The fall in student applications could devastate the UK’s creative economy

The changes to student finance, the promotion of STEM subjects through the EBacc and visa issues for international students are all discouraging potential students from realising their talents by following a creative arts degree.

It is now clear that the hoped for "bounce back" in university applications has not happened in creative arts courses, which could lead to a further drop in enrolments in 2013. This is nothing short of a tragedy because the changes to student finance and the introduction of full-fee loans is discouraging potential students from realising their talents by following a creative arts degree. 

The reduction is more than a personal loss; it will be a loss to the UK’s creative industries and arts sector. More, it is a loss to other sectors which employ arts graduates because they are creative, enterprising, critical and independent.

Just a few years ago, many of us thought the longstanding links between UK creative arts education and creative industries and the strengths of this country’s creative sector had finally been recognised. However, either by accident or design, it feels from my perspective as the Vice-Chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts (UCA), that memories are short and it is once again essential to make our case to government and indeed to prospective students.

In itself, the changes to student finance would be challenge enough, but when combined with that of international recruitment caused by real and perceived visa issues, and the potential introduction of the EBacc that promotes the importance of STEM subjects at the expense of the creative arts, universities like mine are potentially feeling the breeze from an impending perfect storm.

It is vital that we reaffirm the links between our form of education and the strengths of the UK’s creative economy. We need to make it clear that the success of this sector is intimately related to the 175-year history of art and design education in this country. It needs to be recognised that there is no incidental relationship between what happens in creative arts institutions each and every day and the international strength and recognition the UK has across art, design and media – movingly and repeatedly recognised in the cultural aspects of our incredible Olympic Games this summer.

Each and every day we teach students how to be creative and enterprising, by asking them to produce work for which there is no prescription, by requiring them to work individually and collectively in an environment of studios, workshops, galleries and libraries, supported by project briefs, lectures, seminars, crits and exhibitions. Most importantly, students engage with staff – who are themselves working within the arts sector and the creative industries – and the student is formed by a rich diet of industry led collaborations, projects and competitions.

While the content and outcomes have changed hugely, the core challenging experience of the environment and its real engagement with industry and the world beyond the campus has been remarkably stable for more than 100 years – and it works.

So, it is frustrating to be required to make the case repeatedly that what government wants in terms of real engagement between universities and industry is happening within creative arts institutions and has been for more than a century – there is a model of great practice that should be recognised rather than left to suffer from uncoordinated policy initiatives from different government departments.

The recent announcement that creative arts colleges at Norwich, Bournemouth and Falmouth are to become universities is great, well deserved and long awaited – but this is just window dressing if the real threats facing creative arts higher education are not addressed.

So, what needs to happen? Schools need to be judged on the quality of their creative arts provision, providing this formative experience for every child and not only those from families who can afford to buy it after school. The government then needs to make it clear to prospective international students that they are welcome and integral to the university experience of home students who need to understand other cultures and develop international ambitions. And finally, more needs to be done to protect small specialist institutions across the disciplinary spectrum who simply may not have the resources and flexibility to withstand the current perfect storm.

At UCA we recently heard that yet another graduate from our BA in Animation had been nominated for an Academy Award – Chris Butler for ParaNorman – and if he wins he will be the fifth former student to win an Oscar. The tragedy is that we are just about to undermine this possibility for the creative stars of the future.

Simon Ofield-Kerr is Vice-Chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts (UCA)

A still from "ParaNorman" by Chris Butler, a UCA alumnus, which has been nominated for an Oscar.
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.