Top-up fees, being introduced this autumn, will concentrate students' minds as never before. Prospective conservatoire students will, on top of, say, six years' tuition and living costs - including postgraduate fees - have to buy musical instruments costing anything from £5,000 to £13,000.
Most conservatoires offer help in the form of bursaries, grants and scholarships from sponsors. Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music each have £1m to allocate annually. Others have less - like Trinity College which last year awarded around £300,000 to 120 students. Investment income, of course, depends on the performance of investment funds - and whatever is available is never enough. The Royal Academy is able to meet approximately one in four requests but as a spokesman says, "This still leaves three out of four we would like to help."
What is on offer varies according to conservatoire. Some allocate most funds to postgraduates, whose fees are higher and who are often already in significant debt. This is the case at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Scottish-based undergraduates pay a fixed graduate endowment, currently £2,216 when they complete their first degree courses. The academy consequently prioritises postgraduate scholarships - and is able to provide "very significant support for the hard miles of musical study, often the factor that makes the difference between a successful career or otherwise," says spokesman Chris Underwood. There is some funding, however, for undergraduates in the form of £16,000 from a current endowment and from September 2007 it will have two additional scholarships worth £4,500 each year from the Leverhulme Trust.
In Wales, universities and colleges will not charge top-up fees until 2007/8. The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama already offers bursaries to gifted students and those in financial hardship but is in the process of assessing what additional help it might be able to give under the new arrangements.
Conservatoire students receive financial assistance based on need and talent. Many conservatoires offer a limited number of entrance scholarships. Usually awarded on merit at the entrance audition, they are typically worth £500 to £1,500 as a one-off payment. Need-based assistance may be reserved for students who qualify for the full higher education maintenance grant of £2,700. In addition to the non-repayable £300 grant made to students in all subjects, musicians may be eligible for additional funding. Some colleges will also assist students who receive maintenance grants. The Royal College of Music for instance will be awarding bursaries to students in receipt of 90 per cent of the maintenance grant, Guildhall will be paying students a cash bursary equal to 50 per cent of their grants, and Trinity 25 per cent, while the Leeds College of Music will award 10 per cent of the maintenance award for the purchase of course materials and will also help some to purchase instruments "deemed essential and worthy of their talents."
Students who play a national shortage instrument - bassoon, horn, oboe, trombone, tuba and strings - may be in luck. Some schools also have their own lists. At the Royal Northern College for example, the shortage instruments are bassoon, double bass, horn, harpsichord, oboe and viola. One scholarship of £1,500 for each year of the course is awarded in each instrument. Vocal tenors are prized too and the scholarship also applies to them.
Schools also have access to external funding. The EMI Music Sound Foundation, an independent music education charity has given sums to seven schools, (including two for popular music), to assist students who without assistance would be unable to take a course. "This is changing now that fee deferral and loan schemes have come in," says Michael Hills of the Birmingham Conservatoire. "We'll now receive £5,000 a year to award to students nominated by us." Some schools may take the decision to fund postgraduate study only (as does the Institute of Popular Music in Liverpool).
The Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama each receive two annual scholarships from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. They are awarded on a competitive basis, with the schools making the decisions.
Conservatoires can make other awards as a result of specific bequests. Some are awarded on entrance; others to students after they have enrolled.
The Birmingham Conservatoire has a number, including two in early music and one from the Birmingham Festival Choral Society, worth £600 a year, for which the recipient provides advice and tuition in vocal technique to the society. Michael Hills, the registrar, also approves of the Symphony Hall Whitlock Organ Scholarship of £1,000 per annum. "The holder gives an annual recital and also plays a part in an education programme, presenting to school groups and members of the public," he says.
Some scholarships have local connections, like £1,000 a year at the Royal Scottish Academy for a musician from Ayrshire, while Leeds College students may apply for choral scholarships of around £1,000 at Leeds Cathedral (all higher education students may apply for the latter).
Students who do not qualify may still be eligible for support. Rental purchase schemes enable students to buy quality instruments, while grants allow them to buy clothing for concerts, attend summer schools or pay for replacement strings. London students may get assistance with travel cards. One conservatoire even has its own instruments for students' use.