The UK government has recently proposed a 50% cut to funding for arts education courses at higher level. This could mean that young people looking to go into degrees such as fine art, music and performing arts may find opportunities at university and beyond slashed.
The proposal, laid out in a letter to the Office of Students by education secretary Gavin Williamson, comes on the back of several studies which highlight and criticize the inaccessibility of arts education and careers for young people from working-class backgrounds. It proves an alarming development for a working class town teeming with untapped artistic potential such as St Helens.
Arts are 'Not a Strategic Priority'
The Office for Students said that the affected courses “are not among its strategic priorities – covering subjects in music, dance, drama and performing arts; art and design; media studies; and archaeology – are to be subject to a reduction of 50 percent.”
Gavin Williamson stated that “The OfS should reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects. We would then potentially seek further reductions in future years.”
Routes Blocked for Marginalised Groups
Arts institutions, organisations and campaign groups have condemned the proposal. The Public Campaign for the Arts has stated: “Most funding for arts courses comes from tuition fees, but OfS funding is important for many HE providers to meet the costs of teaching. If this cut goes ahead, it could seriously affect the viability of courses.”
Equity general secretary Paul W Fleming spoke up on this issue in an interview with The Stage. “This is yet another government attack on arts education, following years of deprioritising drama and other creative subjects in our schools,” he said. “What is most troubling […] is that [the proposal] blocks a route into the creative industries for working-class and other marginalised groups.”
Steven Jones, researcher in higher education at Manchester Institute of Education, echoed these worries. “There’s a real danger that creative subjects will become a luxury affordable only to certain kinds of young people, such as those from a well-off background.”
Inequality in Arts Education - A Personal Account
I sometimes feel like a broken record when I talk about my background, but it’s necessary to contextualise my experiences of being a working class student in arts education. Raised by a single Dad on benefits, I was the first of my siblings to go to university.
One of my college teachers encouraged me to consider Oxford or Cambridge, but I chose Fine Art and English Literature at Chester. I lived at home in Newton-le-Willows to take the edge off of my living costs; home was also the most secure place for me, since my mental health remained fragile after a breakdown.
The Risks and Expenses of Arts Education
My circumstances meant I could get the full maintenance loan, and a massive half of each installment paid for commuting by train. The rest paid for food, clothes and art materials. Though I lived at home, Dad couldn’t afford to feed or clothe me; I had to do that myself.
I worked a job which made me miserable while reapplying to study at Chester; my budget wouldn’t allow me to quit to focus on my studies and mental health.
Even with the full loan, plus the part time job, it was a struggle. Art materials are expensive, and I found myself restricted with what I could invest in. A broke but determined artist makes do and gets creative with what they have. However, we have to work harder compared to those whose financial situations provide access to a broader range of materials. The changeable nature of arts education also means that investing in materials carries a greater risk – if something doesn’t work out, or a stream of ideas comes to a dead end, that can mean money wasted.
The university ran a trip to New York – I didn’t even bother to dream of it. I made do with the ventures to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and galleries close to home with free entry. Socialising beyond studio time was out of the question. After spending what I needed to on travel, materials and the essentials to survive, I was pretty much broke. I worked weekends at my part time job, and university work took up my evenings.
A classmate of mine found herself in a precarious position right before an assessed exhibition. Someone was repeatedly damaging her car, and she couldn’t afford to get it fixed until payday, especially since she was already struggling with the cost of art materials. Her work was too heavy to bring in on public transport, but the car wasn’t driveable.
At the time, she was balancing her university work with an unpaid work placement in a hospital – but she also had to cover her bills, which she just about managed through gruelling night shifts at a city centre pub.
She pulled through in the end, but not without massive amounts of stress caused by the financial difficulties and vandalism.
A friend in theatre recounted her experiences as a working class student in the field, when I asked if the story of her time in arts education had any echoes of my own.
“Theatre started pricing us out when I was about 13,” she said, “all the companies had extortionate membership fees and we couldn’t afford them anymore. It was that bad, I hosted fully charity funded workshops for £2 a day.”
But her struggles ran deeper than the financial: “I got rejected from drama school because I wouldn’t be able to pay the fees out of pocket and came across as ‘common’.”
A Series of Difficult Questions
These proposed cuts pose a series of tough questions about the arts. Keep an eye on HackTV over the coming weeks as we explore these questions: how do we value the arts? Is arts education accessible to working class kids? Do universities need to rethink how they approach teaching arts courses to create a more high-value outcome for students and the economy?