The Arts Are of “Strategic Importance”, No Matter What Gavin Williamson Says

James Flynn discusses controversial proposals to cut funding for arts degrees.

Universities receive funding from a range of sources, but the Office for Students consultation closed last week on recurrent funding - which provides money to institutions based on the number of students enrolled, the subjects they study, and whether they are in the UK or on a foreign exchange programme such as the new Turing scheme. The most controversial aspect comes from the Strategic Priorities Grant (formerly known as the Teaching Grant), which provides a little extra money to help fund subjects that cost more to deliver.

Under the proposals - lifted from a letter Gavin Williamson sent to the sector on 19 January - funding will be maintained for subjects which are “high cost” and deemed a “strategic priority”, while others - including many which still carry a high cost but are not seen as a priority - see funding cut by half.

I must be clear at this point what this money is. This is separate from tuition fees and is a relatively small pot of money provided to institutions by the OfS specifically to fund courses that are expensive to deliver. The OfS points out that the reduction is only around one per cent of the overall money received per student (when included with sources such as tuition fees). But, whether a large amount or not, this says more about the wider government strategy and how it intends to change the sector.

Gavin Williamson has used strong language when talking about funding for courses he does not approve of, and has stated he is trying to tackle (in his words) “dead-end courses that give [graduates] nothing but a mountain of debt.” In his sights are subjects such as Media Studies, Art and Design and Creative Arts, with the preference for subjects supporting, in his eyes, ‘skilled’ careers in STEM, ICT and Health.

But these proposals fail on their own terms in completely ignoring the cutting edge technology which now forms a core part of many arts degrees. Courses such as set design, stage design and interior design now take advantage of virtual reality and augmented reality - technology universities have to provide their graduates will not have the skills they need for the workplace. These are highly technical skills yet courses delivering this will be subject to a 50 per cent cut in this funding.

Another example is Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery - a world-leading facility currently being showcased on the BBC series All That Glitters. The school, at the heart of Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter, has seen significant investment in its facilities and delivers highly skilled technical courses. Despite it being one of the world’s best places to study jewellery, providing skilled graduates to a multi-billion pound industry, its courses will also be subject to a 50 per cent cut in this funding.

What is perhaps most confusing is where these proposals fit with the rest of the government’s education proposals. Back in January the Department for Education released its Skills for Jobs White Paper, in which education providers are encouraged to work with local employers to meet the needs of key industries. Gavin Williamson then backed this up with a separate letter to the sector on 8 February, proposing this grant funding must: “[support] providers and students to develop the skills and knowledge needed locally, regionally and nationally to support the economy.

But there is a mismatch between what is deemed a national priority (nobody would argue that STEM or Health courses are not a national priority) and what is a regional or local priority. The BBC moving to Salford was one of the first true acts of “levelling up” seen in the UK, yet the University of Salford will see all its Media courses - which provides graduates to a key local industry - subject to a 50 per cent cut in this funding. Universities like Salford are therefore supporting a key local industry (meeting one government initiative) while being subject to a dramatic reduction in funding (as a result of another government initiative).

It is also not clear where this policy is supposed to fit with the government’s wider strategy for the economy. The Home Office’s Shortage Occupation List (which offers fast-track visas for overseas workers skilled in certain fields) states that the country does not have enough architects, graphic designers, arts officers, producers and directors, musicians, dancers or choreographers, yet this cut in funding will disincentivise English universities from providing graduates in exactly these fields. It is incredibly strange that the government would wish to reduce the supply of British graduates in fields it admits the UK is openly short of talent.

What is clear, however, is that Gavin Williamson’s overall strategic aim is to reduce the size of the university sector (and when the current government talk about there being “too many students” they clearly don’t mean “there are too many Russell Group students”). And the consequences are already taking shape. As a result of these proposals, Aston University in Birmingham is consulting on plans to close its entire Department of History, Languages and Translation, and London South Bank has said its degree courses in history and human geography will not recruit from this autumn.

Expertise in universities is easy to break down but take an awfully long time to build back up again. While Aston is able to close an entire department at short notice (pending consultation), the long-term damage of not recruiting and training students for work in those sectors could be permanent. Aston was recently ranked second in the country for social mobility - ensuring its graduates can to take the full benefits of a university education. The Office for Students should be protecting courses at institutions such as Aston, not driving them to close.

What this does is close off the arts - and “arts” degrees include subjects such as English, history and politics - from those from less well off backgrounds, whose parents did not go to university, or commuter students who go to their local university rather than one across the country (all of which you are more likely to find at non-Russell Group institutions). The OfS also admit in their consultation documents that students studying arts degrees are more likely to be from deprived backgrounds or have a disability or mental health condition, yet still propose cuts in funding to support these courses.

And while the OfS’s point that the amount of overall funding cut (after you include tuition fees) amounts to only one per cent of the total, this ignores the fact that these courses do not become less expensive to deliver just because they are not deemed a priority. To deliver them effectively, that money has to come from somewhere. This makes it more likely that money is diverted from facilities and services across a university in order to make up that funding. Far from supporting students - which is supposedly the OfS’s main remit - it is more likely to damage their overall student experience.

But on a more fundamental level, leaving these subjects to only be provided at Russell Group institutions (who are better able to offset this loss in funding with income through research) is essentially saying you can’t study history or politics or English if you don’t achieve three A’s at A-Level. This closes off the benefits of higher education, learning a subject one is passionate about, and ultimately a range of graduate careers, from the very groups of people who would benefit most from a university education. Note that courses are set to close at institutions where the primary focus is on high-quality teaching, not where teaching is considered very much secondary to research.

Gutting our post-92 institutions of arts provision and providing confusing mixed messages on what universities should focus on is not going to support a diverse Higher Education sector - and is more likely to damage the opportunities for the most deprived, not improve them. The arts is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the UK and is worth more than £100bn to the UK economy. If that isn’t of strategic importance, then I don’t know what is.


James Flynn is a Policy Officer for the Young Fabians Education Network.


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