By Adam Behr, Newcastle University

Recent guidance issued by the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, to the Office for Students reveals conflicting priorities in government and pours fuel on fires burning in an already troubled higher education sector.

The focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – “strategically important high-cost subjects” – is met by a freeze on funding for arts subjects such as music, fashion and drama at undergraduate level.

This amounts to a cut in real terms in the face of inflation, and there are cuts in grants for postgraduate provision – as well as the programme for widening participation to support access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It follows a previous tranche of cuts in 2021 and comes as universities in general – and the arts and humanities in particular – are struggling. Inflation has added weight to the burdens felt across the sector, bringing long-term tensions to the surface as the university funding model starts to unravel.

In brief, the cost of educating a student has outstripped the fees, with no immediate prospect of raising them, not least because they already leave graduates with large debts. This is compounded by falling A-Level numbers in the arts and humanities, making recruitment more difficult. The inevitable result is a decline in provision.

Ed Sheeran performing before he was famous, from 2009, when he was a student at Access Creative College, Norwich.

Oxford Brookes and Kent universities have announced the closure of their music departments, while redundancies at Goldsmiths could threaten up to half of jobs in departments including English and creative writing, history, music, theatre and performance, and visual cultures.

A false economy

The ostensible logic of supporting the hard sciences, and the wider economy, reveals contradictions in the government’s own stated strategies, and masks a false economy. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) Creative Sector Vision, for instance, states that: “Creative industries are a true British success story, from global music stars like Adele and Ed Sheeran to world-class cultural institutions like the National Theatre”.

It also, crucially, highlights the importance of skills “to ensure that the sector can attract and develop the very best creative talent … from all backgrounds and parts of the country”.

Even a hard-nosed economic perspective suggests that arts provision warrants support, rather than a freeze. By the government’s own estimates, the creative industries contribute around £126 billion to the UK economy. That’s more than the car industry, for instance, or aerospace, oil and gas.

While obviously many of the skills needed will be in areas like coding, the contribution still includes around £27 billion in music, visual and performing arts, publishing, design, fashion, museums and galleries.

Higher education arts provision also adds broader value to the cultural life of the nation and to its school-age educational framework as, again, the government acknowledges. The National Plan for Music Education, for instance, notes that universities “offer access to live music performances … through free tickets to concerts held on site or taking student performers out into schools … bring[ing] reciprocal benefits, as students gain invaluable experience of working with young audiences, and school-age pupils are inspired by musicians close to their own age”.

Value of arts and science exchange

The contradictions also reach past the creative sector, and the courses directly affected. The funding cuts appear to gloss over the value that arts courses bring to the higher education sector (itself worth £71bn in gross value added to the economy) overall.

Universities don’t operate in siloes with arts and STEM separated. They support one another financially, with cross-subsidy across degrees that are cheaper to deliver and those that are more expensive (including subjects like engineering).

London’s National Theatre is a world-class institution but courses in theatre and performance are needed to produce the home-grown talent of the future. Credit: Nick Amoscato – licensed under CC BY 2.0

In research too, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, with humanities and sciences each benefiting from collaboration across subjects, especially in the rapidly evolving creative sector, where technological savvy, critical thinking and an imaginative approach are mutually beneficial.

This zero-sum approach to arts and STEM in higher education also undermines the holistic, Humboldtian model of the university whereby a combination of research and teaching across arts and sciences generates knowledge, value and engaged an citizenship. This has long been central to the strength and international appeal of British universities.

The DCMS’ Creative Sector Vision points to the value of dialogue across interdisciplinary research, business and the wider public sector, arguing that, “the government and industry have demonstrated how we can leverage public funding, the UK’s world-leading university base, and the creative sector’s ingenuity”.

Straitened times make for difficult decisions, especially when headline figures show a variation in earnings across graduates in different subjects. But pitting degrees against one another and dividing them into those that are “useful” is an approach that deploys immediate tactics at the expense of long-term strategy.

If funding cuts degrade provision for creative subjects, the effects will be felt beyond the departments immediately affected. The arts underpin the creative industries, and universities exist as part of a wider ecosystem of research, development and education which, even in the government’s own terms, relies on the exchanges between arts and science to create value across the board.

The Conversation

Adam Behr, Senior Lecturer in Popular and Contemporary Music, Newcastle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.