Barriers to entry remain - Museums Association

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Barriers to entry remain

Sector is less accessible to disadvantaged young people due to upheaval in higher education
In 2007, the Tomorrow People report, published by the Museums Association (MA) and University of East Anglia, found that financial barriers were discouraging young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds from getting a job in museums.

These included a general expectation among museums that new entrants had to be educated to postgraduate level and have extensive work experience.

A follow-up action plan in 2008 recommended that the sector attract a more diverse range of staff by, among other things, increasing entry-level training on the job, wider recognition of National Vocational Qualifications and transferable skills, and providing more traineeships and apprenticeships.

Government cuts

Much has changed since the report’s publication, particularly the onset of the recession and swingeing government cuts to the arts and higher education.

English universities face a 40% cut to their teaching budgets over the next four years to £4.2bn. This has been coupled with a radical restructuring of higher-education funding, including the controversial move to treble the cap for annual undergraduate fees to £9,000.

A recent MA survey found that out of 11 undergraduate museum-related course providers in England, 75% plan to charge the maximum rate, and none are charging less than £8,000. Most universities argue that they have no choice but to charge the maximum simply to maintain standards.

Under the government’s plans, any university charging more than £6,000 must introduce measures to widen access for disadvantaged students, including contributions to the national scholarship fund that offers grants to promising disadvantaged students.

But universities will not be fined for failing to meet access targets and, according to figures from university thinktank Million+, the scholarship programme will raise enough to fund only 8,300 students.

Fees are also on the rise elsewhere in the UK. Welsh universities have applied to raise the cap from £3,000 to £4,000 for domiciled students, although they have been told to rewrite their plans to encourage more disadvantaged students to take up places.

Universities in Northern Ireland are attempting to raise fees for domiciles to a maximum £5,570. Scottish residents receive free tertiary education at home, but must apply for student loans if they study elsewhere in the UK. All three devolved nations have indicated they will raise fees for non-domiciled UK students, with universities in Wales and Northern Ireland planning to charge £9,000.

These price hikes coincide with further increases in the cost of postgraduate course fees – a prerequisite for a lot of jobs in museums. The average cost of a museum-related master’s degree is £5,000 in England and £3,900 elsewhere in the UK. One accredited course, University College London’s MA in museum studies, has confirmed that its fees will rise by £1,000 next year to £6,170. More universities are likely to follow suit.

A blog by two cultural heritage postgraduates for the MA website on the difficulties of gaining a foothold in the field elicited a strong reaction, with respondents testifying that even with months of voluntary experience and qualifications worth more than £30,000, they had been turned down for jobs offering annual salaries of £13,000.

The current climate does little to foster career certainty for graduates, with widespread redundancies, slashed training budgets and recruitment freezes.

However, the cultural heritage sector remains attractive to students. Last month, a scheme offering 20 paid internships at Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) to graduates drew more than 20,000 website hits and 1,000 applicants. The internships were worth £15,000 a year.

In future, students facing substantial debts will be keen to see a quick return on their investment, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are likely to gravitate away from arts and humanities (the traditional route for many museum studies postgraduates) towards vocational or business-oriented courses.

Humanities threatened

In England, the government is explicitly encouraging this move, with plans to phase out direct grants for arts and humanities from 2012, meaning that universities – especially cash-strapped ones that tend to attract more disadvantaged students – may curtail such courses.

Help does exist for poorer graduates, but schemes such as the Heritage Lottery Fund’s one-off Skills for the Future, which funded the MGS internships, are scarce and heavily oversubscribed. Other programmes designed to help disadvantaged young people into employment, such as the Future Jobs Fund, have been scrapped.

The sector has recognised its moral and economic imperative to represent diverse communities for some time but, in spite of recent advances, its workforce remains more than 90% white and middle-class. With the forthcoming upheaval in higher education, this is unlikely to improve in the near future.

Student finances

• £16,000-£19,000: average starting salary in the museum sector.
• £21,000: salary threshold at which English graduates will start repayments on their loans from 2016.
• 4.4%: the current maximum rate of compound interest that may be levied on student loans, based on the Retail Price Index.
• £64,239: what a graduate starting on £21,000, rising by 5% a year, would end up paying over 30 years, according to the Chartered Institute for Taxation.

Correction 04.07.2011

The article orginally stated that the 20 paid internships had been offered at National Museums Scotland. This has been corrected.

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