It's early evening, and Liverpool student Alex Le Roux is in a car with a couple of friends on the way to Manchester's clubland. These students are not looking for a night of relaxation to take their minds off their studies, but are heading for an activity directly linked to their degree programmes, as they are all music students at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Lipa).
"I'm in an electronic music band called the Neon Lights, and we're playing a half-hour set in a club in Manchester," says Le Roux, who is graduating this summer. "On the music course, you have to have a main instrument, and mine is the voice, but I also play the piano."
There are eight undergraduate degree programmes at Lipa: four centred on performance, in the fields of acting, music, dance and community drama; and four on behind-the-scenes disciplines such as sound technology, design and entertainment management. "The great thing about Lipa is that it's the only place that you can study everything a musician wants – composition, lyric writing and production – and get a degree out of it," Le Roux enthuses.
For Corinne Lewis, Lipa's director of marketing, a further strength is the constant collaboration between students on different courses.
"For example, in the final year, when music undergraduates perform in a two-week public music festival, management students work on organising and marketing the event; and design, technology, lighting and sound students also work on the project."
This interdisciplinary, collaborative atmosphere is also a feature of life at the Central School of Speech and Drama, part of the University of London, and situated close to Hampstead Theatre, about a mile north of Regent's Park. Degree courses here fall into three broad categories, all connected to theatre or film. The first is aimed at aspiring actors, including those attracted to musicals.
About to graduate from the musical stage cohort is Daniel Fraser, 20, who joined Central School straight from school, with A-levels in English, theatre studies and maths. "The course is firmly rooted in acting, but with a specialism in musical theatre training," he says. "It's prepared me for anything from a Sondheim musical to TV and film roles."
Highlights of his time at Central include playing the lead role in a production of Sweeney Todd, and taking a prominent singing role in a school staging of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Ironically, his first paid professional role after leaving Central will be a straight acting part, "groaning and dying" in BBC's Holby City.
The second type of degree at Central is for those heading for roles in education departments of theatrical companies or as school drama teachers. And the third covers all the specialist disciplines required to turn a script into a performance on a public stage.
Here there are 12 strands to choose from, including costume construction, prop-making and lighting design, each with its distinct programme of study. "Rather than have stage managers who do a bit of everything, theatres these days demand people with specialist knowledge in technical roles," says Central's dean of studies, Ross Brown. "So we provide students with specialist degree pathways from day one, which means they'll get to a higher level by the third year."
Around the country, there are more than 20 institutions offering degrees linked to theatre, music and screen. A good first port of call to get an overview is the website of the Conference of Drama Schools (www.drama.ac.uk).
Most courses are state-funded, with students paying annual tuition fees up to the current ceiling of £3,200. But some institutions sit outside this system and charge more. The London School of Film, Media and Performance, recently created as part of the private Regent's College in London, is an example. The school's BA programmes starting this autumn have annual fees in excess of £12,000. But the head of school, David Hanson, a successful television and film scriptwriter, argues that students will get value for money.
"Students will get plenty of one-to-one and small group tuition, for 25 to 30 weeks a year. And the acting degree involves one semester at an acting school in New York, Prague or Brisbane," he says.
"It is a tough market and we don't know exactly how it'll play out, but these degrees do a bit more than what's around elsewhere."