University fees and the museum workforce

Unless you've been on another planet for the past month, you'll be aware of the Coalition government's plans to increase university tuition fees, and the resulting backlash from student groups and trade unions. The new regime could see students at some English universities paying up to £9,000 a year in tution fees. The era of free university education that my generation felt the benefit of is clearly very much over. 


I'm not going to rehearse the different arguments in the tuition fees debate, which have been extensively aired across the media: the Guardian's education pages cover the main developments.  I am interested, though, in the impact this policy will have on the demographic of those who attend university, who will consequently go on to begin graduate careers.  Museums employ an overwhelmingly graduate workforce, with many employers and potential employees regarding a postgraduate degree (along with voluntary experience, which itself comes at a cost) as essential to get a foot through the door.  What impact will university tuition fees have on the museum workforce, and particularly on the efforts of the past couple of years to open up access to the profession to people from a wider range of backgrounds?


Considerable effort and funding have gone into intiatives designed to help more people from minority ethnic backgrounds break into museum work, with some success: the Museums Association's Diversify scheme, which is coming to the end of its final year, has supported over 130 people from minority backgrounds to begin a museum career, though it is not without its critics: some of the key issues are outlined in Sam Elliot's Museum Workforce blog. There have also been a number of initiatives to help young people to get started in museum careers through on-the-job training and other vocational routes: in 2009 the MLA pledged funding for up to 50 apprenticeships, supported by a diverse range of organisations.


Nevertheless, throughout their careers those Apprentices will still need to compete in a jobs market in which a degree has been a core requirement for many years. Many museum organisations are restructuring and preparing to lose staff through 'natural wastage' or redundancies. Will the drive and the funding for training, diversity initiatives and apprenticeships be maintained, or will the sector slip back into its traditional way of working? A return to a passive over-reliance on graduate and postgraduate qualifications as the bar for new entrants to the profession, at a time when the cost of a university education is soaring, could easily see the workforce demographic becoming less representative in terms of both ethnicity and class.


I'd love to hear from people or organisations taking a proactive approach to building their future workforce.  For museums to thrive as a sector it's vital that we have a socially diverse and motivated workforce. The onus will be on employers to think creatively about their future skills needs - which in straitened times may be very different from those of the past. We'll need people with the potential not only to be great curators, educators and exhibition planners but who are business people, relationship builders, creative agents, innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs.  And if we're to continue to move towards building a diverse workforce that draws on the widest possible pool of talent and is truly representative of British society, we'll need to think more creatively about where we find and how we nurture them.

posted by Emma | 0 comments

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