Govt must reverse ‘dangerous assault’ on HE – Grady

UCU leader, Jo Grady, has written to the education secretary demanding a reversal of the government’s 50% cut to arts and humanities funding, claiming that it hits society as a whole and working-class students in particular

Dr Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) has written to the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, entreating him to reverse government policy on the arts and humanities in HE.

She said that the 50% cuts announced by Zahawi’s predecessor, Gavin Williamson, amounted to a “bonfire of arts and humanities provision”.

“These proposals must be seen for what they are,” wrote Grady. “A dangerous assault on higher education which will damage careers and severely restrict student choice.”

In a move claimed to save £20 million, the subsidy for each full-time student on an arts course was cut from £243 in the last academic year to £121.50 in the current one.

Grady’s letter, sent on the first day of UCU’s virtually-held annual conference, also drew attention to the effects of potentially large-scale redundancies at a number of universities.

In May, 226 academics at the University of Roehampton were notified that their jobs were at risk from a “strategic alignment” that would see cuts to its anthropology, classics and creative writing programmes, together with the possible closure of the department of philosophy.

Last month also saw the University of Wolverhampton claim that a £20 million deficit and 10% drop in UCAS applications would require halting student recruitment to 138 courses, leaving up to 500 jobs under threat.

It is clear that the government is making a concerted attempt to shrink the horizons and quash the aspirations of working-class students – Jo Grady

And May also found De Montfort University announcing that 58 jobs may have to be cut to counter the financial fallout from coronavirus and the rising cost of living.

“Each of these institutions, as post-92 universities, has played a fundamental role in widening participation in higher education to working class communities,” wrote Grady.

“But the adoption by vice-chancellors of the government’s reductive agenda, which aims to restrict access to a varied university education, threatens to reverse this historic progress and fuel a bonfire of arts and humanities provision.”

Her letter also referenced “attacks” on arts and humanities courses in more established universities, including the claim that Goldsmiths’ management is in the process of cutting 46 posts across the departments of history, English and creative writing. Goldsmiths disputes this figure, saying that only 20 members of staff have been informed that their roles are being made redundant. The university says it has sought to minimise the number of redundancies by cutting operational costs and selling assets.

“This dangers of this agenda can be seen clearly in the Department for Education’s [DfE] slashing of funding to creative arts courses and frequent public attacks on so-called ‘low value’ courses,” she added.

“Threats from the DfE to bring in student number controls for particular courses and the new Office for Students regulatory system – both based on arbitrary graduate outcome measures – risk further narrowing access to arts, humanities and social sciences to a small elite.

“Alongside your decision to lower repayment thresholds for tuition fee loans, and the introduction of minimum entry criteria, it is clear that the government is making a concerted attempt to shrink the horizons and quash the aspirations of working-class students.

“If the proposals at De Montfort, Roehampton and Wolverhampton are repeated, as our union fears they may be, the future of the arts and humanities could be under grave threat, resulting in disaster in vital areas including the public sector and the creative industries, as well as impoverishing our culture.”

From the archive: In 2019 we popped round to have a chat with Jo Grady at UCU headquarters

Grady called on the government to not only reverse the 50% cut, but to reintroduce core public funding for teaching, abolish student fees, “commit to delivering sustained funding for higher education providers” and “abandon plans to restrict access to courses that do not meet arbitrary graduate outcomes data.

“We are clear that a thriving society needs arts and humanities as much as it needs science and technology. Creative subjects have a hugely important role to play in responding to global challenges and the development of emerging technology. It makes no sense to withdraw government support, or for vice-chancellors to toe the line.”

In response, a DfE spokesperson said: “The government continues to back our world-class higher education sector with an additional £750 million worth of funding for universities over the next three years and more 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university than ever before.

“We are boosting creative education by providing a £10 million uplift to world-leading specialist providers in 2021-22, including more than 10 providers specialising in the arts, with a further £5 million planned for 2022-23. This funding will help improve the diversity and quality of creative education provision available to students.”

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