My Twitter feed over the last week has been full of comments like ‘disgusting’, ‘an absolute disgrace’, ‘shortsighted’, and ‘damaging’. The words have been attached to articles with titles including: ‘Plans for 50% funding cuts to arts subjects at universities catastrophic‘ from the Guardian, ‘Arts figures criticise plan to cut university funding for creative subjects‘ by the BBC, and ‘Office For Students consults on 49% cuts to HE arts courses‘ by the Cultural Learning Alliance.
As a Music Production graduate who spent much of my career teaching in or managing Creative Arts departments, these headlines come as quite shocking. The creative industries are a vital area of the UK economy and one in which we are world-leading. The subjects that feed the sector with talented graduates are expensive to deliver, requiring specialist equipment, and provide a route for students that are less academic and primarily from lower-income backgrounds.
These articles and comments have come in response to a consultation the Office for students and the Department of Education have been carrying out into redirecting a particular type of Higher Education funding. To understand what is going on, you first have to look at how university courses are funded.
How courses are funded
In England, university students pay up to £9,250 per year in tuition fees. The money is usually paid by student loans directly to the university. It is also common for individual courses to require students to pay materials fees or compulsory field trips at enrolment. If a course recruits thirty students per year, the course would then have £277,500 (30 x £9,250) per year to run that course.
In a typical university, up to 70% of the student fee would go to staff costs, leaving £83,250 to pay for facilities and resources for our example course. This might sound a lot, but once you have factored in the buildings and heating, security, marketing and recruitment, student union extracurricular activities, and general running costs, it does not leave much to buy the specialist equipment required to prepare students for world-leading industries.
Universities have got around this shortfall in two ways; the first is scale, the second is a government top-up called the Higher Education Teaching Grant (T-Grant). Most universities are large organisations with many thousands of students and take advantage of economies of scale by pooling fees for the non-staff costs like computers and buildings. Many courses can be run for under £9,250 per year, and so institutions charge the top rate to all students and then take a top-slice from all courses, creating a fund that can be bid for when subject areas require specialist facilities or resources.
To support the HE sector in resource-heavy subjects, The Department of Education has the T-Grant fund that provides high-cost subject funding allocated to these areas based on the higher costs. The new ‘Allocation of the Higher Education teaching grant funding in the 2021-22 Financial Year‘ consultation looks at how this fund might be used differently.
High-cost subject funding — supporting strategically important subjects. High-cost subject funding is currently allocated simply based on higher costs of provision, with little strategic prioritisation. The OfS should reprioritise funding towards providing high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy, high-cost STEM subjects and/or specific labour market needs.Gavin Williamson CBE MP
The proposal suggests 50% of the T-Grant for subjects including performing arts, creative arts, and media studies are removed for the 21/22 academic year and reallocated to high need areas such as those supporting the NHS, STEM subjects, and other areas with skills shortages. This proposal is in part a response to the Auger report but also part of the Government’s broader strategy to address the skills mismatch. It is worth noting that the DfS has identified eleven smaller specialist institutions that will retain the full T-Grant for these subjects.
The proposed courses eligible for the high-cost funding are:
- Clinical Medicine
- Clinical Dentistry/Dental Hygiene and Therapy
- Veterinary science
- Nursing and allied health professions (pre-registration courses)
- Anatomy and Physiology, Pharmacy and Pharmacology
- Sciences (Agriculture, Forestry and Food Science; Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences; Biosciences; Chemistry; Physics)
- Engineering subjects
- Information Technology
There are three primary reasons I can see why this is a problem for the sector and students. First is the timing; even if you ignore the impact of the pandemic, these changes are proposed for the next academic year, starting in four months. If approved, it will not leave long for the universities to react, finding funding that may already have been allocated for infrastructure projects or recruiting students to courses incentivised by the T-Grant.
Second, most universities work on overall budgets, so although the funding is being reallocated rather than removed, it will benefit some universities but significantly hurt others. Some universities that already teach both the high-cost subjects and the new strategically important subjects will offset the cuts in the creative arts with the increase in funding in other areas. Other smaller institutions that do not teach the new strategically important subjects will not offset the cuts, which means significant reductions to budgets that will most likely lead to redundancies.
Finally, and most importantly, the subjects facing 50% reductions in the T-Grant are the types of subjects that tend to attract students with lower grades and from disadvantaged backgrounds. My teaching career is full of stories of kids coming from deprived backgrounds that have found a passion for creative arts, studied hard, and then gone on to prosperous careers. If we are disincentivising universities away from delivering these courses by removing the needed additional funding for the required resources, will these kids instead choose to study engineering?
The Government has been clear, with 50% of people in the UK getting a degree by the age of thirty but with 8% of employers not able to recruit to positions due to a lack of skills and 13% having internal issues with skills, something needs to be done to address the mismatch. The Apprenticeships levy was the first grand step, and Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQ) is the next big move. Degree Apprenticeships and HTQs moving forward should help provide funding to give students the skills they need for work.
It is unclear how much the pandemic and lockdowns have accelerated this proposal and if it will be rushed through for the September cohorts. It is clear that if they are introduced, they will represent a reduction of the T-Grant of around £17 million for universities delivering creative arts courses. These might not be the same institutions providing the courses that the funding is redirected towards. I do not believe the reporting I have read has been fairly presented and does not consider the governments broader strategy and increased funding for skills. Still, the timing is poor and has the potential to impact those that most need support.