The sudden axing of a highly respected and specialist MA in Participatory and Community Arts (MAPCA) at Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, has prompted an outcry by current students and alumni, and anger among those about to join the course this month.

A petition is gathering signatures in protest of the announcement to students, just two months before it was due to start, that the college has “decided not to restart the MAPCA next year but to refocus on a new BA in similar areas”.

Established in 2004, the course started as a partnership between National Theatre Education and Goldsmiths within an EU-funded project and had developed a reputation for its cross-artform emphasis. 12 new students had signed up to join the programme and another 12 are already pursuing a part-time study route, yet according to admissions tutor Graham Dowdall it has been closed due to “a low uptake for places this year”.

But Professor Adam Dinham, head of Community Studies in the Department of Social, Therapeutic and Community Studies, where the course resides, explained that the closure was “caused by a restructuring of educational provision in the host department which… took place very late in the planning cycle in response to budgetary pressures”.

In contrast, at Royal Holloway College, also part of the University of London, the MA in Applied and Participatory Theatre is considered viable with around five to seven students. A spokesperson said: “We have eight students signed up for 2014/15, although this is not our final number and more are expected.”

Unprofessional and inconsiderate

Filmmaker Lesley Pinder was offered a place on the Goldsmiths programme following an interview in May, but less than six weeks before the course was due to start she was told that her offer had been withdrawn. She said: “I am furious at the way students have been treated. Many of us have changed our lives around to enable us to join this course.”

Pinder described the university as acting in “an unprofessional and inconsiderate manner with a complete disregard for those students like myself who have already been offered a place”.

But she is also angry at the loss of opportunity that the closure of this programme represents: “The MAPCA was a unique course, creating an opportunity for experienced practitioners to develop their work and their thinking from a cross-artform perspective. If universities cancel courses such as this on financial grounds, then levels of expertise in the sector will eventually suffer. It’s a disturbing scenario, and this short-sighted decision reflects very badly on Goldsmiths.”

Former student and freelance artist and arts educator Rebecca Snow, who launched the Goldsmiths petition, said: “I owe the development of my career to the MA course at Goldsmiths. It was my gateway from a BA in Fine Art to becoming a freelance working in the participatory arts, and I use the skills and knowledge I gained through the course every single day in my work…

“After 10 years of being ahead of the curve in terms of social education, practice and collaboration, I cannot believe that Goldsmiths can deem MA Participatory and Community Arts unnecessary.”

A growing trend

The MAPCA at Goldsmiths isn’t the only course of its type to close this autumn. Barbara Emadi-Coffin, course leader of the MA Community and Participatory Arts course at Staffordshire University, is concerned that this may be a trend. Her course is no longer recruiting and is in its final two years for the benefit of the remaining six part-time students who are working professionals in the arts sector.

She said: “There has been a slow decline in the take-up of both full-time and part-time MA courses since 2008. It is expensive and risky for students to embark on Masters study when work in the arts sector is so insecure and the course costs so high. Our course fees are nearly £4000, and as there are no student loans for Masters programmes, it is very difficult for many prospective students to get the money together.

“The problem has been compounded by cuts in training budgets at local authorities and voluntary organisations. Fees used to be paid by employers, but this is no longer the case. From the university perspective, the financial rewards of running an undergraduate course with, say, 90 students at £9000 each, are so much greater than potential fee income from niche Masters programmes at £4000 per student, that it is no surprise that some specialist courses are being cut.”

The problem of falling numbers enrolling on MA programmes is not restricted to the arts. In January, the Times Higher Education Supplement reported that “taught postgraduate courses are facing a ‘perfect storm’ caused by drops in student numbers and a fall in institution income”. Universities are now less able to cross subsidise Masters’ provision because of the squeeze on undergraduate numbers.

Professor Mick Fuller, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education and head of Plymouth University’s graduate school, warned: “We might see key provision across the sector disappearing in great swathes because the demand is not there.”

Article originally published by Arts Professional