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Higher Education Funding Cuts: How Much More Can We Take?

In this blog, MU Deputy General Secretary Naomi Pohl discusses the Government’s proposed HE funding cuts in England, that “MU members are at their most passionate when there is a risk to colleagues or the future workforce,” and how we must do everything to fight back.

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By Naomi Pohl Published: 11 May 2021 | 1:01 PM Updated: 21 May 2021 | 5:31 PM

Gavin Williamson has announced a 50% cut to higher education funding for arts subjects saying they are not a ‘strategic priority’.

For musicians and others in the creative industries who have been without work and struggling to make ends meet for the past year, this is yet another kick in the teeth. I received a message from a member saying, “how much more can we take?” 

The worst year for the arts in living memory

The past year has been the worst in living memory for the arts sector, and freelance creators and performers have been among the hardest hit – many falling through the gaps in Government support. Our members in England were not offered grants through the Cultural Recovery Fund, unlike in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Music teaching was one of the few areas of work that provided an income during the pandemic, with some lessons able to continue online at every level. But this funding cut is bound to have an impact on work opportunities.

As we all look forward with hope to the reopening of live events, we are also full of trepidation about what the future may hold. None of us could bear another lockdown. We all wait with baited breath to see if work opportunities will return to pre-Covid levels and if organisations will survive. My day-to-day work is heavily focused on a safe reopening and lobbying for a solution to the Brexit problem.

Many challenges lie ahead and we are all painfully aware of the fragility of our sector now. No wonder then that the reaction from musicians to this latest news from the Government has been both passionate and furious. 

Music education is precious

MU members are at their most passionate when there is a risk to colleagues or the future workforce. Countless times I’ve been told by a member dealing with a horrendous work situation that they “just don’t want it to happen to anyone else”.

And music education is so precious. The thought that a child’s talent might go unnoticed, or that a teenager might not get an opportunity because of their socio-economic status, cannot be borne. If you studied an arts subject like music at any level then you know how valuable it was to you and what it’s led to.

I was always going to pursue an arts subject and career. The alternative is unthinkable for me. I can assure you that I wouldn’t have thrived in the sciences – and as a parent I want my children to have the opportunity to follow their calling in life. There should be a full kaleidoscope of study and work opportunities open to us all.

Music is not a luxury, it’s essential

This narrowing of higher education pathways is also nonsensical from an economic point of view. The creative industries generate £102bn for the UK economy. Music alone generates £5.8bn. Careers in these industries are viable and we all pay our taxes!

Plus it is well reported that during the pandemic people have turned to culture more than ever. Listening and viewing figures have increased. It turns out music is great for improving overall well-being and mental health, who knew? We did.  

Film, TV, video games, radio, podcasts, they all need writers, composers, performers and musicians. Arts graduates are essential. Music is not a luxury item, it is fundamental to the human existence and probably more so now than ever before. 

Giving with one hand, taking with the other

Another reason for the very strong reaction to this news is that it reinforces our feeling that the UK Government simply doesn’t care about our sector.

For years we’ve been highlighting the economic and social benefits of music and the incredible work our members do, but how quickly this is forgotten when it comes to funding decisions.

The Government gave with one hand by providing the enormously welcome £1.57bn cultural recovery fund, and took with the other by failing to provide financial support to so many freelance creatives.

And here we are again. As we look forward to emerging from the pandemic, we hear of a 50% cut which will be detrimental to our members’ work and the talent pipeline.

There is an unsettling sense that if the Government doesn’t see Higher Education funding for music and arts subjects as a strategic priority, what else could fall by the wayside? What about music at primary level? Instrumental music tuition? Local authority funding for the arts? These are things we’ve already seen suffer over the past decade, as our members are increasingly forced onto zero hours contracts. What about our jobs?

Fighting to protect Higher Education

As a Union, we will do everything we can to fight back against this cut. We know what music education means to our members and we will lead the charge in arguing for this funding to be restored. We have been among the first to call it out and we will hold the Department of Education to account.

To win, we need members to get involved, as you always do when the going gets tough. After the most dreadful year, our activists are still fighting - writing to their MPs and the Secretary of State, filling out countless industry surveys, battling on social media. We see you. We hear you.

Take action now: email your MP and write to the Secretary of State for Education using our template letters. Find out how in our campaign hub.

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Naomi Pohl

Naomi Pohl was elected General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union in March 2022 and is the first woman to take up the role in the Union’s almost 130 year history. She has worked in the arts sector in the UK for nearly 20 years representing creators and performers. Naomi joined the MU in 2009, and has represented and championed the rights of musicians, songwriters and composers working across TV and film, the recorded music industry, in education, orchestras and theatre. Since the Me Too movement started Naomi has been leading the Union’s SafeSpace service and the Union’s campaign to tackle sexual harassment in the music industry. Naomi is currently campaigning for improved streaming royalties for performers as part of the MU’s #FixStreaming campaign, in conjunction with The Ivors Academy.

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