Cuts to arts courses: strategic missteps and myopia

Towards the end of my first year as an undergraduate in 1979 I desperately wanted to switch to my subsidiary subject, art history. I had no idea that this even existed as a degree course when I applied to university, but it proved to be a mind-blowing, intellectually rigorous course of study that ignited a lifelong engagement with visual art, and a belief in culture more broadly as a source of empowerment and fulfilment.

During a procedural interview with the dean, I was questioned on whether pursuing art history was a wise decision. Wasn’t I worried about getting a job?

Within six months of leaving university with first-class honours I was working as a teaching assistant in Art History for an American university in London. It was the beginning of career in the visual arts that has included working as a curator in a national museum, running a university art school, and writing several books on art and artists.

The hostility to arts education in this country has been with us for some time. While I was still an undergraduate, during Margaret Thatcher’s early years as prime minister, the first of a series of cuts to university courses were being made, with low-intake courses such as art history and expensive-to-run courses such as archaeology threatened with closure. But disregard for the value of arts subjects has reached new levels under the current government.

Cuts to funding
In the last few weeks, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, has faced a wave of protests against the planned 50% cut to the funding allocation per student for arts subjects in higher education. Following a consultation with the Office for Students (OfS), according to Williamson, these subjects – including music, dance, drama and performing arts, art and design, media studies and archaeology – are now considered to be high-cost/low-value courses to the taxpayer. They are not viewed by the government as “strategic priorities” for investment, when the country needs to train STEM graduates and more doctors and nurses.

Defending the proposed cuts, an OfS spokesperson said: “The OfS has a fixed funding budget that is set by government. This will have to stretch further in the coming years with significant growth forecast in student numbers particularly for courses that are expensive to teach like medicine and nursing. In this context we need to make difficult decisions about how to prioritise our increasingly constrained budget.”

No-one would dispute the pressing need to bolster the NHS’s intake of healthcare professionals, depleted by Brexit and then by Covid-19 burnout. But reducing opportunities for developing creative skills is myopic. It ignores current thinking about the opportunities and challenges posed by the fourth Industrial revolution, already upon us, which is transforming how we live and experience our lives at every level.

The value of creativity and creative subjects

Creative subjects develop what are widely recognised as essential 21st century skills, namely problem-solving, critical thinking, risk-taking, collaboration and communication. Such creative, inherently entrepreneurial skills will be needed to address the big global problems we all face.

In 2010 an IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number one competency for leaders in the future. Creativity is also an essential component of life-long learning, which is key to empowering individuals to make sense of the fast-paced world they inhabit, to make their lives meaningful, to flex and adapt to change.

Originating in the Latin word creo, meaning to create or make, to produce something out of nothing, creativity was for centuries seen as an expression of the divine. But it is now widely understood as the production of something novel or original, worthwhile or useful, a process of identifying problems or gaps, seeking solutions that result in an outcome. In any job or profession, the ability to imagine doing things differently is important for efficiency and profitability.

Crucially, creativity helps us respond to change. UK art schools focus on the development of the creative process that teaches students to think laterally, to ask questions, to test ideas through making, to take risks in their work and to embrace mistakes as these may lead to innovation.

Artists tend to bring together unusual combinations of things and ideas, and to ask questions that no-one else would think to ask in other disciplines. This ability to explore and imagine across delineated or conventional boundaries, to generate a range of responses to a problem, is a key part of the creative process. It allows us to imagine and then to create the kind of world we want to live in; so it helps us to respond to change and also to initiate it.

Arts graduates populate the UK’s highly successful creative sectors, experimenting with new technologies, developing new content and applications, and creating new business models. These sectors have been described as ‘social network markets’, contributing to the process of adaptation and change, supporting innovation in the broader economy.

But creativity is not only good for our economy. Learning to live creatively has been identified as helpful in adapting successfully to change on a personal level. Influential British philosopher Ronald Barnett argues that self-belief, self-confidence and self-motivation are more important than specific bodies of knowledge or skills in terms of coping with the uncertainty of the super-complex contemporary world.

The impact of cuts on practice-based arts

By contrast with a classroom-based discipline, a practice-based arts subject typically requires studio space and technical facilities, along with specialist teaching and technical staff. The halving of the funding allocation for arts subjects will result at worst in the disappearance of these arts courses from the less well-endowed universities; or, if they survive, they will most likely do so in a depleted and truncated form.  

If Williamson chops the graduate fee (or rather loan) from £9,250 to £7,500, as he suggested earlier this year when he announced his intentions ahead of the autumn spending review, all courses that need space and kit will be under threat. Of course, science subjects also come with laboratory and specialist equipment costs – but as “strategic priorities”, these will receive government subsidy.

When Williamson vowed in January that he would “slash” funding for courses like media studies, the Department for Education stressed the need for sustainable funding systems and delivering better “value” for students (for “value” read graduate earnings) and for the taxpayer.

Many would agree with the DfE that those who benefit from their higher education should make a “fair contribution” to reflect this. The £9K fee and the accompanying loan and repayment scheme were introduced in 2012. So by now the government has a pretty good idea which subjects are not returning a high enough “contribution” (in its terms) through the graduate tax, which kicks in when earnings reach a certain threshold (currently £27,295 a year, £2,274 a month, or £524 a week).

But social and economic value is contributed not only in terms of salaries and tax revenue. Meaning and imagination are no less important.

The infamous ad…

The infamous ad

In October of last year, the government put out an ad showing a ballet dancer with the message: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber.” The photographer who created the image, Krys Alex, expressed outrage that her work had been used in this way. She described how “as an independent artist in the creative community” she felt that “artists should stand together and support each other. Our hard work deserves to be recognised, and we should not be encouraged to stop doing what we love.” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden was forced to apologise and the ad was withdrawn.

But the philistine spirit behind it is still very much alive, and recent comments by Williamson on the Conservative Home website have done little to quell the rising backlash against his assault on creative education.  Defending his proposed legislation, he claimed that it would crack down on “low-quality” and “dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt”.

Of course, not all arts graduates will end up following careers as professional artists or performers. Many will contribute in a myriad ways to the businesses and public-sector organisations that have earned the UK its international reputation as a creative powerhouse.

Some may even go into politics – and research conducted by education consultant Studee indicates that 90% of the degrees of todays MPs would now be considered “low-value” in Williamson’s terms. But individuals choose subjects that make their lives worth living. Creative subjects are the most flexible and adaptable, which is what humans and human society will need to be in the years to come.

With his social science degree, you’d think the Secretary of State might understand this.