Education secretary Gavin Williamson has angered and outraged creative sector leaders, artists and educators, who are urging the UK government to reconsider plans to cut subsidy funding for Arts courses by 50% across higher education institutions in England.
Is this a time to make such savings? Why do the Arts matter so much?
The Office for Students wanted to make it clear that some of the coverage in the press and on social media is overstating the position. Here is their statement.
“The proposed reduction relates to a much smaller subsidy that is currently provided by the OfS, designed to help universities and colleges deliver subjects that are expensive to teach. For arts subjects, this subsidy currently works out at around £243 per full-time student per year. It is paid to universities and colleges, not given directly to students. Under the proposals, this subsidy would be reduced by 50 per cent to £121.50 per student per year – equivalent to a reduction of around 1 per cent of the combined tuition fee and OfS funding. This does not include other funding streams, such as the additional premiums we give to universities and colleges to support disadvantaged students, which we intend to maintain.” 6th May 2021
What is the future for our undergraduate creative and cultural practitioners?
The Backstage Centre sits in the idyllic urban oasis of High House Production Park in Purfleet-on-Thames, Essex. With a view of the river Thames, its skyline view from Essex to Kent is crowned by the architectural splendour of the QE2 bridge, a vital conduit uniting two counties and linking a transportation network for hauliers, commuters and holiday makers to use. A multi-cabled ‘stayed’ bridge opened to the public in 1991.
In addition to Hellmut Homberg’s design meeting the transportation requirements, this bridge allows us to observe a creative, albeit practical, vision. Aesthetically pleasing, majestic in its scale.
In 2012 the United Kingdom helped to stage one of the most impressive events in our history, the Olympics. Here, creative practitioners came together with people across the nation to help stage the opening and closing ceremony. Highly skilled, trained creative experts leading the field and providing steer and guidance to an army of volunteers up and down the nation.
For many of us this was an opportunity to celebrate a creative experience on an international scale, and from our local areas. Many young people in Essex, London and the home counties saw this was a chance to take part, working alongside whole communities of volunteers, and put into practice the skills, knowledge and understanding they had discovered from studying arts programmes across colleges, conservatoires and universities in the South-East. Not least of which were many students locally studying at South Essex College, Barking and Dagenham College, Havering College, and many more across the nation, too numerous to mention.
The Olympics 2012 was the reason why our beautiful Production Park was created in the first place. You can read about the history here.
In a study of the Thames Estuary Production Corridor for 2018/19, the creative industries employed 46,000 in our region. A healthy 16,000 businesses providing the work. As our creative industries build back, we must ensure we are able to prepare the next generation of practitioners, whether that is someone at school considering their post-16 options, or an adult worker looking to change careers. To do this we need to connect industry with those in training, and supportive funding from the Ofs contributes to making that job a bit easier. Every penny counts.
We also need to be able to reach out to schools, to visit them and to provide experiential workshops to encourage them to enter our industries and meet the future demands emerging from the Creative Estuary programme, the Thames Estuary Production Corridor and vital regeneration programmes upgrading our communities. For a provider of education and training every penny counts.
Many of you reading this may have been asked to provide an experiential workshop, a work placement or become a mentor to aspiring creative industry professionals. You do this because you care, you want to see standards improve and most of all because you yourself were given an opportunity once that allowed you to do what you do today.
To meet the ever-increasing expectations from education and training every penny really counts. And every cut made runs deeper into the opening wound we need to fix.
Much of what we achieve in our creative communities is the result of a ground-up approach. From formative experiences as a child through music, drama and art we can build transferable skills, provide opportunities for self-discovery, and nurture inherent crafts passed down from one generation to the next. Our supreme collection of literary giants gives us poetry, prose and creative writing. Plays and players across the country represent hundreds of years of cultural growth.
A recent example of a creative community supporting formative development was found at South Essex College’s Southend Campus where a project was set up to support UAL Level 2 Art & Design students to access a live brief experience to express themselves and their feelings about the year 2020 and be able to have their work exhibited locally.
The students created a stunning array of works with six pieces being selected to go on display in the windows of the studio which were available to view until 9 May.
Throughout lockdown, Phox Cleave’s workshop, which has been running since 2017 to provide creative production for events all over the country, has been transformed into an art space, focusing on local creatives to spread some cheer to passers-by in Westcliff-on-Sea’s Hamlet Court Road.
The ‘2020, A Year Like No Other’ exhibition contained a variety of photography, painting, digital collage and mixed media by students Joey Hadcroft, Isabelle Mathews, Caitlin Eastgate, Mitchell Keeling, Emily Stephenson, and Chanittha Bunma.
The brief was created by tutor Sandra Brett, who worked with Sarah Cleave from Phox Cleave Studio to set up the exhibition opportunity.
Sandra said 2020 was an incredibly different and difficult year for everyone and was an opportunity for the students to reflect on this and show their feelings through art.
“The students put all of their efforts into the brief and came up with stunning work. It has been a fantastic way for them to express their thoughts and feelings about a very different year and what impact it has had on them.”
One of the students whose work was chosen to be put on display, Isabelle Mathews, said she wanted to convey the amount of chaos that took place in 2020.
She said: “I set out to create a somewhat organized mess, with the way the lines intertwine and twist together and green splotches are by no means neat, but I took that in the way nor was the year.
I took a lot of inspiration from the artist Mick Burton, an artist who focuses mostly on continuous line drawings. Most of his artwork is a tidy mess which is what I wanted for my final piece.”
Sarah Cleave from Phox Cleave Studio said: “I hope the students enjoy seeing their artwork in public after a time of isolation. It’s a brave thing to do, and we can all benefit from the creative outcomes that have helped them communicate some understanding of what a strange year we all have had!”
We hope Isabelle and her peers find this experience has opened the door of opportunity to take their training further and broaden their connections with the creative world.
Following their school years, many of our children, like Isabelle, move into post-16 education, a chance to select a trajectory to set them on their way and find their future. Apprenticeships, vocational training, A Level, T Level and professional qualifications are abundant choices, although now we must keep a close eye on the next funding review and whether the Arts will become a victim here too?
On completion of these courses the future undergraduate is born. Able to take the next steps in Higher Education.
However, under proposals put forward earlier this year by education secretary Gavin Williamson, subsidiary funding from the independent regulator of higher education, the Office for Students (Ofs), would be culled by 50% for areas such as art and design, music, dance, drama and performing arts, media studies and archaeology during the next academic year, with future cuts predicted. Although this represents 1% of the overall combined funding from tuition fees and the Ofs, it is nevertheless still a cut at a time when many institutions are on their knees financially following the extensive impact from Covid and the slow climb back to a ‘normalised’ delivery model from the autumn.
Is this a time to make such savings?
The Backstage Centre represents the creative sector with a wide range of clientele across many genres. We see hundreds of outstanding practitioners visit our building year-on-year. Alongside our commercial operation sits our education, training and community profile.
The National College for Creative Industries was born in Purfleet-on-Thames and is now integrated into South Essex College at the Backstage Centre and in other campuses across South Essex College providing vocational training, and with our colleagues at Access Creative College for creative sector apprenticeships around the UK.
The University Centre South Essex already boasts an excellent offer for Creative training in Art and Design, Interior Design, Media, Performing and Production Arts, Television and Film Production and Games.
On site at High House Production Park is our flagship Costume Construction course designed with the Royal Opera House and located in a shared building with the ROH team. The BA (Hons) Costume Construction programme places an emphasis on the knowledge and use of both historical and contemporary construction techniques.
The course immerses itself in the worlds of opera, dance, theatre, musical theatre, performance art, film and television.
This programme unites two locations, the first at South Essex College’s Thurrock Campus, where the costume and print studios are based. The second at the Royal Opera House Costume Centre here on the Production Park, this centre has been purpose built for the ROH and houses their archive collections, costume store and costume workrooms.
The University Centre South Essex courses represent a hearty snapshot of the creative industries. It provides an essential throughput into industry and covers a range of specialist skills, and most importantly prepares an individual to work with and inside emerging trends and technologies.
Our recent photo shoot on the park with UAL BA(Hons) Photography students provided a connected experience where the project allowed creative practice and aesthetic decisions to be explored.
Why do the Arts matter so much?
We have recently witnessed an explosion of new Drama work on our screens in all their viewing formats. From the scale of a drive-in movie to the handheld Smart technology in your palm, we have been bedazzled by the technical wizardry that has emerged as a result of the industry giants in film, games and production coming together. Theatres have jumped on the televisual bandwagon, the streaming opportunities, pre-recorded live performances and online conference platforms used as stages.
Volumetricfilm production, immersive augmented realities and virtual worlds are boldly staking their claim for our attention and deserve our full investment in how we now prepare the workforce of tomorrow by using the arts based higher education programmes to work symbiotically with technical and production craftspeople.
And surrounding the more obvious career options sit a plethora of arts courses that will provide lifelong transferable skills. Or they provide a purpose for the artist to work. To broaden an understanding of how philanthropic gestures are still around today and help support artists in their creative work, whether that is through established arts funding programmes or from a donation or commission.
Some of our greatest achievements have been facilitated because of having so much free access to art and culture in our museums and galleries.
It is vital that our creative training courses around the UK are fully funded, resourced effectively and continue to thrive as the world sees our model as one to emulate. Are the Arts worth it, are they value for money?
The message from Arts Council England couldn’t be clearer:
- Art and culture contribute £10.6 billion to the UK economy – the UK has a creative economy worth £27bn and culture brings £850m to UK, through tourism, each year.
- Arts and culture help tackle social injustice – theatres, museums, galleries and libraries are the beating heart of our towns and cities. Not only do they bring prosperity, but they also bring communities together and make life worth living.
- Our creative industries are successful throughout the world – our leading cultural institutions are a calling card worldwide and have important trading links from the US or Germany to China and South Korea. Last year our National Portfolio Organisations earned £57m abroad.
We are also very grateful to our national organisations in helping to foster positive access and experiences, connecting young people with the Arts.
High House Production Park neighbours, Royal Opera House Bridge, works to connect children and young people with great art and culture.
‘Through research, advocacy and co-investment we nurture networks, share learning and foster innovation within the education, arts and culture sector – particularly in communities where there is limited local provision or experience. ROH Bridge is funded by Arts Council England and is part of a national network of ten ‘bridge’ organisations.’
What do you think?
We would welcome your thoughts and opinions on this recent government announcement, and what you think the picture of Arts education should look like in the 21st Century?
Author: Brian Warrens