In almost all the coverage of the coalition government’s proposed cuts to university funding, as a result of a review conducted by Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP (whose qualifications for such a role have never been adequately explained), it has been noted that the reduction in funding announced in George Osborne’s comprehensive spending review — from £7.1 bn to £4.2 bn — amounts to a 40 percent cut, to be replaced by increases in fees, from the current rate of £3,290 a year to anywhere between £6,000 and £9,000 a year.
Largely unnoticed, however, is a disturbing sub-text. Because the government has ring-fenced funding for band A and B subjects (science, engineering, technology and maths), subjects in bands C and D (arts, humanities and social sciences) will lose 100 percent of their funding. As the education minister David Willetts explained to the House of Commons business committee on October 26, the teaching grant for band C and D subjects would, in the BBC’s words, “be all but wiped out.”
According to an analysis of the government’s plans conducted by the National Union of Students, 24 universities could lose all their funding, including ten in London: the London School of Economics (LSE), the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Goldsmiths College, the Institute of Education, Central School of Speech and Drama, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama and the Courtauld Institute of Art. Ignored in these results, for some reason, are the University of the Arts London (including the London College of Fashion and the London College of Communication), and the Royal College of Art, and, in addition, numerous other universities offering courses in art, humanities and social sciences will also lose all their funding for these courses.
In response to the analysis, NUS president Aaron Porter said, “Universities across the country that do not meet the government’s arbitrary definition of usefulness, but nonetheless transform and enrich our economy and society, are to be brutalised.”
This was accurate, revealing the gulf between the government’s belief that supposedly utilitarian subjects should be funded for the good of society, but that the arts, humanities and social sciences — a vast area of study including English literature, law, history, foreign languages, information technology, psychology and social studies, as well as all aspects of art, drama and music — are somehow irrelevant to society as a whole.
The truth, as identified by Porter, is that they do indeed “transform and enrich our economy and society,” as part of the very infrastructure of society in the public sector, and as an intrinsic part of the “creative industries” that are such a crucial — and growing — part of the UK economy, both in terms of the commerically successful organizations that attract the attention of ministers, and the vast number of self-employed creative people — myself included — who play a largely self-sufficient role in the creation of jobs in post-industrial Britain.
Sadly, the full extent of the impact of what Charlotte Higgins described in the Guardian as a “dark new philistinism” has not yet been even remotely explored in the mainstream media, where far too many journalists — like the ministers advocating these cuts — conveniently overlook the fact that they benefitted immensely from attending university at a time when higher education was adequately funded, when grants encouraged poorer people to attend university, and the entire sector was regarded as being of use to society as a whole, rather than as some sort of selfish lifestyle choice.
I await cries of horror from other journalists and authors, from artists, actors and historians, lawyers, psychologists and social workers, all of whom appear, at present, to be sadly mute on the axing of funds to the courses from which they — and society — benefitted without accruing potentially paralyzing debts of anywhere between £35,000 and £60,000.
Last week, however, the Guardian at least began to touch on some of the follies of the government’s plans in a fascinating article in which Paul Thompson, rector of the Royal College of Art — “whose alumni include the artists Chris Ofili and Tracey Emin, the industrial designer Sir James Dyson, as well as Burberry’s creative director, Christopher Bailey” — explained how the government has “swung a sledgehammer” into arts teaching, “warned that withdrawing funding for design courses puts the supply of talent for creative industries at risk,” and added that “the decision to prioritise science failed to recognise the collaborative way in which engineers work with designers.”
“The creativity of a designer takes an invention that might potentially lie on a laboratory bench, adds the design thinking, and that helps commercialise that idea,” Thompson said. “We’ve been talking to government and saying look at the number of design-led companies that have Royal College of Art graduates behind them, whether it’s Jaguar, Foster architects, or Burberry.” Worried that fees for postgraduate students “would have to rise dramatically to make up the shortfall in funding,” he added, “I think the government has swung a very heavy sledgehammer across the board, in trying to remove David Beckham studies, and swung this sledgehammer [at] a number of very important courses for the creative industries.”
This was an important point, obviously missed by Lord Browne and the government, when they decided to neatly compartmentalize university education into two stark categories — utilitarian and dilettante.
For another take on the fear that “undergraduate students facing higher debts will be reluctant to take on in-depth postgraduate study,” the Guardian spoke to Barry Ife, the principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, who explained, “It takes time to develop an artist: in the case of singers, it’s a question of physical maturity as well as emotional and artistic maturity. It’s one thing for undergraduates to go out with £20,000 of debt, quite another thing to go out with £50-60,000. The real concern is not so much that we’re not going to have an undergraduate population, it’s what happens to the postgraduate population. It’s from that group that the really talented artists will emerge.”
He added that the withdrawal of funding “fails to recognise the intensive nature of artists’ training,” and explained, “The costs in performing artist training are extremely high, because the training we provide is very intensive: it’s tailor-made, it’s based on one-to-one teaching. You can’t teach the cello to people like Jacqueline du Pré in groups of 300 or even 20.”
While some will argue that this is an unaffordable luxury for Britain today, Ife also pointed out that, by raising fees to a higher level than in any public university system in the world, British schools of music may lose out to those in other countries, and — my inference — may well be obliged to close. Explaining that they “face competition from European and US conservatoires that charge lower fees – or, like the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, offer full scholarships,” he said, “We work in an international market in arts training. There are a lot of providers in the US who are tuition-free. The vast majority of European conservatories offer tuition rates that are lower than current rates.”
This, then, is the current state of play. Short-sighted, reckless, socially and culturally barren and fixated on a mean and narrow ideology, the coalition government is proposing to introduce swingeing cuts to funding and a liberalization of fees, which will make Britain’s universitiies amongst the most expensive in the world, and appears not to care that this dangerous experiment may lead to the closure of numerous long-established universities and university departments, the flight of British students abroad, a further drop in social mobility, as other young people decide that university is unaffordable, a notable impoverishment in the cultural and social life of Britain, and, most stupidly of all, severely restricting the opportunities for employment, self-employment and job creation that arts, humanities and the social sciences provide.
Note: This Wednesday, November 24, there is a national day of occupations and protests against the cuts (see here for further details), including a “Carnival of Resistance” at ULU, in central London, followed by a procession to Trafalgar Square. For further information about the govermment’s cuts in general, see the Coalition of Resistance website (and the conference in London on Saturday November 27), and a statement of intent by Tony Benn and 73 others that was published in the Guardian in August.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.