I hope the funding review of higher education is thorough, thoughtful and pragmatic. And that it considers the needs of all subjects and all types of provider, not just a few. In developing a rationale for more student choice, the review offers a chance to take a serious look at the impact, and the value, of higher education delivered by a specialist arts university such as ours.
Small, specialist, arts universities
The voice of specialist arts universities should be heard if there is to be a continued link between the value and transformation of higher education, with that of a fulfilling and worthwhile career that also supports the economic development of the country.
Arts University Bournemouth (AUB) is a specialist institution whose teaching and research is entirely delivered through the disciplines of art, design, architecture, media and performance. The overall effect is one of a unified creative community, with high levels of engagement by our students, and a positive impact – as shown in our excellent retention, achievement and employment data for students of all backgrounds..
Six suggestions for the review
If politicians are worried about the youth vote, they should consider the impact on the creative and cultural industries foremost. Young people engage with new ideas and innovations readily. They are consumers of their own creative and personalised content, shared on social media platforms. They respond to the music and film industries with fervour. Some desire to work in the creative industries and they are great job creators, working freelance and developing start-up businesses. However, from an early age it seems as if the support and education to develop this talent is diminishing, and this will have an impact on the voting decisions of not only those wishing to study creative subjects, but also those who currently work in the creative sector wishing to employ the next generation. This could have serious voting (as well as cultural) consequences.
The long-term potential of the growing creative industries sector is being damaged by school education policies. Many schools are having to cut their creative provision, with the biggest negative impact on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The state school curriculum increasingly reduces art and design to the ‘bucket’ list. A potential triple-whammy emerges; first by reducing the opportunities for young people to study the arts, then to stifle talent development through poor funding decisions in higher education, and finally by diminishing the prospect of further growth in the fastest-growing UK economic sector. Therefore, the funding review cannot be seen in isolation and ministers from all departments should be involved.
I would promote a value chain of funding for ‘all through’ provision, where creative talent is nurtured and supported through to high-level skills and productive working lives. At AUB we run a junior art school, and have further education provision, as well as the full spectrum of a higher education offer through to PhDs. I am concerned that the review might not be able to comprehend this as a vital part of creative education, and the vital pipeline into the creative economy. Subjective support for one group of subjects over another will not produce a balanced, diverse, and resilient economy.
I would hope that the review addresses the current bias in additional funding allocations for business and university interactions. Poor historical decisions have denied small specialist arts universities their share of innovation funding, despite excellent (proportionate) delivery in this area. Size is never a good indicator of performance, so I hope that this indicator is removed. Students who choose to study at specialist institutions are discriminated against by not having the same opportunities as those who study at larger institutions, a per-capita allocation would be a fairer distribution.
If fee funding were to drop without any other additional funding from HM Treasury, this will result in unintended consequences. For example, to ensure funding for industry-relevant equipment is available, to give graduates a step-up into the workplace. It would be a backwards step if the final funding decisions were to lead university managers to have to decide, for example, between investing in teaching quality to ensure successful graduate outcomes, or reduce the investment in widening participation activities. Of course, the management decisions are rarely as distinct as that, but the potential for both to be damaged is huge. In this regard, I would hope that the review challenges assumptions and that the final decisions are justifiable to those students who wish to benefit from the experience gained at smaller, specialist institutions.
Finally, I hope that the funding review looks at the true cost of delivery of high-cost subjects such as design, and recognizes that a subsidy might be important to secure high-quality and industry-relevant courses, where graduates persistently lead the field. Specialist institutions are highly responsive to industry changes, and prioritise the currency of provision as key to their specialist status, which in turn ensures strong employability of graduates. Creative arts can be understood in this context and are constantly re-invented as an indicator of knowledge creation and knowledge application. I hope that the funding review will take seriously the importance of high-level creative skills, and that the subject is not deemed obsolete for the future economy.
Specialist arts universities gather great creative minds together, are not bound by age restrictions or mode of study, and embrace lifelong learning – all in support of the creative economy. I am hopeful that the funding review will talk to those who lead specialist arts universities to understand the challenges and opportunities within them.