Why tuition fees are only the tip of the iceberg for working class actors

Susan Elkin’s ‘The Stage’ column of the 19th June 2016, ‘Actors Should Stop Making a Drama Out of Tuition Fees‘, isn’t so much a ‘Heathrow moment’ as it is an ‘ISS moment’, such is her lack of grasp of the absolute fundamentals of the debate.

The facts. It currently costs £9k per year to do a degree. Most drama degrees are three years long. Most accredited drama degrees, and definitely those linked to UCAS, are approved courses and thus entitled to student funding.

Student loans are available to cover tuition fees (of £9k per year) plus a means-tested ‘maintenance’ loan of up to £10,702 (£8,200 outside London) to cover living costs. You begin to repay this when you have graduated and are earning over £21k.

So far, so good. The student loan is available to everyone already without a degree. The maintenance grant is means tested according to household income. Thus, poorer, working-class students will get more and be able to afford drama school.

This, says Elkin, means that drama education is open to all. End of conversation, right?

Riiiight.

Let’s just say you’re Jo Bloggs – a drama student from a poorer background. Maybe a one parent family? National Living Wage is £7.20 an hour – so with one parent earning NLW, average annual household earnings, before any benefits etc, will be around £13,850.

Jo wants to study drama at university and applies to RADA, LAMDA and so forth. They’re offered an audition – which they have to pay for. With travel costs and audition fees, that might be half the family weekly income. (In fairness, Elkin covers that here). But okay – say they manage that. Then say they get in. Fab – they’ll get tuition and maintenance loans.

Except Jo Bloggs’ ANNUAL debt will be £19,702 – just shy of £60k for three years.

Jo Briggs comes from a family where the parents earn £100k. He’s entitled to his full fees covered plus a £5,330 loan – his parents can help with the rest. His annual debt is £14,330 or just shy of £43k total.

Jo Bloggs’ annual debt is 142% of his household income and his total debt will be 426%, or four and a quarter times his annual household income. Jo Briggs’ annual debt is 14.3% of his household income and his total debt will be 43%, or just under half, of his annual household income.

Four and a half times annual household income vs just under half annual household income.

Imagine coming from a family where both parents are unemployed. Or where the parents are ill, disabled, or dead. Imagine coming from a care background. As a refugee.

Imagine the disparity then.

Is this starting to make sense yet, Mrs Elkin?

It’s absolutely true that differences in socio-economic statuses are a fact of life. Good luck to Jo Briggs and his peers. However, that does not mean we should brush this disparity under the rug, and pretend that everyone else has an equal shot. A debt of £60k means a lot more to someone who has never seen that sort of money in their life – as most working class people haven’t. Whereas, £60k, to someone who is used to a higher earning household, seems manageable. Thus, a middle class student is more likely to go ahead than a student from a working class background, who may be averse to what seems like a rather large level of debt.

All that said, going by the student loan facts and figures is taking a very basic financial viewpoint, without looking at the bigger picture. It’s like looking at my bank balance and seeing it in credit, so deciding I’m not in debt, without taking into account my three credit card bills.

(I jest. My bank account hasn’t been in credit in seven years.)

The bigger picture is that student fees and loans are just one small piece of the jigsaw.

You’re Jo Bloggs. What happens when you get to drama school? With a maintenance loan of £10,702 in London, you’re looking at £1000 a month over the ten months of the university year. You reckon you can survive on £10k a year in London – house yourself, feed, clothe, tube and bus fares, buy play texts, rehearsal gear? Big fat nope. So, without family support you get a job. Except the workload for a drama degree is epic – up to 50 hours a week in some cases. Where’s the time for a job? If family support is not an option, what do you do?

Then you graduate. You’ve got no contacts. No one in your family knows anyone who can help you – you might even be the first person in your family with a degree. Your drama school can help to a point, but how do you network without a network? Not for you the world of unpaid Edinburgh Fringe work, or low budget films. You get a job – one that allows time off for auditions. Oh, except most jobs don’t. And not everyone can work at RSVP, can they? And these teaching jobs Mrs Elkin espouses, there’s not that many of them either. So you get a zero hours contract, and get treated like absolute dirt for £7.20 an hour – less if you’re under 25. You take twelve hour catering gigs, then run straight to set on an unpaid student film, hoping to get showreel footage. You’re ground down. Exhausted. Done.

That is, if you can afford to stay in London. Maybe you can’t. Maybe you have to go back to Wales. Or the Midlands. Or Scotland. You tell yourself you’ll commute for auditions, knowing full well there’s no way you can afford to.

I’ll also remind you that, of those working class actors, many are likely to be from diverse backgrounds. Is the picture looking a bit bigger yet?

Meanwhile, Jo Briggs has graduated. His family are a professional bunch, so he knows how to network. Maybe his parents know a few people – maybe they don’t, it doesn’t matter. He can afford to take on unpaid work, and live in London.

Who has the better chance? Who do you think stays in the industry longest?

I don’t know Susan Elkin. I’ve read her Twitter feed, and I’m going to hazard a guess that she’s not working class – but hey, I could be doing her a disservice. That said, she seems to think class is irrelevant, which is generally the rallying cry of those privileged enough not to have it adversely affect them.

Actors from working class backgrounds are telling her that she is mistaken, but it seems to be falling on deaf ears. Apparently, those who disagree are ‘carpers‘.

This afternoon, however, she Tweeted this gem, which pretty much seems to speak for itself –

“My word, actors and trainee actors are a touchy lot. You wouldn’t think I’d devoted my life to supporting them for decades, would you?”

If her recent column is an example of those decades, then I’d imagine most working class actors would do rather well without her particular brand of ‘support’.

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