HUNDREDS of students at the prestigious Royal Conservatoire of Scotland have signed an open letter demanding that senior managers urgently address "serious discrimination and abuse" at the institution.

More than 600 have signed the online petition which follows an official complaint which was lodged last February alleging abusive and unprofessional conduct displayed by staff members against undergraduates with additional needs.

Ten students of the Contemporary Performance Practice (CPP) programme, added “in particular its course leader, Professor Deborah Richardson-Webb".

Following an internal investigation, the complaint was upheld, confirming the professor had breached the Conservatoire’s Dignity at Work and Study Policy.

But the students claim that the institution has failed to provide any details.

Pauline McNeil, Labour MSP and member of the cross-party group on universities and colleges, said: “The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is a public institution and therefore it should have high standards when it comes to the transparency of any complaint from staff or students.

“They have legal obligation like anybody else to address the needs of students who have got special needs whatever these may be. [Their] needs must be assessed in order to see what they need in order to attend the Conservatoire and anything else than that, it is failing the quality standards.”

After the circulation of the open letter, an external review panel, co-led by Ms Danielle Chavrimootoo, a former Equality Diversity and Inclusion Partner, and Professor George Caird, a senior academic with experience in institutional reviews, have been appointed in order to assess the Conservatoire’s complaints procedures.

When asked whether complaints procedure should remain a strictly internal process, Ms McNeil added: “All procedures in academic institutions should be subject to third-party scrutiny.

“There is a structural problem within our education. [Institutions] are accountable to their boards which are accountable to the [Education] ministers but there is not much in between.

"My first reaction is that if you have 600 people signing a petition and they’ve got concerns about the practices in a public institution, there has to be a more independent review of the processes.

“The [review process] has be impartial but it also has to be seen as impartial.”

While waiting for the results of the review to be published, The Herald on Sunday can reveal that Professor Richardson-Webb is currently on indefinite leave. 

A spokesperson for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland said: “The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is focused on being a safe, inclusive and positive learning and working environment for all staff and students and is currently undertaking an external review which includes appraising our complaints procedures to ensure the staff and student communities are well-served. We are committed to learning from this and implementing any key recommendations made.

“The review team is co-led by equality and diversity specialist Danielle Chavrimootoo and Professor George Caird, former Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire. It is anticipated that the team’s key findings and recommendations will be published soon.”

Many have now come forward to speak of their ordeals on the grounds that they remain anonymous for fear it will severely damage their prospects.

Michael, a recent graduate of the course, said: "You have the feeling that if you speak up and say something against the [CPP] course, you’re killing you career.”

The allegations expressed by the interviewees can be divided into three categories: negative attitudes towards disability, a culture of secrecy and poor mental health experienced by students.

Michael has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), which began to impact on his mobility and speech in the second and third years. Diagnosing MS is a lengthy and complicated process that may take years to be finalised.

Following his doctor’s advice, Michael started using crutches and he said: “They believed that my disability was fake. I started falling over, which is very typical for Multiple Sclerosis and then I had anxiety about leaving my house because of that.”

As the anxiety affected his attendance, Michael was assigned to Fitness to Study meetings, which where attended by Professor Deborah Richardson-Webb, the Head of the CPP course, and Hugh Hodgart, the Director of Drama, Dance, Production and Film.

In these meetings, Michael was allegedly accused of “being immoral and of lying to his audience, to the students and staff about his mobility difficulties, which were solely worsening”.

Even though his attendance improved, the meetings continued, without being clear what they were meant to be about:

“Quite often, it seemed to be that a student didn’t like the work I had done or the staff didn’t like that I was using mobility aids,” he said.

When he was asked why, in his opinion, the staff didn’t like the fact that he was using crutches, he said: “Because they believed that my disability was fake. They believed that I was inauthentic.”

His flatmate and friend, Heather, a CPP graduate herself, added: “Also, because a big part of the course happens outdoors, so they’ll take you into the woods or the beach and if these places are not accessible, you can’t fully engage.”

In the Fitness to Study meetings, Michael has been told that he doesn’t need to use crutches or a wheelchair, despite the recommendations made by health professionals.

He added: “It felt like Deb [Professor Richardson – Webb] had a made a decision about what I was experiencing and anything that wasn’t that, it wasn’t factual.

“[She] would talk in ways that would be more fitting to a neurologist or psychologist but there was never a point where these professionals would actually be in the Fitness to Study meetings; there was never an outside point of reference.

“They had my doctor on record and they could have easily phoned him or they could have phoned my neurologist who has actually given letters.”

Michael recalled the "wilderness retreat" to Wiston Lodge, organised by the Professor Richardson–Webb, which is a mandatory part of the curriculum.

He requested an accessible room, near a bathroom, to which the staff agreed, but when he arrived he found that he had to go up two flights of stairs to get to his room. In addition to this, he had allegedly been asked to leave his mobility aids at home.

I asked him whether he used his wheelchair while he was studying at the RCS, his answer was revealing: “No, because I was scared.

“I thought if I used a wheelchair, I would be put to another Fitness to Study meeting and deny graduation.”

He added: “It felt like Deb [Professor Richardson-Webb] had a particular idea of what she wanted her students to be and if you didn’t fit that mould, you were then a social pariah, you were ostracised.

“The environment of sweeping things under the carpet at RCS discourages people from taking things any further.”

Neil Anderson, an experienced production manager who has taken up several contracts with the RCS, added: “Persons are too afraid to make a complaint. I am old enough not to care, it isn’t going to affect my career; I can go and work elsewhere, but graduates, even long-standing graduates, might be too afraid to complain for fear of jeopardising their future career.”

Neil felt he was being bullied by Professor Richardson-Webb and decided to raise his concerns, but with limited success.

He added: “Everything is kept private, confidential and with no witness ... you just don’t have any power in these meetings.”

He was referring to the mediation meetings, which are used as a means to resolve conflict and are preferred to the official complaints procedure.

According to Neil, “the environment of sweeping things under the carpet at RCS discourages people from taking things any further".

Even though Neil wasn’t comfortable in his role during the entire period of his contract, he did not approach any other staff member.

He added: “I am aware that Professor Webb has a long-standing relationship with the Head of Drama, [who] has been in that establishment for decades, and Professor Webb has been in that establishment for decades; so, they obviously have a relationship that goes deeper than anything I can affect.”

Regarding an environment of confidentiality and secrecy, Rosy, who graduated from the CPP programme in three instead of four years because she could no longer deal with it, said: “The secrecy around the complaints process is one of the most damaging things.

“It is preventing people from coming forward because they don’t know how; it’s preventing people that have come forward from doing anything about their experiences because they’re told that it is you against the RCS.”

Both Michael and Neil agree that the external review is a step in the right direction and they believe that the allegations should give rise to a wider government review of the institution.

Michael said: “If CPP can exist doing the sort things we discussed, that is somewhat indicative of the culture that allowed this [to happen] at the RCS.”

“You’ve heard tales of they break you down and then they build you back up. That’s how it works.”

All the students I spoke to have experienced anxiety during their time at the Contemporary Performance Practice course.

Rosy added: “You’ve heard tales of [how] they break you down and then they build you back up. That’s how it works.”

Neil Anderson said: “I’ve worked a number of times in that particular department [CPP] and I was quite concerned about the mental health of the students. I saw a lot of examples of students in high states of distress.

“Students were under undue stress and nothing was done to address it.”

Heather, a CPP graduate who was also a Student Union Rep described her first year at the RCS.

She said: “I had moved out from home [for the first time] and my dad was an alcoholic and it was a very difficult relationship and that was something that particular Deb [Professor Webb] was really, really, really interested in. In terms of art, she wanted me to explore that.

“She wanted me to fill a room with whisky bottles and/or pour whisky on myself.

“She thought that would be a very interesting image.”

She continued: “I now know that this is a very distressing thing to talk about because that is my personal life and she’s going, 'oh just do this thing, it’s a really cool image'. No – that is objectifying me completely.”

Connor characterised the way the Contemporary Performance Practice course is taught as “very strange and inappropriate and very invasive,” without however blaming the curriculum itself.

Rosy added: “It feels like you’re being pressured to expose yourself. To some extent, actually, physically expose yourself, there’s a weird thing about CPP and the first time you get naked for a performance.

“But mainly expose your traumas or the things that happened to you in the past; that’s what you should make work about.”

Regarding the boundaries within the production of challenging work, Pauline McNeil MSP said: “RCS is one of top institutions for teaching drama and therefore it is going to push the boundaries of their students. That is why it is there.

“However, what I would caveat is that no student at the Conservatoire should feel personally distressed in any role and therefore I think there is going to have to be robust procedures in order to deal with that."