The Office for Fair Access last week released details of the higher education institutions that will be charging the new maximum fees of £9,000 per year from the 2012/2013 academic year. On the list are all the UK’s top drama schools, as well as dozens of universities respected for their academic drama and theatre studies courses. The news of the fee increases is effectively a death knell for diversity in the performing arts, as yet another hurdle is put in the way of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going into the profession.

The government claims that increased tuition fees won’t put off school leavers from lower income families from going to university, pointing to the fact that nothing is charged up front and that student loans are only repaid once a graduate is earning over £21,000 a year. While you could argue the logic of this when it comes to the sorts of degree courses that will lead to professions that offer good salaries and stable career prospects (although, of course, with the economy in the state it’s in at the moment, university leavers are finding it very hard to find any jobs at all), it’s difficult to see how this argument works when it comes to theatre, one of the least stable and worst-paid industries around. 

From the point of view of a young people considering his or her options, it seems like madness to even contemplate miring yourself in this sort of debt (around £30,000 over a three-year course) when there’s such a tiny chance of earning enough money to pay it back over the course of your chosen career. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds will therefore be more likely to choose degree courses that offer a better return on their risk, rather than arts-based courses, including practical drama training, that come with no guarantees whatsoever. Theatre already suffers from a lack of socio-economic diversity; the consequence of this fee increase will be a further limiting of opportunities for everyone but the privileged few and a further undermining of the hard work of those who have spent years fighting to make our theatre truly relevant and reflective of British society.