Common cents: the experiences of low-income students in high-profile conservatoires

Morgan, F. (2020) Common cents: the experiences of low-income students in high-profile conservatoires. Masters thesis, Royal College of Music.


Conservatoires are elite institutions – both in the talent that they attract and in the lack of diversity that they represent. In 2018, the Higher Education Statistics Agency reported that conservatoires have nearly double the number of private school students as leading institutions the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge. Furthermore, only 3.9% of conservatoire students come from low-participation neighbourhoods. There is limited literature examining how low-income students, once within the four walls of a conservatoire, may interact with their environment. This study was a responsive investigation that qualitatively gathered insights on subtle barriers and cultural perceptions that these low-income students may experience while studying at conservatoire. This study also aimed to determine whether Whatsapp was an effective data collection tool when working with marginalised social groups. Four participants were interviewed via Whatsapp Voice Note recordings in a semi-structured interview format. This format, and the Whatsapp Voice Note recordings, successfully helped redress the power balance between the researcher and the participant. Data was analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) and results indicated five superordinate themes: elitism in Classical music education; the ‘self-conscious outsider’; work as an obstacle to study and attainment; an enjoyable conservatoire experience, and; the international experience. These findings suggested a mixed experience for the four participants, who had encountered practical and conceptual disadvantages such as affording their instrument, the need for code switching, and a lack of institutional acknowledgement that there was an issue with low-incomes students affording their studies. Conditional to further research informing these findings, the main implications of this study were suggested changes to financial, registry, and programming policy in conservatoire. This study opted for socioeconomic terminology over class system terminology (e.g. ‘low-income’ instead of ‘working-class’). While there is significant financial and cultural overlap between these two groups in the results, it is important to note that this study is implicated by its focus on financial hardship and not by wider interactions of the British class system.

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