On 19 January 2021, the Office for Students received a guidance letter from education secretary Gavin Williamson setting out the allocations for the Higher Education Teaching Grant for 2021-22.
It was this letter that in one fell swoop knifed creative arts education in the back, gave a good kicking to London institutions and put the boot into the Uni Connect programme.
With some fairly uncompromising words, Williamson informed the sector of the “strategic reprioritisation” of what was and wasn’t important:
…reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy, high-cost STEM subjects and/or specific labour market needs.
…remove weightings for London providers from across the T-Grant, including the students attending courses in London supplement, and weightings within the student premiums.
The reduction of London weighting will enable the OfS to invest in other priorities such as high-cost subject funding, which is offered to providers in all regions of England, supporting the levelling-up agenda.
Just three months earlier, the government had been forced into an embarrassing climbdown, scrapping its controversial cyber security campaign which suggested that “Fatima”, an aspiring ballet dancer, should retrain in cyber security. This famously sparked outcry from the art world, even riling up the government’s own culture secretary.
What these two episodes in recent higher education history told us was that there was palpable disregard for the creative arts and cultural industries. Dominic Cummings was even rumoured to have said that the “f*cking ballerinas can get to the back of the queue” in terms of pandemic support.
This all appears to be predicated on a belief that the cultural industries and creative arts education are just a “nice-to-have”.
The guidance letter to the OfS revealed not only an inherent prejudice within government, but a lack of basic policy fact-checking. The fact is that the creative industries are one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK and are worth over £116bn to the economy.
A quick trawl of the Home Office’s shortage occupations list reveals that the UK is facing chronic labour shortages in these industries. “Artists – all jobs”, “dancers and choreographers”, “musicians”, “arts officers, producers and directors – all jobs” and “graphic designers – all jobs” make the list. By its own qualifying criteria, the teaching grant should never have been cut for these subjects – they fulfil the brief for being both high value and facing major labour shortages.
There is a wealth of evidence that creative arts education and our cultural industries are key to unlocking wider social and economic benefits and big wins for UK plc. Two and a half years since Gavin Williamson’s letter, it seems that some in government are now paying attention. In March 2023, the OfS announced £9.6 million of funding for performing arts courses, and in July the government appointed a panel of experts to develop a cultural education plan.
To an extent though, the damage has been done. Years of underinvestment and under-prioritisation for the creative arts have destroyed our creative education pipeline.
Art is essential
This is where the Creative Education Coalition enters the fray. A group of creative, cultural and higher education organisations coming together to set the record straight, and prove that creative arts education and our cultural industries are essential to the success of the UK’s social and economic future.
This led to the creation of our #ArtisEssential Creative Education Manifesto, which we are publishing ahead of the party conferences, and will use as a platform to support discussions with all political parties in the build-up to the next general election.
Our aim is to secure cross-party commitment to protect our creative education pipeline over the long-term through a set of eight simple asks, backed up by compelling evidence of the educational, economic, health, social and cultural benefits to UK Plc.
The asks aren’t rocket science and don’t cost the earth – in fact many don’t cost anything at all. But they will be transformative for the UK in delivering clear financial returns and efficiencies, including restoring the creative arts talent pipeline to ensure it continues contributing to the UK’s creative economy.
The manifesto calls on all political parties to equip every child with a solid foundation of creative education skills, to drive the recruitment and training of specialist creative arts teachers, and to put the creativity back into creative and cultural arts education.
It also calls for a review of creative and cultural education assessment and qualifications to ensure valuable qualifications are protected in the long-term and creative arts skills are formally recognised and valued, and for a primary, secondary and tertiary education system that values STEM, the arts and humanities in equal measure and enables and embraces interdisciplinary study and research.
We need a commitment to realising the value of sustaining a talent pipeline of creative and cultural arts students into higher education and beyond, including a commitment to lifelong learning within and through creative education. We need equality of access to a thriving creative arts/cultural ecosystem for every citizen across the country. And there needs to be recognition of – and investment in – the potential for creative arts and skills to turbo boost entrepreneurism across the UK.
If we get cross-party support for these eight simple asks, we believe that many of their combined aims will be enabled – economic productivity and growth, educational and health inequalities, levelling up including town and high street renewal, and crime reduction and safer communities.
Getting the creative skills pipeline going can be simple. It can also be a key solution to many of the challenges our country faces.