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Open Letter in Opposition to the Government’s Proposed HE Cuts Published

Seven trade unions including the MU have come together to publish an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in opposition to the Government’s proposed funding cuts for arts and music subjects.

Published: 23 June 2021 | 1:41 PM
Photograph of a young person having a trumpet lesson, standing in a medium sized recital hall.
The cuts mean taking funding away from the frontline of efforts to widen participation in the creative and performing arts. Photo credit: Stocksy

The cuts proposed by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson suggest slashing Government grants going to "high cost" Higher Education arts and music subjects in England by 50%.

According to Williamson, this is because music and the arts are not among its “strategic priorities.”

This, the seven unions write, "threatens the health and accessibility of the entertainment and education sectors, jeopardises the livelihoods of HE and creative workers, and narrows training opportunities for future generations."

It is why the MU is calling on members to email their MP and the Education Secretary to protect Higher Education funding for music and arts subjects.

The open letter is signed by the MU, Equity, University and College Union (UCU), BECTU, Writers Guild of Great Britain, Unison and Unite, collectively representing almost three million trade union members across the UK.

Creating geographic “cold spots” for HE arts and music

Taking funding away from non-specialist institutions means taking funding away from the frontline of efforts to widen participation in the creative and performing arts.

This, the unions write, “is likely to lead to geographical ‘cold spots’ where access to provision for those who are unable to move away from home in order to study – for example, those with caring responsibilities – is severely limited.”

Levelling down, not up

The proposed Government funding cut would be catastrophic for all music students.

But it will have a disproportionate effect on students from low socio-economic backgrounds, on disabled students, and on Black, Asian and minority ethnic students.

“How can the UK creative industry continue growing if HE entry points are made inaccessible to future workers?” the unions write.

Deep diving into key Government claims

Two key claims made by Government, that the proposed funding cut is “small” and that they are investing more in HE music, are partly true but misleading.

When it comes to the actual amount being cut, the calculation is disputed and fails to take into account other cuts being made at the same time, like the removal of the London weighting.

In fact, The Russell Group has calculated that the music and arts courses that are being cut will face an average deficit of £2780 per student per year because of the various cuts and other financial pressures.

And while it is welcome that some specialist providers such as conservatoires have been allocated additional funding, Government claims about supporting Higher Education music mean supporting a select minority of courses while a majority of courses are cut.

Email your MP to protect Government funding for Higher Education subjects – and fact check the latest claims from Government – in our HE funding campaign hub.

Read the letter in full

Dear Prime Minister, 

We, the undersigned, stand collectively in opposition to the proposed funding cuts to creative and performative arts subjects in the Higher Education Teaching Grant budget for 2021–2022.

Secretary of State Gavin Williamson’s Guidance letter to the Office for Students (OfS) of January 19th 2021 outlines the Government’s plans to prioritise the allocation of funding to “subjects vital to the economy and labour markets”. However, what this means in practice is a 50% reduction to high cost grant funding for creative and performing arts subjects in Higher Education in England, with further cuts threatened in future years. 

Our unions are aligned in protest against this cut, which threatens the health and accessibility of the entertainment and education sectors, jeopardises the livelihoods of HE and creative workers, and narrows training opportunities for future generations. The Government has sought to play down the impact of the cut, but the Russell Group has calculated that affected courses will run at an average deficit of £2,870 per student per year when other cuts and financial pressures are taken into account, which could make many courses unviable. 

The proposed removal of London weighting, as part of the same set of proposals, will exacerbate this problem for higher education institutions (HEIs) in London. Instead of pursuing a levelling-up agenda, the removal of London weighting is levelling down.

The impact on arts provision in non-specialist institutions, especially post-1992 universities, which have been at the forefront of efforts to widen participation in the creative and performing arts, is of particular concern. Redirecting funding towards a small number of specialist institutions is likely to lead to geographical ‘cold spots’ where access to provision for those who are unable to move away from home in order to study – for example, those with caring responsibilities – is severely limited. 

Some of the universities most vulnerable to the cut enrol considerable numbers of local students from low socio-economic backgrounds, many requiring additional support to complete their education. Black and minority ethnic students are over-represented in this group, so will be disproportionately affected. According to Office for Students diversity data, creative subjects have “the highest proportion of any broad subject group to have a reported disability”. ​This means that disabled students will also be disproportionately impacted.

The creative industries of the United Kingdom generate £111 billion for the UK economy each year, with the creative sector in 2020 growing five times faster than the UK economy as a whole prior to the coronavirus crisis. The creative arts are the fifth most studied subject across the UK, with creative training not only securing future generations of creative economy workers but providing transferable training and skills to workers of other industries. 

Creative and cultural investment has been identified as one of the three themes of the first round of the Government’s Levelling Up Fund, but without compatible investment in accessible arts education and training, how will the Government create local jobs to fill these new hubs? How can the UK creative industry continue growing if HE entry points are made inaccessible to future workers?

With a confirmed T-Grant budget decision scheduled for June 2021, should these cuts go ahead universities face replacing them in the space of one summer, before the 2021-2022 academic year begins in September. We fear that these changes – alongside the OfS’s problematic proposed metric on student progression to managerial and professional employment – are likely to cause higher education institutions to review their creative and performing arts provision. The result will be to limit the availability of affordable HE courses and see potential future students financially edged out of creative training.

We call on the Westminster Government to reconsider the impact of the 2021-2022 T-Grant budget and the consequences that further proposed reductions of future years will cause for the creative and education sectors. We urge the Government to ensure that the proposed plans for Higher Education “reform” does not make creative training less accessible in practice. 

Equity UK, University and College Union (UCU), BECTU, Writers Guild of Great Britain, Musicians’ Union, Unison and Unite

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