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The MU has been thoroughly shaken by the Education Secretary’s statement that music and the arts are not among the Government’s “strategically important subjects” at higher education (HE) in England.

Because of this, the Government is proposing to reduce the funding for these subjects by 50 percent for the 2021-22 academic year. What does this mean for students and course providers?

Firstly, it is important to note that public money given to HE providers is much less than the amount covered by tuition fees. Government funding comes in the form of grants and allocations that top up tuition fees and other fundraising – but this is still a large chunk of HE funding, and it is what the Government is seeking to cut for most arts and music courses. Of course, the fact that HE is mostly paid for by vast student debt is a serious and separate concern.

The media has widely reported a proposed cut of £36 million down to £19 million for arts and music (for example, the Guardian), which the Office for Students (OfS) consulted on as part of a broader public consultation on HE funding. We took issue with this consultation, which many MU members found unwieldy and confusing. It was also poorly publicised.

Shockingly, the letter sent by the Education Secretary outlining his “strategic priorities” to the OfS also states an ambition to cut music and arts subjects beyond 50 percent in future years. This could see the remaining £19 million dwindle down to zero.

A range of courses are vital in training a full diversity of professionals

The timeframe is short. The proposed cut will be confirmed in June following a review of consultation responses. If it goes ahead, universities will have just a few months to work out how they will absorb the hit to their budgets before students enrol in September.

The cut will mean different things to different universities. Will it destroy a Russell Group music department that can draw on relatively healthy finances to make up the shortfall? Probably not. Could it close a course at a more local university catering for a less privileged student cohort, where budgets are tighter? Yes – which hardly supports the Government’s own “levelling up” agenda.

While most music and arts courses will be cut by half, a small number will get an increase – specifically conservatoires and colleges that offer specialist training, which the Government has decided to prioritise. It’s a relief that these at least will be protected, but it reveals a divisive agenda when the effects of what could be lost are understood.

Specialist training is wonderful and the lifeblood of high-level performance, but other courses are also vital in training the full diversity of professionals that populate music and the arts. This includes (and is not limited to) producers, engineers, DJs, educators, music therapists, publishers, managers, arts administrators and retailers – and it can also include some of our finest performers and creatives. The UK’s excellent university and college music departments underpin all this activity, which delivers astounding results for the nation’s economy year after year.

The MU has welcomed comments from Drake Music, a disabled-led music education charity. Drake has pointed out that the proposed cut will have a disproportionate effect on disabled people, who are more represented on arts courses compared to other subjects, and that the cut will negatively affect inclusion and equality in the arts. These devasting statements support our own consultation response, which included similar remarks.

The cultural sector is right to be angry about this narrative

The MU appears to have hit a nerve with our response to the proposed cut. The Department for Education (DfE) responded to us on Twitter saying that the amount being cut is relatively small, and that the money was being reallocated to science subjects that support the NHS.

Our response is that £36 million down to £19 million (and possibly much less in the future) is not small. For many universities it could determine whether or not a course is viable. And why would the Government pit the arts against the NHS? Both are essential.

In its tweet, the DfE implies that we are overlooking other sources of income that are not being cut. In fact, some other sources will also be slashed if the cuts are confirmed. As part of the same OfS consultation, a proposal to remove a significant and essential London weighting subsidy was included. This means that many providers of music and arts courses in capital could be hit doubly.

Caught on the backfoot, the DfE has now uploaded an article about the various ways it supports music education in England. A detailed discussion of these claims is for another time, but the MU agrees that some of the Government’s music education policy is positive – for example, the funding of England’s music education hubs.

However, the Education Secretary’s disastrous statement that music, dance, drama and performing arts are not strategic priorities has revealed a different narrative, and the cultural sector is absolutely right to be angry.

Photo ofChris Walters
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Chris Walters

Chris Walters is National Organiser for Education and Health & Wellbeing at the Musicians' Union. He leads on the Union's music education advocacy and policy work in the four UK nations and oversees services for music teachers. He previously developed the Certificate for Music Educators qualification at Trinity College London and was editor of Music Teacher magazine for Rhinegold Publishing, where he helped launch the Music Education Expo. He has taught music in the UK and Kenya and began his career as a professional clarinet player.

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