Recently our Chancellor, poet and artist Imtiaz Dharker, likened the impact of proposed funding reductions in arts subjects to ‘cutting off the oxygen that allows us to breathe and grow as a society.’
Her voice has joined a raft of others from education, the cultural sector and beyond to criticise government plans that would see the additional high-cost subject grant support for subjects taught in Higher Education not deemed government priorities – drama and performing arts, music, dance; art and design; media studies and archaeology – cut by 50%.
The name of that grant is then being changed to the Strategic Priorities Grant, which shifts focus from the actual cost of delivery to the more nebulous term ‘strategic priority.’
Exploring perceptions of value
During a year which has seen the arts lauded for the role they have played during the pandemic (while the sector itself has faced the extreme difficulties of the proverbial curtain being down); the global media interrogate issues raised by Black Lives Matter, the US elections and the pandemic; and the rise of culture wars, many raging about how we deal with the past in the present, it could be said that the subjects under threat have never been more valuable.
And here much of the argument does centre on different perceptions of value.
I use the word ‘perception’ deliberately, for the consultation document on the proposed cuts does not provide a coherent, evidence-based rationale for the proposals made.
Instead, it nods to the positive contribution of such subjects (including societal benefit and inclusion for those with disabilities), before putting them in overly simplistic, binary opposition to STEM and healthcare, which are deemed strategic and high value.
Few, if any, would argue with the importance of STEM but many dispute the devaluing of arts and humanities.
A 'hearts and minds' appeal
The consultation document states that the privileging of STEM reflects ‘priorities that have emerged in the light of the coronavirus pandemic.’
But surely, the contribution of the arts during the pandemic only further highlights their evidenced value to society, to health and wellbeing, and to innovation – the agility of the digital transformation, the repurposing of tight organisational resources for community engaged work, and the (often value-led) ingenuity.
This is before we get on to evidence-based arguments about the value of the creative industries to the UK economy and risks to the talent/skills pipeline, before we look at the evidence-based reports on the contribution of arts and humanities graduates to the broader economy and how their skills will be invaluable in a post-pandemic world and before we recognise the importance of interdisciplinarity to finding solutions for global challenges.
For beyond what some term a ‘hearts and mind’ appeal, is detailed, hard evidence as to the value of arts and humanities subjects.
A quick glance at the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre and Centre for Cultural Value websites will show the research they are undertaking to assess, challenge and grow the sector which only deepens arguments as to value in all senses. Fundamental value, not nice to have.
Let's look at the facts
We can boil this down to the simple, monetary fact that these courses cost more to teach, and that this should be the basis on which support calculated. End of.
In many senses it should be this simple. The truth is that the oxygen supply to these subjects is already being turned off. It has been for some years. At the crux of this issue is not these proposals, they are symptomatic of a broader value perception that is stifling arts and humanities, and our cultural and creative industries.
Curriculum change has meant that many young people no longer experience a culture-rich, creative education or gain the skills this provides for whatever their future might hold. Opportunities to take creative subjects are declining along with their provision as they are not deemed ‘core’ to the curriculum.
The full impact of this on diversity, inclusion, social mobility within education and the arts is yet to be fully understood, but it is likely that those hardest hit by curriculum change are those from already under-represented and minority communities.
Indicative evidence is also showing that these are the groups in the cultural sector, along with under 25s, likely to be most severely impacted by the pandemic. There will be a lost generation – or several – and our cultural sector, our society, our health, our economy, and humanity will be worse off because of it.