NSEAD Response to the Autumn Spending Review

Michele Gregson, Secretary General of NSEAD presents an overview of the spending review announced by the Chancellor today and its potential impact on arts education.

Today the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a budget that he claims will change the lives of people across the whole of the UK. There is a welcome boost for museums and galleries, intended to “breathe life” back into cultural hotspots, and the extension of the Museums and Galleries Exhibition Tax Relief until 2024.

For education, the Chancellor promised investment in “the most wide-ranging skills agenda in decades” and a UK-wide numeracy programme, but no announcements about proposed changes to tuition fees or student loan payment thresholds. Rishi Sunak set out an ambitious vision for the future:

“We need to...invent, discover and create the ideas and technologies that will change the world”. 

However, the focus is entirely on becoming a “science and technology superpower” with no recognition that science and technology are most effective when these disciplines work with art and design (and other creative arts subjects) to generate the creative thinking needed to solve the complex challenges of the world we live in. New funding for education and subsidies for business are channeled towards those subjects and sectors that fit a simplistic assessment of value.

We know that the Treasury is determined to reduce the cost of the student loan system in England, and to save money on Higher Education. But, as expected, no agreement has been reached between the Treasury and the Department for Education about a possible cut in tuition fees. There is growing concern that reducing the 140bn cost of outstanding student loans will be achieved by reducing student numbers in those subjects that the Government does not believe to be of high value. 

We don’t need to depend on leaked reports or read the runes to know that this puts the Creative Arts and our subject in the front line. The policies and actions of this Government over more than a decade, have shown that investment in Creative Arts education is always seen as expendable. Whether we look at the status of the Arts within the curriculum, marginalised by the EBacc, the inequity in bursaries for PGCE students, cuts to capital grants for Higher Education Creative Arts subjects, or the woeful failure to invest in a schools’ recovery programme that embraces the Arts,, the neglect and degrading of Creative Arts education is a constant theme.

Today’s budget statement signals trouble ahead for Creative Arts education. The truth is that all of the measures being considered to reduce the costs of Higher Education to the public purse are detrimental to those who choose to study the Creative Arts.

Cuts to tuition fees would indeed reduce costs to the Treasury -but will have a devastating impact on universities’ finances, with specialist institutions most at risk. Art and Design courses will close.

A reduction in the repayment threshold would be a move that impacts many graduates, but particularly Creative Arts graduates, whose earnings potential is realised more slowly. Based on 2018-19 earnings data, we can expect an additional 16% of Creative Arts graduates to fall within the threshold in their first year of graduating, if that threshold falls to less than 24k a year. (source: HESA Graduate Salaries, 27 July 2021).

Perhaps most damaging are proposals to deny loans to students with lower grades at A-level – a move that would without doubt disproportionately affect students from poorer backgrounds, and those who benefit from an admissions process where a strong portfolio is the most important factor. Fewer numbers of eligible applicants will lead to a reduction in provision, the closure of courses and talent drawn from a much shallower pool.

If this Government truly wishes to improve the lives of UK citizens, to be a superpower for innovation, we must hope that the DFE’s review of post-18 education takes a more intelligent view of the true value of education than we have seen in the budget announcements today.  We need a genuine investment in our future that is not built on a false dichotomy between science and technology and the arts.