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Gavin Williamson proposes halving music degree top-up funding in plan ‘to pivot away from dead-end courses‘

The music education industry has been in uproar since the Government’s Office for Students (OfS) announced a consultation on plans to cut subsidies for all arts and cultural Higher Education (HE) courses by half

Gavin Williamson, the UK Secretary of State for Education and author of the recent OfS funding proposal, has made it clear in an article on the Conservative Home website that he regards courses not involving STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as ‘dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt.’

Following a year which the Musicians’ Union (MU) called ‘the worst for music in living memory’, the organisation has published evidence that Williamson’s cuts will hit the low-income, disabled and minority ethnic students most.

The OfS has attempted to allay fears by pointing out the proposed cut is only to a subsidy for more expensive course given to colleges and universities, amounting to £121.50 per student per year.

The Russell Group of leading universities refutes those figures and say the cuts will mean arts courses running a deficit of approximately £2,700 per student, making them unviable in many cases. For some, especially specialist schools, there will be some additional government support but not to current levels, which are already straining resources. For a large institution such as University College London, the cuts could amount to almost £6 million per year.

The reason for the cuts, the OfS states, is to divert funds towards the government’s more favoured subjects. ‘The government has also highlighted professional shortages in scientists, engineers, medical and dental practitioners, nurses and midwives, and the importance of supporting STEM and healthcare subjects in guidance to the OfS. In this context we need to make difficult decisions about how to prioritise our increasingly constrained funding budget,’ the OfS stated in a press release.

Although the OfS carried out a brief public consultation during late April and early May, campaigners are concerned that this was merely paying lip-service and that Williamson had further cuts to the arts in mind. In a guidance letter to the OfS, the Education Secretary said, ‘The OfS should reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects.’

And he went on to suggest that, ‘We would then potentially seek further reductions in future years.’ As he has made clear, he does not consider music to be ‘high value’.

The MU has responded angrily to any suggestion of funding cuts for the arts. ’The Government’s proposed 50% cut to top-up funding for music and arts subjects at Higher Education (HE) in England would be catastrophic for all music students,’ it stated. ‘But they would have an even more disproportionate effect on disabled, Black, Asian and minority ethnic students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

‘Objectives such as widening participation require universities to have adequate resources and opportunities for students from under-represented backgrounds to develop their skills. Some of the universities most vulnerable to the cuts enrol considerable numbers of local students from low socio-economic backgrounds, many requiring additional support to complete their education.

‘Removing funding from these universities will almost certainly negatively impact widening participation and diversity and inclusion agendas, and undermine the considerable work happening in the music industry to tackle these issues.’

Composer Nitin Sawhney joined a chorus of tweets denouncing the proposals. ‘They want a nation of unfeeling robots to control. Einstein himself said ‘I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music’. The arts and music give us the vocabulary to find our best selves and poetry in the elegant universe. Music is our soul dancing. Fight this,’ he said.

A group called the Public Campaign for the Arts has already attracted tens of thousands of signatures on a petition calling for the government to abandon the cuts, recognise the value of the arts, and commit to sustained funding for arts-related subjects.

The organisers said, ‘This is an attack on the future of UK arts, the creative potential of the next generation, and the people who deliver our world-leading arts courses, rather than segregating and devaluing the arts in this way, the government should maintain its important investment in creative skills, ensuring that arts courses are widely accessible and properly supported.’