Linda Merrick on Brexit and Conservatoires

Brexit negotiations might be underway, but uncertainty hangs in the air for the higher education sector. Royal Northern College of Music Principal and Chair of Conservatoires UK, Professor Linda Merrick, shares her thoughts on the importance of EU relations for students and staff at our leading music colleges and the impact Brexit could have on the future of UK conservatoire education.

As we know, the UK Higher Education sector was strongly in favour of remaining within Europe. The statistics published by Universities UK identified that

125,000 EU students studying in the UK contributed £3.7 billion to our economy and supported over 34,000 jobs; that we benefitted from £2.7 billion in research funding; and that 15% of our academic staff are drawn from mainland Europe. But as compelling as this information may be, the case was unsuccessful.

The figures relating to my own institution, the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester, are on a much smaller scale, with 84 (10%) of our students coming from mainland Europe. However, the importance of these students to the College is significant; European students bring their distinctive musical backgrounds and cultures to the RNCM, enriching the learning experience for everyone and enabling our home students to benchmark themselves against their European peers. They also help to create a vibrant and cosmopolitan ‘real-world’ learning environment, where life-long musical relationships and friendships are formed.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of European students return to their home countries after graduation, becoming powerful and persuasive advocates for the UK’s cultural and higher education sectors. Take Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu as a strong example. Since graduating from the RNCM in 2008, Alexandra has become one of the most sought after pianists of her generation. To date, she is the youngest musician to receive the Custodian of the Romanian Crown; is a former member of Forbes Romania’s 30 under 30 (which recognised the now 31-year-old as one the country’s most influential young people); and was awarded the UK’s Women of the Future title for Arts and Culture in 2013. But Alexandra’s success is not in isolation. European alumni from all of our conservatoires continue to fly the flag for UK music education, not just in their respective countries, but worldwide.

Access to student loans is essential to attract EU students to the UK, especially when many come from countries where there are minimal tuition fees. The fees and funding issue is a major factor for young musicians from Eastern Europe, where the economic climate makes it impossible for them to study overseas without support.

At the RNCM, we draw down some £250,000 each year from the EU-funded Erasmus programme to facilitate staff and student mobility across Europe; something we are unable to finance ourselves. This reciprocal arrangement is an important and integral part of our overall offer and we remain hopeful that discussions to enable the UK to remain within the scheme bear fruit in the coming months.

As a leading international conservatoire, we are proud of our world-class teaching workforce. Many EU tutors fly into Manchester weekly to work with our students, complementing the work of our UK-based teaching team and supporting UK students who wish to establish careers in mainland Europe. This contributes significantly to our impressive graduate employment rate of between 98% and 100%.

In addition to international teaching expertise, the RNCM offers over 400 students each year the opportunity to undertake placements with leading professional ensembles across Europe through an exciting initiative called The Platform. These placements, with organisations such as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Netherlands Wind Ensemble, are life-changing and are often a catalyst for future employment.

We enjoy active working relationships with peer institutions throughout Europe, including close collaborations with partner conservatoires in Paris, Geneva, Oslo, Graz and The Hague. In addition, we value our membership of the Association of European Conservatoires and the European Chamber Music Academy as a means to share best practice.

Our student ensembles are regularly invited to perform at major festivals and conferences across the EU, including the annual international festivals in Montepulciano and Malta. Ease of travel, and access to budget flights, is essential if we are to continue to realise these opportunities. Our students’ experience, and those of the audiences for whom they play, will be poorer if these opportunities do not continue.

Whilst European research income is fundamental to the sustainability of large universities, conservatoires are not yet as heavily reliant on this funding source. However, collaboration with leading researchers across Europe is very important if we are to continue to produce research of international standing.

The possibility that some of the activities I have outlined could continue when the UK exits the EU gives me and many of my peers a degree of hope. Removing the financial support available to incoming EU students, and limiting the free movement of musicians within Europe, would present many significant challenges. It would also be hugely disadvantageous to the increasing number of talented young UK graduates from our leading conservatoires who aspire to international careers.

If we are no longer able to attract the top non-UK students to study here, our future talent pool will be severely compromised, as will the pipeline of talented young people equipped to work in the creative industries. Limiting the mobility of staff and students and our ability to access EU research funding will have serious implications for the quality of education we can offer to our home and overseas non-EU students, all of whom require an international education and training experience, and a global network of contacts, for their future success.

As the details of Brexit are negotiated and finalised, the priority must be to strive for open, honest and informed debate.

Whilst the concerns of the UK’s musicians and conservatoires might pale into insignificance against the bigger picture, the issues remain a concern for those of us in the music industry. UK culture is revered across the globe, I hope it will not be compromised as Brexit becomes a reality.

This first appeared in the ISM-edited issue of Classical Music Magazine, September 2017