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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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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