University design courses stage fightback against proposed funding cuts

University leaders are urging the government to recognise how an arts and creative education can help close a skills shortages gap and contribute to the economy but stress it must be accessible to all.

When news broke in May that the government had plans to slash university arts funding in half, the decision drew a familiar ire from the creative industry. Design leaders called the idea “destructive” and “short-sighted”.

Design courses have been threatened with budget cuts many times before. Design Week has regularly reported on government funding cuts taking aim at school and university education over the last 10 years.

But as Kingston University vice chancellor Steven Spier explains, it’s the government’s new justification for the budget cuts that has his university – and many others – so worried. “That the government considers arts subjects as ‘not of strategic importance’ is concerning.”

“The creative industries contribute £115.9 billion to the UK economy annually”

According to the Office for Students (OfS) and education secretary Gavin Williamson, the proposed cuts relate to the subsidy currently provided by the office to universities to help them deliver “subjects that are expensive to teach”. For arts subjects, this subsidy currently works out at around £243 per full-time student annually. Under the new plans, this would be reduced to £121.50.

The OfS states other funding streams will remain untouched, and that none of this will impact students directly, as the subsidy is paid to universities. But as Spier says, funding is only part of the issue. The “dismissive” attitude towards the arts is just as concerning, he says.

“The government is dismissive of the arts, preferring to see us as a bunch of lovies compared to those studying and working in STEM [science, technology, engineering, maths],” says Spier. “But the creative industries contribute £115.9 billion to the UK economy annually.” That number, he adds, is more than aeronautical, automotive, life sciences, and the oil and gas industries combined.

“The fact this worth isn’t getting through to people is worrying”

When the proposal made headlines back in May, Spier says he and his peers at Kingston did “what academics do best” and conducted a literature review focused on reports about how the creative industries contribute to the UK. “We wanted to prove the arts were worth funding,” he explains.

The results were irrefutable, Spier recalls. Against all metrics – cultural, social, economic, and more – the arts offer huge benefits for the country. “The evidence is voluminous,” he says. “But the fact this worth isn’t getting through to people is as worrying as the proposed cuts themselves.”

Wanting to find a way to conclusively prove the point, Kingston and YouGov put the issue into “a language more people could understand”, Spier says. The university approached 2,000 businesses from across the UK economy to ask what skills they were lacking and needed urgently. Unsurprisingly, says Spiers, the list that came back was “a list of design skills”.

“A creative education is both tactile and intellectual”

It is the versatility of a university arts education that Spier wants to drive home. He refers again to the report, which reveals a third of creative jobs aren’t even in the creative industries.

University for the Creative Arts (UCA) School of Fine Art, Photography and Visual Communication head Professor Terry Perk concurs: “A creative education is both tactile and intellectual, nurturing the ethical and aesthetic intuition of students and fostering a deep understanding of how our actions affect the world.

“At its heart, the arts provide alternative ways of experiencing and thinking about our lives and the world – challenging and supporting our individual and collective sense of identity and giving us the mindset and skills to innovate.”

Perk says the “sustained reduction” in valuation of the creative arts will “rapidly erode the richness and variety of our national culture and our country’s global position at the forefront of innovation”.

“Exactly the kind of innovation the government wants so much of”

Innovation is a sticky subject. While the government proposes to cut university funding for the arts, in the background it continues to push its “Levelling Up” agenda. Spier and Perk say these two points are at odds.

In a statement, the OfS explains that while funding will be halved for arts funding at universities, the government will be increasing funding for “specialist institutions” (which it regards things like “drama schools, conservatoires, art schools and music colleges”) from £43 million to £53 million. But Spier says that is not good enough.

“It’s good to hear more money is going to these institutions of course, but that’s not where most students are studying the creative arts and actually a lot of these places are monocultures,” he says.

Spier says it’s universities that offer a multitude of different courses and pathways where creative studies really “show their value”. “Universities like Kingston have nursing, engineering and many other courses and this diversity of work lends itself to co-operation and exactly the kind of innovation the government wants so much of,” he says.

“The creative industry is already exclusionary”

Perk, like many designers recognises the arts will be “a driving force” in post-pandemic recovery, offering the “glue that brings communities together”.

Yet while the benefits of funding the creative arts are clear, there’s a parallel concern with different social groups being excluded from this future.

Spier worries that the design and creative industries are in danger of becoming the “preserve of privately financed schools” and therefore limited in scope. His concerns are rooted in the fact arts education isn’t only being side-lined at university level – it’s a problem that goes right back into primary and secondary schools. He says all of these issues are connected.

“The creative industry is already too exclusionary, but if it’s only private schools that are investing in their pupil’s arts education, and it’s only those students who then go on to university, working class kids are going to be pushed out of art completely,” he says.

The solution to the problem isn’t just to push money at art schools, Perk says, although obviously this would help. “Fundamentally we would like to see a change in mindset, and for Government to actively and vocally champion the arts and creative industries,” he says.  “Changes in policy and investment in skills and research will naturally follow that shift.”

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