama, circus arts, or music within higher education. In addition to the challenges mentioned, we also face a further threat from possible withdrawal of specialist support funding, known as ISTA (institution-specific targeted allocation). ISTA supports world-leading conservatoires in meeting the additional costs essential to deliver training of an intensity and standard which prepares our students to enter their profession at the highest level.
The benefits of this education are shown in the success of our students, including internationally renowned artists such as actor and Oscar winner Olivia Colman and choreographer Sir Richard Alston.
Performing arts education – along with low-paid but essential professions such as nursing, teaching and caring – has been repeatedly undermined by the government’s reductive narrative that equates a degree’s value with its graduates’ earnings. A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report said that creative arts degrees will cost taxpayers 30% more than engineering degrees because of the lower salaries its graduates will secure, making them less likely to pay off their loans in full. It seems that the rhetoric of student as consumer leads us to the idea of graduate as product.
The returns on investment in performing arts are significant, but the strength of any country and its people is about far more than the financial wealth it generates. We must challenge the dangerous narrative that equates success with the level of a graduate’s income and which reduces education to a financial transaction. If we don’t, we risk losing the next generation of artists and all that they contribute to our wellbeing and society.
- David Ruebain is the chief executive officer at the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama