Small and mighty

This blog has been contributed by Professor Stephen Farrier, Director of Research and Academic Innovation at Rose Bruford College. 

A strong ecosystem requires variety. Like the environment, HE landscapes shift over time and location and are buffeted by change in the regulatory climate. And, of course, there are some players more resilient to change than others. Critically, to extend the image, the environment relies on the smallest of organisms, some of which are more prone to be injured by changes in the environment.  

In London, and the UK more widely, the small specialist higher education sector forms a critical part of our ecosystem.  Many of the smaller institutions in the sector are well established, producing internationally renowned graduates, works and impactful research. In theatre, performance, and allied arts, for instance, the small specialists punch above their weight. Their graduates dominate established and emerging artforms. One need only turn on the television, watch a film, or go to the theatre for evidence of the power of graduates from small specialist performance institutions. This is not confined to performers but the whole work – its design, costumes, writing, lighting, and direction.  

But the work of the theatre, performance and allied arts emanating from small specialist institutions is not only evidenced when streaming a film or going to the theatre. The work of small specialists extends far beyond these activities. Research and knowledge exchange projects in the performance and allied arts provide insights and impacts in a broad range of fields.  For instance, work with arts and health is abound, as is work with the NHS. Arts work has been used in tackling challenging social and personal issues and techniques from performance employed for the benefit of other sectors; this is especially evident in the use of theatre and performance techniques for business.   

Why it matters  

Given that the arts produce billions of pounds for the UK, it is a vital part of the economy.  Others have made the business case for arts but we should also stress its importance in wellbeing. An excellent demonstration of this is the consumption of such work during the Covid pandemic – creative outputs formed an important part of getting through the day-to-day for millions of people. A recent example of the power of the arts to change hearts and minds – in this case finding its way into the debating chamber at the House of Commons – is the BBC production Mr Bates vs The Post Office made about miscarriages of justice.  Reports about the issues faced by those falsely accused had been circulating for many years in news stories and campaigning journalism but bringing the misjustice to the public took the catalyst of a drama, which stimulated government to push through justice and compensation. To those people impacted by the issues, the drama amplified their stories and changed their situations in material ways.  

Although the arts can often be seen as a luxury or mere entertainment, the smaller – and harder to record – narratives of transformations brought through the arts are plentiful. There are many theatre companies with pioneering histories transforming lives through the performing arts: Clean Break, Graeae, Talawa, Outbox, Milk Presents, Cardboard Citizens, and so many others. When we look at the key artists running, developing and sustaining these companies we see a plethora of people educated and/or working in the small specialist sector.  

At a time when the cost of living is uppermost in people’s minds, the apparent crumbling of social infrastructure and the impact of years of austerity on the most vulnerable in our society, creative envisioning is critically needed. With deep roots and influence, the small specialist arts sector provides intensive and personalised learning opportunities that feed those that envision it in a sustained way.  

The regulatory burden 

This impact and support of the diversity of activity in the HE sector comes with some challenges. The regulatory backdrop requires of small specialists the same things it does from larger multifacility institutions. Where in a large multifacility there are teams dealing with reporting requirements, the production of policy or quality assurance processes, in small specialists there are, obviously, fewer people to produce similar types of outputs.  Of course, when it comes to data, bigger institutions have larger data sets and might need more people to extract, analyse and disseminate that information. However, they are not often required to produce and maintain more policies than small specialists.  

To meet this challenge – often thought of as an equitable burden of regulation – small specialist institutions respond by creating multi-roles. It is very usual that an individual in a small specialist has more than one responsibility and oversees activities that in larger institutions are more likely to be split among various roles. This brings with it both benefits and challenges. Managing complex and fluctuating priorities is a key challenge for most roles across academic, support/professional staff. However, what the multi-role (another phrase used in performance practice!) instils is a deep understanding of how one part of the activity relates to another. This encourages a kind of ‘systems thinking’ individuals can see the interrelatedness of activity – all of which sets the conditions for the deep study, research, and practice of an institution’s specialism.   

Critical to the way that small specialists make things work such that they produce high quality graduates, researchers, and practitioners, is an institution’s connectedness to sector bodies. Often the scale of a small specialist means it can be difficult to get its voice heard when sector decisions are made. It is through the bodies such as London Higher and GuildHE, for instance, (alongside other subject specific sector groups) that small specialists’ voices are amplified. It is this collective voice that helps the smaller institutions be heard by government policy makers.   

Strength through diversity 

Despite their influence, small specialist arts providers are easily overlooked in a sector dominated by large multifacility institutions. To be clear, the discussion here does not devalue the vital importance of these multifacility institutions. Rather, on the one hand we small specialists should be better at articulating our value in ways that land, while on the other hand also asking that larger institutions and the policy makers remain actively aware of the diversity of scale in our sector. We all have a responsibility for stewardship of the landscape, to support its diversity and the way we remain robust is through that diversity.