The Musicians’ Union is deeply discouraged by aspects of the Government’s latest higher education reforms. While most media coverage of the reforms has focused on changes to student loan repayments, the Government’s announcement also contained funding information that could threaten the future status and viability of music and arts courses.
Last year, funding for music and arts university courses was cut back despite widespread outcry from the MU and the broader cultural sector. The Government justified the cuts by claiming that the funding was needed for science subjects “that support the NHS”.
Now, a new £900 million “strategic priorities” investment will be targeted primarily at the same subjects, which the Government sees as “high-return”. There was no mention of any investment in creative or arts subjects, ignoring our vital creative and music industries, which are worth £112bn and £5.8bn respectively. It is not yet clear what this will mean for universities.
Meanwhile, in a supposed drive to raise standards, the Government is consulting on “controlling” overall student numbers in order to prioritise “high priority subject areas which are important to the economy”. Given the Government’s failure to recognise the economic value of music and the arts, the MU is concerned that courses in these subjects could be at risk.
Increasing barriers to access
The Government also announced that it will consult on introducing a minimum qualifications requirement to access student loans, which could be grade 4 in both Maths and English at GCSE. This would effectively exclude around one third of pupils – the proportion of pupils who do not achieve these grades in a normal year – from progressing to higher education.
The MU has previously raised concerns about how the Government’s policies are excluding disadvantaged, disabled, Black, Asian, and ethnic minority students from HE arts courses. Many of these students are not well served at school and need additional support to access university education. Demanding grade 4 in GCSE Maths and English as criteria for a student loan would be a regressive step for these students.
Further, reducing access to music and arts subjects at HE will only compound the systemic inequalities the beleaguer music and arts education at school level.
Student loans hitting the poorer hardest
Today’s announcement also stated that the student loan repayment threshold will be reduced to £25,000 and the repayment period will be extended from 30 to 40 years. Musicians frequently train for an extended period with no guarantee of high earnings, often meaning higher levels of student debt and reduced means to repay it. These changes will therefore affect musicians adversely and disproportionately.
It has also been reported that high-earning borrowers stand to benefit substantially from the changes while graduates on lower-to-middle earnings will suffer a proportionate loss of more than a penny for every pound they earn during their lifetimes.
The Government is closing the door to arts education
Chris Walters, the MU’s National Organiser for Education, said:
“It is depressing but predictable to find the Government using the same rhetoric around ‘strategic priorities’ that it used to justify the cuts it implemented last year. We must now redouble our efforts to challenge the Government on its total disinterest in much of England's excellent music and arts HE training provision.
In addition, minimum qualification requirements for student loans and changes to loan repayments are likely to have a significant adverse effect on both MU members and the professional musicians of the future. Once again we see the Government closing the door to wider access rather than opening it.”
Complete the Government’s consultation
The Government has opened a consultation on these issues with a closing date of 6 May. This will cover “proposals to improve outcomes, access and value for money of investment in higher education by students and taxpayers.” In completing the consultation, you will be able to give your views on proposals for student number controls and minimum eligibility requirements. The union will share guidance to help you do this in the coming weeks.
Members should note that these reforms and the Government’s consultation apply to England only. The other UK nations set their own education policy.
To keep up to date with what the MU are doing and for other developments within Education, please ensure that you've joined the MU's Education Section, a focus group specifically for musicians working in all forms of music teaching.