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Why Julie Walters may be a bit wrong but still right

January 25, 2015

Interviewed in yesterday’s Guardian, Julie Walters was worried that young people from working class backgrounds had less opportunity to train as actors, compared to the 1960’s and 70’s. She said:

People like me wouldn’t have been able go to college today. I could because I got a full grant.

This is a very rare sighting of someone raising the question of living cost support, not fees, as the critical issue for students from low-income homes.  Hoorah for Walters.

It’s less clear whether she would be right to believe that either the value of living cost support is lower than when she was a student or that working class students are deterred by the fact that grant only accounts for part of this.

  • The real value of living cost support is now higher than in the 1970’s, due to the padding out of student grant with loan.  This House of Commons briefing note includes a table which shows how the value of support has changed over the years (later years of data apply to England only): see page 10. Students are however now largely excluded from the benefits system: if the loss of housing benefit and the ability to sign on in the vacations was taken into account, the difference might well be smaller than it looks, or non-existent.
  • As far as we can tell from the evidence (see here for example), young students are pretty neutral in the short-term about whether their living cost comes as grant or loan and indeed do not seem to be deterred in practice by (though they may be very unhappy about) quite large amounts of debt, for living costs or fees. Participation rates among young people from working class backgrounds are at a historic high in all parts of the UK.

Walters’ comments, and similar ones from others, have attracted some criticism.  Colleges have argued that they have a good record of recruiting young people from poorer backgrounds.  They suggest the real problem for those coming from backgrounds without money is what happens after students graduate, given the financial pressure and insecurity young actors face.  And here Walters’ point about lower grant, and by implication higher debt,  may have more force – and there’s a Scottish twist or two.

First, we know that Scotland’s unusually low grant system means that, uniquely in the UK, those who start from poorer backgrounds are likelier to leave university in Scotland with higher debts. They will also start paying back their debts sooner  than counterparts from England or Wales, because the repayment threshold is lower here.

Second, there are two institutions providing free-tuition undergraduate drama courses in Scotland.  The Principal of one of these, the Royal Scottish Conservatoire, has recently worried aloud about the effects of capping on their ability to recruit Scots (though more in music than drama). If low-income would-be actors from Scotland find themselves going over the border to get a place, they are faced with the double-lock of high rUK fees and low-grant Scottish living cost support. Thus they face leaving college with exceptionally high levels of debt, even compared to their English peers.

It’s also the case that in Scotland the specialist institutions – which include RCS – perform relatively badly on participation by students from deprived areas compared to other types of higher education institutions, with figures at or below the level of the ancient universities: see Table H here.

Also, prospective students from England interviewed by the Guardian were worried about the cost of living in London, which has a high concentration of the UK’s drama schools.  That’s an even bigger issue for Scots, who uniquely no longer get any extra help with living costs for London-based courses

And in all this lies the point of interest for those looking at this from a Scottish perspective. If there is anywhere in the UK where the medium-to-long-term financial consequences of going into acting – or any other insecure, poorly-paid line of work – look distinctly more difficult for those from low income backgrounds compared to everyone else, it is likely to be Scotland, due to our limited use of grant and lower repayment threshold.  Julie has a point.


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