Trade unions write to Boris Johnson over arts teaching cuts

Seven unions sign open letter urging government to keep creative and performing arts degrees accessible to all students

Seven trade unions have published an open letter protesting against the government’s proposed cuts to funding for creative and performing arts degrees.

Equity UK, University and College Union (UCU), The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (BECTU), Writers Guild of Great Britain, Musicians’ Union, Unison and Unite have today published an open letter to prime minister Boris Johnson, in opposition to proposed cuts to creative and performing arts subjects in the higher education teaching grant budget for 2021–2022.

The cuts proposed in January 2021 by education secretary Gavin Williamson would see high-cost, high-value subjects, such as medicine, engineering and other STEM subjects, gain increased teaching grant (T-Grant) funding next year. Based on indicative figures, those high-value, high-cost subjects identified will receive £85m more from this September, bringing total spending to £735m.

Other high-cost subjects (performing arts, creative arts, media studies and archaeology) will have T-Grant funding cut by 50% – with further reductions sought in future years. These subjects, awarded £40m this academic year, will see T-Grant funding fall to £20m.

The open letter from the unions in full:

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 £111 billion 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.

Equity UK, University and College Union (UCU), BECTU, Writers Guild of Great Britain, Musicians’ Union, Unison and Unite

Last month, the Russell Group and University Alliance also warned the government to rethink its proposed reductions in funding to some arts subjects and London universities. University Alliance chief executive Vanessa Wilson said the cuts were “a strategic misstep”. The government skills white paper identified “persistent skills shortages within the creative and related sectors”, making cuts to these subjects “counter-productive”, she said.


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