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Entrepreneurship and knowledge exchange in a music conservatoire – it’s our bread and butter!

Dr Michelle Phillips, Royal Northern College of Music

As I arrive first thing at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), I wave to students heading from their halls of residence out to Media City, where they will train side by side with the BBC Philharmonic. I head to my first class, where I work with our new first year musicians to introduce them to different kinds of tax, and what self-employment means for a musician with a freelance career. My second class with year 2 students involves simulating how you put together a quotation for a string quartet invited to play at a wedding, and my third ‘Creative Innovators’ class with our year 3 musicians (all of whom also undertake industry placements each year) helps them to learn tools around how to generate ideas in response to a selection of sustainable development goal prompts. I’ll attend our free lunchtime concert, where our student musicians perform and try out musical ideas for a general public audience, and then in the afternoon I’ll meet our final year students in one-to-ones to catch up on how their independent creative projects are going. We’ll review their budgets, discuss which professional networks might benefit them, how they might market their event, how they can consider the impact of their work on their audience, and how they make sure that everything they do is accessible and inclusive. In the late afternoon I might attend our weekly research forum, when we academics (or external guests) share research with staff, students and the public, or I might work with students preparing applications for our entrepreneurship award (‘RNCM Creative Innovators Award’, open to all students each year, with a total prize fund of £5,000), on their business model canvasses or on how to pitch their project. And then there’s often an evening concert to enjoy, during which students share more of their work with the public – as part of our Symphony Orchestra, Session Orchestra, Big Band or other ensembles – before heading home.

Ok, so this isn’t a fair representation of a day in the life of someone who works in a music conservatoire, but it is a fair representation of an average week. The core of a small specialist creative institution is about supporting students to become freelancers, to develop new ideas to shape the future industry, and to give them chance to share what they do with the general public, i.e., to experiment with new interpretations, to share their new compositions, and to gauge how an audience responds in order for them to learn and hone their craft.

I feel very lucky to be part of this rich environment, as Head of Enterprise (Academic) and a Senior Lecturer in Music Psychology at our music conservatoire in Manchester, of around 950 students from over 60 countries. I trained as a chartered accountant with KPMG before returning to university to study for a PhD in music psychology, and enjoy that I can help to support these wonderful young musicians with some of my skills and experience. A huge part of what gets me out of bed in the morning is that, not only are our students hungry and ready to create new ideas to lead the future music industry, they are admirably and increasingly commonly driven by making a difference in the world, and having a social impact with their art. Graduate outcomes are often measured by financial value alone, i.e., by how much a graduate earns post-graduation. This shortsighted and limited view of the value that students create misrepresents our creative industries graduates (and indeed all graduates) and the impact that they have, significantly. Our music graduates are motivated by opportunities to use their music to make the world a better place, to bring joy, to help people to manage their mood and well-being, to champion equality, to alleviate loneliness, to contribute to new social prescribing agendas, and to bring music and creativity to young people who may not have access to this in their schools. Our recent RNCM Creative Innovators Award winners include an all-female string quartet, Vulva Voce (also winners of last year’s Classical Battle of the Bands), who, along with being world class musicians, also champion equality and representation, violist Eden Saunders who is developing a practice diary to help musicians who are neurodivergent to structure their practice time, and singer Olivia Hamblyn who has set up and registered her charity ‘Musicians Minds Together’ to support musicians’ mental health. Our recently launched ‘RNCM Innovate’ initiative, which brings together all the experimental work we undertake with students and industry partners, has as its theme this year ‘The Future is Green’, and an associated prize fund, winners of which are seeking to influence climate change agendas, attitudes and behaviours through their music.

We had some wonderful recognition of how we embed entrepreneurship training in everything we do (this training accounts for one third of our degree programme credits for our undergraduate students), in our being named as the Times Higher Education’s ‘Outstanding Entrepreneurial University 2023’. However, challenges remain for how our work is recognised in the higher education sector, for example, most of our graduates are self-employed in the eyes of HMRC, but as they do not have registered companies, capturing these data for HEBCI Table 4 is a huge challenge. A second frustration is how only specific areas of activity feed into KE (HEIF) funding; this year our HEBCI Table 5 figures (‘Social, community and cultural engagement: designated public events’) are in the top 5% nationally, but these figures do not feed into any current metrics. Much of the richness of our knowledge exchange activity is not recognised or rewarded by current metrics. It is financial value alone (IP, consultancy, facilities and equipment, regeneration, KTP, non-credit bearing and contract income), which is rewarded in any meaningful way.

For me, knowledge exchange and entrepreneurship are intertwined, and they are the bread and butter of what we do. Our musicians are generating new ideas and ways of doing things, and sharing these with the general public and industry professionals, every day of the week. They are, and are treated as, professional musicians from the day that they begin their undergraduate studies, and are supported to engage in external public performances throughout their four years by our in-house artist agency team. Together, as staff, students, and music industry professionals, we work to share music, creativity, and new innovative ideas with communities locally, nationally and internationally. It gives me a huge spring in my step every day to think that I might be supporting our students to change the world with their music.

X (Twitter): @___Michelle____