No bias against arts subjects, says Williamson

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has sought to downplay any inference he was ideologically opposed to arts courses

The education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs there is “no bias against arts qualifications” in the Department for Education and denied that future policy and spending priorities would undermine the arts in higher education. 

The education select committee asked Mr Williamson about plans for lifelong learning, antisemitism, A-levels, student employability and the strategic priorities grant. 

Earlier this week, Williamson said the government would press ahead with post-qualification admissions “as rapidly as possible”.

‘Certainly no bias against arts qualifications’ 

In response to questioning from Fleur Anderson, Williamson sought to downplay any inference he was ideologically opposed to arts courses. 

“To be absolutely clear, there is certainly no bias against arts qualifications,” Williamson said, countering her claim that arts programmes would see funding cut by 50% as “completely false”. The government has instructed the Office for Students to review the strategic priorities grant with a view to cutting half of funds to some high-cost arts subjects, including archaeology, media studies, performing arts and creative arts. These subjects, awarded £40m this academic year, would see funding fall to £20m. 

University Alliance accused ministers of a “strategic misstep” and the Russell Group described the move as “disappointing”. Seven trade unions today published an open letter protesting the proposed cuts. 

The secretary of state continued: “The amount of funding that we’re giving to the small, specialist – the very best – institutions and organisations such as the Royal College of Music, actually we’ve seen an enormous increase of funding in this area, because actually, we’re really wanting to drive the arts drive, the very best and highest quality in that.”

Lifelong learning allowance by 2025 and no earlier

Williamson repeated his commitment to the lifelong learning allowance – but said it was not feasible to introduce the scheme until 2025. He said the legislation would be complex and represent the largest change to post-16 education “since the Second World War”.

Antisemitism

The education secretary ducked a direct question from committee member Jonathan Gullis about academic freedom, when he asked if university lecturers should be “held to the same standards as classroom teachers”. Williamson said he would “expect those people who are committing acts of antisemitism to be dismissed”. Work to encourage universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism was ongoing, Williamson reported. There had been an “exceptionally large rise in the number of universities that are have signed up”, he said – but added he “won’t hesitate” to take action against those that show “complete reluctance” to adopt the definition. Although universities were autonomous, they also received large amounts of public funding and should expect scrutiny, Williamson added. 

Free speech bill won’t support hateful and abhorrent expression

Williamson gave an assurance that the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill would not provide an avenue for those with “hateful and abhorrent” views to begin legal proceedings against a university or student union that ‘no-platforms’ them. “We don’t believe that would be the case,” Williamson began. “Whereas there’s always been an obligation on a university to [protect free speech], there has never been any sort of legal enforcement. If we take Holocaust denial, whether it is the Equalities Act or Prevent duties, actually, Holocaust denial is something that would never be tolerated on university campuses because it is antisemitic behaviour.”

High level graduate employment ‘always a focus’ for VCs

Williamson was quizzed on what role universities should take on graduate employment, after one MP said universities were “very good at getting people in and getting that £9,000 a year” but some were “really not very good at then developing employability skills”. David Johnston asked the secretary of state if he agreed there was an issue with “how universities, which are charging such high fees, prepare their students for the world beyond university”. 

“I would expect every vice-chancellor to take greatest pride in how many students are leaving his or her institution and going straight into high-quality work that actually demonstrates doing that degree has actually been able to open doors for that student,” Williamson responded.

“That should be always a focus in terms of the onward progression of every single university. If they’re not achieving that, then in essence, I think they have to have ask very searching questions of themselves as to whether the quality of the education that they are giving that student is right, whether the support around that student is right.”

A-levels next year subject to ‘adjustments’ 

Williamson said exams in 2022 would be altered so that pupils next year would not be disadvantaged. “We very much hope and intend exams will go ahead in 2022,” he said, adding: “I very much expect there to be adjustments and mitigations to be put in place. Those youngsters who are currently in year 10 and year 12 will have suffered disruption as a result of the pandemic.” It would not be possible to “immediately switch back” to exams as they were before the pandemic, he continued. 


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