Daily Archives: May 3, 2008

Investing In Arts Education: Troubled Academies And A Not-So-Joined-Up Government – Column 3.5.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 3.5.08

THE OTHER WEEK, the Traverse Theatre rang, and asked me if I’d like to write a programme note for their current production of Nova Scotia, the unexpected and belated fourth instalment of John Byrne’s Slab Boys Trilogy.  Nova Scotia is set in the present day; but the original three plays, now almost 30 years old, are about the experience of two working-class boys growing into adulthood in Scotland between the late 1950’s and the early 1970’s.

So I thought for a bit, and then tried to describe what Byrne achieved for me and my generation in that play.  “At every turn”, I wrote, “he smashes old stereotypes of what 20th century Scottish culture is, and could be.  He observes its internationalism and Americanisation, its cultural complexity, and its visually vivid and dramatic strand of working-class Catholicism, so profoundly different in tone from the word-based Presbyterian tradition.  He observes, above all, its absolute modernity.  He makes it blazingly, empoweringly clear that Scottish culture is not a thing of the past; he shows, in every line of his text, that  it has a living, exuberant present, and a thousand possible futures.”

What I was trying to capture, in that paragraph, was my sense of the role that the arts, at their best, can play in the life of the nation.  Of course, there’s still a feeling, in many quarters, that culture is a kind of optional extra to the real business of life; at best a luxury, and at worst a self-indulgent nonsense.  But in truth, a community that has no cultural life – that tells no stories about itself, and paints no pictures – completely lacks the power both to understand its own story, and to change it.  If Scotland is a more self-confident community now than it was 40 years ago – confident enough to have a rational debate about the merits of political independence, rather than a fear-filled slanging match – then most careful observers would agree that Scotland’s world-class musicians, writers, and artists have played a key role in that transformation.  Only last weekend, for example, a vivid BBC documentary reminded us of the powerful interaction between the new Scottish rock music of the 1980’s, and the angry, transforming devolutionary politics of that decade.

And it’s in the light of that history that we have to consider the problems now facing the institutions that have, for decades, been responsible for training a high proportion of the young performing artists emerging in Scotland.  As a Visiting Professor in the School of Drama at Queen Margaret University, I have inevitably become aware, over the last two years, of the severe cost pressures involved in trying to deliver what known as “conservatoire” training – i.e. intensive professional training in the performing arts – within the current Scottish funding structure for higher education.  And this week, those tensions erupted in public, with students from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama staging demonstrations against a recent severe round of staffing cuts, and Queen Margaret announcing a decision to end the conservatoire training of actors, designers and production staff altogether.  Where there were once two full-scale drama schools in Scotland, in other words, there will now be only one; and this at a time when other parts of the UK, currently without such schools, are beginning to appreciate their key importance as “hubs” in a creative economy, and to plan for their development.

All of which suggests that we urgently need some intelligent and thoughtful public debate – not to say “national conversation” – in at least two areas.  In the first place, we are now living with the consequences of a long period of radical expansion in higher education, combined with rigorous cost control.  Since 1989, the number of students in Higher Education has almost doubled; but expenditure per student, in real terms, is less than 60% what it was a generation ago.  And this cultural shift  creates special difficult situation for institutions like the RSAMD and Queen Margaret, with their expensive tradition of intensive professional training.  Governments say that they want this kind of high-level vocational training.  But in practice, it seems they are increasingly willing to pay only for a low-cost, cheap-as-chips  version of the academic model of higher education; and we now need a full-scale debate on whether that kind of higher education is really what our society needs or wants.

And then, secondly, there is the question of joined-up thinking in Scottish Government.  The new SNP administration sees iitself as a major supporter and promoter of Scotland’s cultural sector; yet somehow, it finds itself presiding over a situation where the educational institutions that form the bedrock of that sector’s achievement are coming under threat.  For Scotland’s booming cultural scene obviously needs more professional training, not less.  We need it so that young Scots can train here if they want to, and so that creative young people from elsewhere will be drawn here.  We need it to sustain what has been a remarkable period of achievement in Scotland’s cultural life.  We need it to meet the growing demand for skilled people created by the success of the National Theatre of Scotland.

And we need it, above all, because nations that fail to invest in their own creative life eventually wither and die.  As it happens, John Byrne did not go to theatre school.  But he went to Glasgow School of Art, where his gifts as an artist and writer were nurtured and given shape.  And it’s worth recalling, when we consider the Nova Scotia in which we now live, that without that opportunity, freely given back in 1960, the tremendous journey into creativity and self-determination that has shaped his life, and the lives of the characters immortalised in his plays, might never even have begun.