Seven trade unions have published an open letter to Boris Johnson calling on him to reconsider proposed funding cuts to creative and performing arts subjects in the higher education teaching grant for 2021–2022.
The organisations say the cuts threaten the “health and accessibility of the entertainment and education sectors, jeopardises the livelihoods of HE and creative workers, and narrows training opportunities”.
Gavin Williamson informed HE regulator the Office for Students earlier this year of plans to cut the teaching grant, or ‘T-grant’, by half for students of art and design, music, dance, drama and performing arts, media studies and archaeology.
In a guidance letter, he told the OFS to “reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy, high-cost STEM subjects and/or specific labour market needs”.
Criticising Williamson’s move, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “These cuts would devastate arts and entertainment provision in higher education, risk widespread job losses and severely reduce access to students.
“The institutions most vulnerable to these cuts are those with a higher number of under-privileged students. It is simply unconscionable to deny these young people the chance to study subjects like art, drama and music.
“If funding is cut current and future students lose out, because courses that are shut cannot be brought back to life at the drop of a hat. If the government continues down this track, we could be seeing one of the biggest attacks on arts and entertainment in English universities in living memory.”
In their letter, unions Equity UK, University and College Union, BECTU, Writers Guild of Great Britain, Musicians’ Union, Unison and Unite highlighted the importance of the creative industries to the economy, which generates £111bn a year.
The signatories pointed to Russell Group research that found affected courses would run at an average deficit of £2,870 per student with other financial pressures taken into account and this would “make many courses unviable”.
The letter made the case that the round of cuts outlined by the Education Secretary are at odds with the identification of creative and cultural investment as one of three elements of the first round of the government’s levelling up fund.
“Without compatible investment in accessible arts education and training, how will the government create local jobs to fill these new hubs? How can the UK creative industry continue growing if HE entry points are made inaccessible to future workers?”
The trade unions also raised concerns over the disproportionate impact the proposed cuts will have on students from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds and disabled students, given their overrepresentation in creative subjects.
The Education Secretary has announced the intention to remove the London weighting element from the grant, telling the OFS that it could not be “justified when excellent HE provision can be delivered across the country”.
Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan argued earlier this year that the proposals have “let slip the government’s mask” and declared that the cuts revealed ministers’ ‘levelling up agenda’ is just a “front for levelling down London”.
The unions have now told the Prime Minister that “instead of pursuing a levelling-up agenda, the removal of London weighting is levelling down”. Equity leader Paul Fleming said: “If the government is serious about a levelling up agenda, they’ll stop these cuts in their tracks.
“The only way to get authentic, diverse, working-class voices into the creative industries is by supporting quality higher education provision as part of the training ecosystem. These cuts say that Gavin Williamson believes a reducing number of people can be a professional artist: that can’t be right.”
Below is the full text of the letter sent from unions to Boris Johnson.
Dear Prime Minister,
We, the undersigned, stand collectively in opposition to the proposed funding cuts to creative and performative arts subjects in the higher education teaching grant budget for 2021–2022.
Secretary of State Gavin Williamson’s guidance letter to the Office for Students (OfS) of January 19th 2021 outlines the government’s plans to prioritise the allocation of funding to “subjects vital to the economy and labour markets”. However, what this means in practice is a 50% reduction to high-cost grant funding for creative and performing arts subjects in higher education in England, with further cuts threatened in future years.
Our unions are aligned in protest against this cut, which threatens the health and accessibility of the entertainment and education sectors, jeopardises the livelihoods of HE and creative workers, and narrows training opportunities for future generations. The government has sought to play down the impact of the cut, but the Russell Group has calculated that affected courses will run at an average deficit of £2,870 per student per year when other cuts and financial pressures are taken into account, which could make many courses unviable.
The proposed removal of London weighting, as part of the same set of proposals, will exacerbate this problem for higher education institutions (HEIs) in London. Instead of pursuing a levelling-up agenda, the removal of London weighting is levelling down.
The impact on arts provision in non-specialist institutions, especially post-1992 universities, which have been at the forefront of efforts to widen participation in the creative and performing arts, is of particular concern. Redirecting funding towards a small number of specialist institutions is likely to lead to geographical ‘cold spots’ where access to provision for those who are unable to move away from home in order to study – for example, those with caring responsibilities – is severely limited.
Some of the universities most vulnerable to the cut enrol considerable numbers of local students from low socio-economic backgrounds, many requiring additional support to complete their education. Black and minority ethnic students are over-represented in this group, so will be disproportionately affected. According to Office for Students diversity data, creative subjects have “the highest proportion of any broad subject group to have a reported disability”. This means that disabled students will also be disproportionately impacted.
The creative industries of the United Kingdom generate £111bn for the UK economy each year, with the creative sector in 2020 growing five times faster than the UK economy as a whole prior to the coronavirus crisis. The creative arts are the fifth most studied subject across the UK, with creative training not only securing future generations of creative economy workers but providing transferable training and skills to workers of other industries.
Creative and cultural investment has been identified as one of the three themes of the first round of the government’s ‘Levelling Up Fund’, but without compatible investment in accessible arts education and training, how will the government create local jobs to fill these new hubs? How can the UK creative industry continue growing if HE entry points are made inaccessible to future workers?
With a confirmed T-grant budget decision scheduled for June 2021, should these cuts go ahead universities face replacing them in the space of one summer, before the 2021-2022 academic year begins in September. We fear that these changes – alongside the OfS’s problematic proposed metric on student progression to managerial and professional employment – are likely to cause higher education institutions to review their creative and performing arts provision. The result will be to limit the availability of affordable HE courses and see potential future students financially edged out of creative training.
We call on the Westminster government to reconsider the impact of the 2021-2022 T-Grant budget and the consequences that further proposed reductions of future years will cause for the creative and education sectors. We urge the government to ensure that the proposed plans for Higher Education “reform” does not make creative training less accessible in practice.
University and College Union
Writers Guild of Great Britain