It’s likely that earlier this year you spotted the splashy headlines announcing with horror the Office for Students’ (OfS) planned cuts to arts courses, and the suspected effects that this was likely to have. These cuts were by no means small, though the OfS carefully reassured us that this was the ‘equivalent to a reduction of around 1 per cent of the combined tuition fee and OfS funding’. To phrase it in a slightly more realistic (and scary) way, this meant that the subsidy that goes towards the university to help pay for subjects that are expensive to teach would be halved for arts subjects. When the news of this planned change came out, the backlash was severe. Not only was the then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson consciously moving money away from arts courses, he was devaluing them in the public eye at the same time. Williamson even went so far as to make the outrageous statement:
The implication here that arts subjects are not ‘high-value’ was picked up on by critics of the proposal, who pointed out that even in economic terms, graduates with creative, innovative skills are in high demand, even as the NHS is also demanding the need for more nurses, doctors and resources. You would suppose that with Williamson’s supposed investment into high-cost STEM subjects, the government would at least be funding the NHS sufficiently to show it the respect it deserves (even if they are bit by bit taking this respect away from arts courses). As we have since seen in the cuts to staff pay, however, this is obviously not the case; after adjusting for inflation, nurses’ and health visitors’ pay has dropped by £1583 since 2011, and ambulance wait times and missed targets in healthcare are now an almost daily occurrence in the UK’s front pages. It seems the government’s priorities are not in properly funding the next generation of artists, musicians or journalists, nor are they focused on thanking NHS staff after a particularly difficult two years. Maybe our taxes are best spent, instead, on the PM’s wallpaper and his trips to Peppa Pig World.
Unfortunately, and despite the backlash to the proposed cuts, they were confirmed as going ahead (though we might note that Williamson was dismissed in the PM’s September cabinet reshuffle). Williamson claimed that the cuts to arts would save around £20m, a number that in itself reminds us of the number of people who it would impact. We might want to consider how much this proposal is costing us now in the new academic year, and how much it is going to cost us further down the line. Critics of the cuts noted that Williamson’s scheme could disproportionately affect lower-income students, with Paula Orrell (the national director for England’s Contemporary Visual Arts Network) voicing her concern especially about students who cannot afford to move away from home. What might seem like a small cut today could have a kind of bottleneck effect, in which students have to pick up the loose ends and pay for some of their own resources, especially difficult for those from lower income backgrounds.
Williamson also claimed that redirecting funding towards STEM subjects would be ‘reflecting priorities that have emerged in the light of the coronavirus pandemic’, an understandable statement on the face of it. What he did not acknowledge, however, is that the pandemic saw 16 million new sign ups to Netflix, while Spotify gained 25 million new Premium subscribers. The art market did take a hit in 2020 due to the closing of galleries, but it was still in a far better place than it was during the 2009 financial crash, with online exhibitions continuing through the pandemic. People need to be able to visit a museum, a gallery, read a paper, watch a show, and listen to music or go to concerts, for their own livelihood, and their spending habits through lockdown reflected this. All of these activities, in turn, rely on curators, writers, set designers, makeup artists, musicians, musical directors, film directors etc.. Our government has a habit of pretending that the arts don’t matter, whereas in reality they are needed now more than ever. As people are isolated from one another by lockdowns and a harsh economic climate, the arts are one of the few ways in which people can be brought together.
So, does Durham, a university with a reputation for being high-achieving and academically rigorous, reflect the attitude we see in cuts to the arts? Whether you turn to the career fairs that only advertise jobs in business, finance, marketing or STEM, or compare Elvet Riverside to the Palatine and Ogden centres, the dismissal of the arts seems to already be well embedded in Durham culture. Opportunities like the student art prize and the variety of societies offered to students are a much-appreciated effort to be more arts-inclusive, but I think the university still has a way to go. Even when discussing subjects with other students, Physics or Biology students seem to receive responses like ‘that sounds hard!’ or ‘wow, you must be busy’. As a humanities student, the responses I more often receive are more along the lines of ‘you must read a lot’ and ‘so you like being unemployed?’. Dismissive attitudes towards arts education at university muffles the creativity and open-mindedness of its students, and we must take care that this does not deteriorate into academic hierarchy.
This government’s treatment of arts and humanities courses will be detrimental to the future of arts industries in the UK. As more and more people consume arts content online, fewer consider the amount of work that lies behind a TV program or piece of music, encouraged by our country’s leaders’ dismissive attitude. I don’t aim to claim that we should recede into a Plato-like utopia in which Philosopher Kings rule over the country, but I do think that it is about time the arts are taken seriously. The rainbow was an artistic symbol of hope, unity, and support for the NHS through the pandemic. Without it, where might we be?
Featured Image: The Calman Learning Centre, photographed by MrBran4 on Flickr, <https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrbran4/23170764074/in/photolist-BiwdUj-aysiNm-97eamt-2hBySSJ-dPahmT-2hBBHaV-aysoRy-8BG5b-2hBBGsN-ayshFj-2hBySgy-dPfWiE-2hBySLw-85uuzS-2hBBGcT-2hBBGUE-ayspa9-85rm7X-5hqjfs-2hBBGpG-aysp1u-2hBCAMZ-85uxrq-R3YuPd-aypFna-2hBBGDV-aypBur-aypBNc-2hBCB6K-2hByRNu-2hBySox-YBt7hm-2hBCBf7-2hBySUN-aypGSD-CA4ex1-CA4cZS-ZirQQ7-JAfRcy-ZGcyMr-2hBBGXq-CA4bxy-CA4e4q-CA4aLo-25UdBp5-K1n5Y8-2iyDnwp-JydViV-2iyH7W8-L5ag7T>