Socialist Alternative

Tories plan to decimate university arts courses: build a fightback now!

A recent ‘consultation’, launched at short notice by the Office for Students (OfS) – a subsection of the Department for Education – has proposed a 50% cut to courses in the arts at UK universities for the 2021-2022 academic year, coming into effect from September onwards. This suggestion has been made under the pretext of prioritising “high value” courses such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects, as well as healthcare. However, according to the proposals this would come at the expense of “high-cost” courses including music, dance, drama, media, performing arts and archaeology which, scandalously, have been dismissed by the Tories as not “strategic priorities”.

Students on full-time arts courses currently receive £243 in funding (2020-21) from the OfS; but the proposed plan would bring this down to £121.50. Under the plan, spending for non-prioritised subjects will be cut overall from £36m to £19m, ‘saving’ almost £20m to be redirected to other areas such as nursing and computing. These proposals have been met with outrage from workers in the creative industries, as well as from students and staff in the arts.  

According to the Musicians’ Union: “The proposed funding cut will be catastrophic for music provision at HE level, affecting our members’ work, the financial viability of music courses, and training for the next generation of musicians and music professionals”. 

The Tories’ priorities

Subjects such as healthcare and STEM are undoubtedly important, especially given the recent context of the pandemic, and with a shortage of nursing staff in the NHS thanks to decades of Tory underfunding and privatisation. But at the same time, for many people around the world, the experience of lockdown has highlighted the importance of the arts in society as millions turned toward books, music, film and other media to maintain their mental health, and social and cultural connections. So what gives the government a license to effectively deem this as a waste for funding? Why not increase funding for both? 

Already, the impact of years of government underfunding for the arts has led many young and working class people to see the arts as something that is not ‘for them’. If we allow this to happen, these cuts will further compound this, decimating arts departments in many universities and further excluding students from working-class backgrounds in a subject that is already all too often seen as a middle-class pursuit.

Hidden in the details is plans for further attacks beyond the 50%. The Office for Students adds even further that, on top of the existing cut, they would then “potentially seek further reductions in future years”, indicating the Tories’ plan to whittle down the curriculum even further in the long term. It will not be lost on arts students that this is the same government behind the “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.” ad campaign last October which pushed for arts workers (such as the infamously fictitious ballerina “Fatima”) to leave their profession for jobs in cyber.

For years, university courses and services have been strangled by cuts across the board. The brunt of this has been borne by staff and students. Last year, courses were slashed at universities such as SOAS University of London. Staff at the University of Brighton are currently fighting to defend the on-campus nursery against closure.

In 2015, University of the Arts London (UAL) provoked a backlash from students and staff by cutting over 500 foundation course places. For many working-class students, these foundation courses were essential to getting onto the full course. 

None of this is to deny that many STEM courses will urgently need extra funding, which has been a point made for years by research bodies, student groups and education unions. But universities need more funding in all courses and all services they provide. These proposals offer no real solution for students or university departments, but will instead pit them against each other over what the Tories want to present as a dwindling supply of money.

But the wealth exists in society to guarantee full funding for all courses. Vice Chancellors receive an average salary of £350,000 per year, and the profits of the ruling class have skyrocketed over the course of the pandemic.

Students, cultural workers and university staff need to get organised to fight back against cuts to university services, and to demand a fully-funded, democratically controlled education system that can genuinely support the needs of society.

Student Socialist Alternative stands with all staff and students facing the threat of cuts to their courses. We will be launching campaigns fighting for a full cancellation of these planned cuts, but also for proper funding and a plan to reclaim education to end marketisation and the destructive effects of the capitalist market on our universities. If you want to help us build this fightback, join us today and get involved!

Student Socialist Alternative calls for:

  • Solidarity with Higher Education staff and the University and College Union. Prepare to ballot for militant industrial action to fight cuts to any university courses.
  • Organise student protests on campus in every area to defend our courses and to stand with university staff.  
  • All universities which will be affected should demand action now to stop their courses closing.
  • Full funding for university courses, student housing and tuition fees.
  • For an end to lavish VC pay packets to help cover the costs. For a fully publicly-owned and properly funded education system run under the democratic control of students, staff and the community.