Lord Brown’s report on student funding in higher education poses hard questions for society. Faced with stiff competition from overseas universities, dwindling public investment and ever increasing numbers of students, universities seem set to pass their overheads onto the customer. Increased costs of higher education have implications for relatively low paid professions like museums. Lord Browne suggests that universities might be able to charge up to £12,000 per year for undergraduate fees. When you add in the small matter of living for three years, students could leave university with debts of between £30,000 and £50,000.
This level of debt is beyond comprehension for anyone who went to university before the late 1990s.
At present rates, students won’t have to start paying back their loans until they earn over £22,000. Bearing in mind the average wage of a middle ranking museum professional is around £26,000, the government might have a long wait before it gets its money back from people working in museums. Rising levels of student debt combined with the prospect of earning considerably less than a teacher or nurse will not encourage people to commit to a profession which whilst fulfilling may offer limited financial reward. Moreover, the gains made in broadening the constituency of museum people through the Museum Association’s Diversify scheme will be lost as the demographic of the profession slips back into its well-off bourgeois comfort zone.
Since the mid 1990s museums have benefitted from over supply of bright people fresh from one of the plethora of (often excellent) postgraduate courses in museum/heritage/arts studies. The benchmark for entry into the sector has been an Masters degree (add another £15,000 to the undergraduate debt!). If this is perpetuated museums will be populated from an increasingly narrower segment of society and unable to reflect the increasingly sophisticated demands of a diverse community.
To prevent this step backwards museums need to take more responsibility in developing their own. They should not kid themselves that every job working with audiences and collections requires an MA. I’ve spent time‘re-programming’ postgraduates whose minds are awash with theory but have difficulty addressing practical challenges facing museums. CPD schemes are great but they are effective in retaining and developing good people rather than encouraging them to enter museums in the first place. Furthermore we should support creative or cultural apprenticeships which take post A’level students and provides work-based training via higher level NVQ. At MEAL we have a very smart apprentice who has shown a great desire to learn about the breadth of museum work and she will make a great all-rounder. Moreover we need to create a genuine ‘time bank style’ network based on of reciprocal exchange where people can share knowledge and learn new work based skills linked to accredited training.
Over the next three years MEAL and Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum in Norfolk will be running a major Heritage Lottery funded Skills for the Future scheme which will provide apprenticeships, placements and 3 month sample courses in traditional and heritage skills. There will be no minimum academic requirement for entry and participants will be paid. We think this programme will provide an introduction to the gamut of museum work to anyone regardless of their economic circumstance.