Artists, musicians, and teaching groups have come out in strong opposition to recent government proposals to reduce funding for the arts in higher education by almost 50%. The proposed cuts come as a result of a consultation between the Office for Students and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who have both labelled this move as a “change in focus of government spending”: educational departments deemed of ’higher priority’ will reap the monetary rewards instead.
Aside from performing arts and music, other subjects that have been described by the government as not among “strategic priorities” include art and design, media studies, and archaeology. The proposed reductions would bring the arts budget down from £36m to £19m- a top percentage change of -49%. In contrast, the courses described as ’higher priority’ include computing, information technology, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects. These areas will receive a 12% budget increase, rising from £665m to £736m.
Whilst the consultation acknowledges the value of studying creative courses from a broader cultural perspective, as well as from the high levels of participation from young people with learning disabilities or mental health conditions, they argue that these courses are expensive and that “when funding is significantly constrained, we believe it right that the grant for these subjects is reduced in order to prioritise other subjects”.
The fact that the arts are considered less important to the current government should come as no surprise to anyone. The Conservatives provided support for the arts industry too late into the Coronavirus pandemic, forcing many theatres to close and leaving freelance and self-employed workers falling through the cracks of their support schemes. On top of this, back in October of last year, the government released online advertisements that encouraged those working in the arts to retrain for jobs in “cyber”. This was met by derision from members of the public, and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden was quick to disavow it.
The British government has a long history of undervaluing and defunding the arts. Back when they first took power in 2010, the Conservative and Liberal Democratic coalition reduced the Arts Council of England’s budget by almost 30%, roughly £100m, and pushed for additional cuts for programs such as Creative Partners. These were part of the broader austerity measures introduced in response to the 2008 financial crash. The 2020 Arts Index from the National Campaign for the Arts also shows a 20% decrease in GCSEs taken in creative subjects since 2010, as well as a drop in investment in funding by the arts by 35% since 2008.
We’re still feeling the ripple effects of these decisions; a lot of theatres have now had to make a large part of their income from box office, merchandise, and food and drinks sales as a result of the lack of funding. Samuel West, chair of the NCA, has stated that “the arts sector’s resourceful response to the 2008 financial crash is now the very thing that makes it vulnerable to the Covid-19 crisis”.
The defunding of the arts within education comes as an expected next step for a government that has shown time and time again how little value they place on the industry. When Rishi Sunak suggested last year that artists should adapt to the new reality that COVID-19 has created, he reduced a highly-skilled job role, which takes a lot of time and resources to gain experience, into something that can simply be retrained. Arts and entertainment contributes vast amounts to the UK economy, with the arts and culture industry providing £10.8 billion and over 350,000 jobs in 2019, according to the ONS.
We all know that arts and culture are important and beloved in our lives, as so many of us find comfort, escape, and even solidarity in the works of art we create or enjoy. The government, apparently, agrees with this sentiment, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying just last year that creative workers are the soul of the nation. But, just like mental health services, the NHS, and nurses, teachers, and other public sector workers, just because something is ’essential’ to the nation doesn’t mean that it can survive without adequate funding and support.
The labelling of the arts as a low priority shows our government’s wilful disinterest for supporting the creative industries, and is part of a long track record of disincentivizing and removing opportunities for young people to enter into this vital industry. They are, of course, happy to pay lip service to people working in the arts, applauding them as the house lights come back up. But as we’ve seen over the past year, clapping doesn’t keep the lights on.
Words by Mischa Alexander.
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