The Government is Cutting Arts Education Funding by 50%

What's Going On? Why Does it Matter? 

Introducing the New School of the Anthropocene

This week it has been announced that the UK government is set to cut the funding for arts education by 50% to prioritise ‘high value subjects’. This comes 6 months after the same government ran the insulting campaign encouraging those working in the arts to retrain. It would be fair to say that there seems to be an anti-arts agenda at play.

And it is possible to see that, as we cautiously take steps to move past the Coronavirus pandemic, it is science, not the arts, that we rely upon in the face of disaster. This is also not the first disease to take loved ones from friends and families too soon: cancer research, research into Parkinsons, Alzheimers, into rarer diseases that are devastating when they do strike, we obviously need a strong scientific community working to keep us healthier longer. Plus, with climate change a very real, existential threat, we need everybody to have in mind, in everything they do, the survival of humanity and the planet. We need research to continue to document the damage being done, the causes and the action we can take to try to reverse the damage we have caused.

Too often the arts and sciences are pitched against one another in this way. But with MC Escher inspiring Stephen Hawking collaborator and Nobel prize winning scientist Roger Penrose, and with creative thinking, model making and visualisation completely central to mathematical and scientific practices, where would science really be without the opportunity for art to be taken up as a serious educational path, and great artists, capable of inspiring the most surprising scientific breakthroughs, to emerge from that? And as any good doctor, especially one so senior as to be making life and death decisions, medicine is about preserving quality as well as quantity of life. We want scientists to find ways to prolong our existences because we want to experience more of the things we love, the social and cultural realities we enjoy, the music, the books, the films, the paintings, the trips to the museum, the meals we share, the sights we see together.

The arts also create an ideational backdrop for scientific work to take place within. We care about the Coronavirus pandemic because it has affected our lives so much. Other areas of concern for scientists are felt less keenly by individuals and therefore can be overlooked. Even climate change, though its consequences could end life on Earth not just force us to endure lockdowns and the rule of six, is not something we are willing to ring up a debt the size of our whole economy to tackle. Artists help to create a kind of empathetic energy: they make it possible for people to imagine what it would be like if the consequences of our actions were immediate, they make research seem as urgent as it really is, they communicate, whether visually, through music, or through words, the nature of the world we live in even when that reality is hard to grasp, and inspire direct radical action.  Without creative practices rendering scientific issues like climate change interesting to a public audience, their importance can go unnoticed. And when their importance goes unnoticed, the funding doesn’t come in for the projects and the work won’t get done.

It’s clear that the strongest social critiques and imperatives to act tend to come from the sphere of arts and cultural practices. And this is where the governments funding cuts need to be viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Disincentivising people to develop their voices, prohibiting individuals from honing their creative practice so that they can imagine and represent better, alternative futures for society, limiting the ways that creative people can come together might also be suspected to represent an attempt to stifle dissent. By making the world about objective tasks to be done, and emptying it of imagination and possibility, the government also protects the way things are from those who want to learn to create and present alternatives.

These policies might represent an understanding that the arts don’t constitute hard work, or it might represent a belief that the arts constitute a space for radical social and cultural transformation that this government has a vested interest in stopping in its tracks.

These decisions come after decades of turning the higher education space into a consumer experience. All forms of higher education, all courses and modules, now have to prove their worth via conversion rates: how much money do their activities contribute to the economy (obviously designing ballistic missiles is going to contribute more than writing a future classic), and how much can students expect to earn once they have graduated. The government proved with its support for Brexit and its implementation of an ‘off the cliff’ kind of separation from the EU, that culture matters to it. Some vague notions of national identity rendered usually money driven groups of MPs to commit what might prove to be economic suicide. But they haven’t looked into and taken time to understand what those decisions mean for their ideology.

The idea that a culture dictates a country’s worth and global standing as much as it’s GDP hasn’t been taken into account by Gavin Williamson and those deciding the UK’s education policy. If the world is to be made of nations simply farming scientists, engineers and bankers, then what does the UK have to offer really? We’ll just become one of the smallest of a globe full of territories all engaged in the same activities in the same way, trying to harvest money through technology. We won’t win when it comes to pure financial muscle.

When it comes to culture, though, we are strong. It’s Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Hardy, Lawrence, Wordsworth, Blake, Dahl, Christie, Orwell and now people like Bernadine Evaristo, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie and J. K Rowling who define our image, and their imagined realities help us to construct the society as well as the culture that we inhabit. It’s Turner, Constable, Lowry, Bacon, Freud, Hepworth, Hirst, Hockney who show the world who we are in their acts of visualising, representing, making and constructing. The engineers who made Tower Bridge work, do not define what we are any more than the architects who visualised how it would look and what it would symbolise. When we think of Russia we think of all of their political movements, but we also think of the ballet and the music. Controlling and shaping the culture of a nation, including its written, visual, and musical arts has always been a priority to those engaged in the art of statecraft: the expunging of new and creative forms of art, the censoring of books, the promotion of a traditional, volk style, by the Nazi Party in Germany is perhaps the starkest example of the importance of the arts to national identity and the way that a country is seen both at home and abroad.

It is no surprise that these policies intended to marginalise the importance of the arts come from a government who think the only visual symbol they need to define our national identity is a union jack. While seeking to enrich the coffers of the treasury they are impoverishing our national identity, stripping it back to anti-immigration, office working, flag waving emptiness.

Yes, it looks like the UK will have successfully vaccinated its population before the end of Summer 2021, but if there were no galleries, theatres, music venues, book festivals, poetry readings or collaborative spaces for us to practice our own creativity in, why would lockdown matter? In our everyday lives, we crave more than just existence, and more than just financial profits and losses. Arts must be valued in and for themselves. Their worth lies in the fact that they are meaningful, rather than in the way they interact with the treasury balance sheet.  

Saying that sounds worryingly close to a bourgeois idea of art: it’s a luxury that those who have to worry about money and surviving one pay cheque to the next are not concerned with. And those are the very people who should be able to be at the heart of arts education, who should have the opportunity to develop creative practices which allow them to be part of envisioning alternatives and working towards a different and better future. Arts education, like all higher education, urgently needs to be more affordable and universities need to restructure to make that feasible. Established universities aren’t doing this. There are a whole range of reasons why, but one key one is that, even though education has become a consumer exercise, universities are not free to compete and innovate as other businesses are. To be allowed to award degrees, institutions have to jump through a range of hoops which stifles innovation in how subjects are taught and assessed; it’s a deliberate exercise in standardisation minimising the amount of genuine choice and range that students face when selecting where to apply and study. What universities charge is also a kind of marketing exercise: charge less than the maximum and the university is seen to be admitting that their courses are less valuable. Given that higher education has become a marketplace, it at least needs to become competitive so that it properly benefits the ‘consumer’, in this case, the student. For now, it represents the worst of both worlds for those who want to study; it is costly enough to saddle some with lifelong debt, but even though huge sums of money are spent, there is no pressure for institutions to satisfy their customers and change in order to give them the best possible experience.

This is where the New School of the Anthropocene comes in: a decentred, network structure of an organisation, bringing together the expertise, creative appetite and experimental approach of the most exciting practitioners, academics and artists to offer a radical new approach to arts higher education.  Their courses range from wild swimming, to architecture taught by Turner Prize winners, Assemble, to literature and creative writing, textiles and environmental economics (plus everything in between). The study options will be flexible, combining the innovation of Covid-19 remote learning options with in-person teaching and group work taking place at a range of locations across the UK. And the cost is low, with bursaries planned to make as much participation as possible free.

Forged in the fire of bitter disappointment in the shortcomings of the current university system, and with an understanding that higher education needs to address the social crises and particularly environmental endtimes that we are living in, the New School is set to revolutionise the way that arts and humanities are taught, who can afford to take part, and how these subjects can make meaningful impacts on the biggest issues of our times. We’re excited to be partnering with them, more details of that partnership will be revealed later this year, and until then check out their website here.