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Opinion: Why Johnson and Sunak should learn a lesson from recent history – don’t mess with students

Rumours that the UK government is considering capping degree places for creative subjects shows what a long, dark, downward spiral a short-term solution can drag us into.

Rumours that the UK government is considering capping degree places for creative subjects shows what a long, dark, downward spiral a short-term solution can drag us into.

When former Labour prime minister Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown introduced student fees to bury uncomfortable government spending, and then broke a manifesto pledge by raising those fees, they left an open goal for any government wedded to market forces. They also created the concept of the ‘client student’, skewing the mindset of those ‘paying’ for their education.

Later, the Liberal Democrats’ decision to negotiate a better deal over loan repayments, rather than block their Conservative coalition counterparts from tripling fees, was similarly blinkered political modelling.

Boris Johnson’s Covid-strapped Conservative government needs scapegoats for its parlous management of our finances and the knives are out for arts education

The deal Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg struck with David Cameron’s government has left a gaping £140 billion hole of unpaid student loans in the treasury piggy bank. It was good for the students but not for the taxpayer. Boris Johnson’s Covid-strapped Conservative government needs scapegoats for its parlous management of our finances and the knives are out for arts education. A public worried about finding their Christmas pigs in blankets will be a pushover for a policy penalising artsy-fartsy subjects that lead to low-paid careers.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is Johnson’s appointed butcher. He has shown little mercy for people in the arts during the pandemic. He can now divert public anger towards lefty, woke arts graduates who will never earn enough to pay off their ‘debt’ in, as the sacked education secretary Gavin Williamson called them, ‘dead-end jobs’.

The Guardian’s recent exclusive suggests Sunak is pushing the Department for Education towards refusing university loans to all but the highest A level passes. Educators have leapt on this as a threat to students from poorer areas where low grades are more likely.

The government wants kids from the poorest areas to enter the new, post-Brexit, high-wage economy of engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs, or recognise their place and earn good money picking fruit or driving trucks

They are right, of course. Many parents of better means have avoided taking out loans by funding their children’s higher education from their own pockets. Student loans are aimed primarily at middle-income families down, so capping them will hurt the economically challenged.

But as long as the government can sell a meaty counter-argument, that they want kids from the poorest areas to enter the new, post-Brexit, high-wage economy of engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs, or recognise their place and earn good money picking fruit or driving trucks, they’re confident they’ll take the voters with them.

And they may be right, as well.

If so, the future of arts education from secondary school to higher education looks bleak. Arts subjects are already hampered by the omission of arts from the eBacc and the government’s obsession with STEM subjects.

Fatima retraining
The subject of national derision, a government press ad from October 2020. But will future Fatimas even be able to train?

Schools in England are judged and jeopardised by their success or failure at getting students into university. Dissuading schools from offering subjects less likely to attract university admissions is a potential death-knell for music, art, dance and drama classes… and their teachers.

Chancellor Sunak is a bean-counter at heart, and he can see a simple fiscal win in cutting the number of ‘artists’. After all, how many Adeles, Stormzys, Hirsts, Emins, Elbas or Comers do we need? How many of them even went to university?

And, as the rest of these arts graduates will only turn to teaching, squirting out yet more arts students and more unpaid student loans… Good Lord, it’s a vicious circle, isn’t it? Better just ditch the lot.

Sunak can avoid ethereal considerations about national well-being, soft power, cultural enrichment, student engagement or therapy

If that is the sum of his reasoning, that the billions our creative sector makes is earned solely by a few fortunate superstars, he can avoid ethereal considerations about national well-being, soft power, cultural enrichment, student engagement or therapy.

This seems shockingly short-sighted.

Of course, you cannot decide who will succeed artistically at GCSE or A level. You most certainly cannot ignore the impact of creativity as a pastime on one’s mental health and, for that matter, Rishi, economic productivity. Millions of people in important, non-arts careers gain hugely from the fulfilment their arts lessons instilled in them. Engaging in music at school is accepted as beneficial to exam results in STEM subjects. Arts, culture and creativity are so much more than the sum of their parts, but Rishi’s abacus could never account for that.

Diminish arts education, and schools, colleges and universities will be forced to shut those departments. The government’s beloved market forces will ensure that, storing up a nightmare for the future of British culture.

The flow of arts professionals that starts at kindergarten and ends selling out the Royal Albert Hall will evaporate

Thousands of artists who obtain all or part of their income through teaching will have to leave the arts altogether, closing venues and galleries and festivals and theatres. The flow of arts professionals that starts at kindergarten and ends selling out the Royal Albert Hall will evaporate.

If only we had a minister of culture with a real understanding of the arts and the strength of character to fight her department’s corner during cabinet meetings.

Johnson’s mindset, meanwhile, is focussed on self-survival. He has plenty of past form for sacrificing principle to win elections. If Sunak tells him it is a price worth paying to use the arts as cannon fodder in the economic struggle ahead, Johnson will be easily persuaded.

One cannot help but suspect that certain forces consider this trauma acceptable collateral damage, that winning the next election and restructuring Britain into a hi-tech reworking of the industrial revolution will lead us to a new golden age. It is a huge gamble and as citizens of a democracy, we might have been asked if that is what we wanted.

Our democratic system, for all its good points, engenders short-term goals in politicians of all hues. You cannot make your long-term ideals a reality if you don’t win elections.

Is there really a masterplan in which the English decks are cleared of artists, intellectuals, farmers, fishermen and old people in preparation for a brave, new world?

So, do we really expect Johnson to tell us what his people have in mind for us?

Some might suggest he would be wise to learn from Gordon Brown’s and Nick Clegg’s electoral experiences after hurting university students. Has the Johnson team run the numbers and decided its majority is secure enough to take a punt? Is there really a masterplan in which the English decks are cleared of artists, intellectuals, farmers, fishermen and old people in preparation for a brave, new world?

Whoever in government leaked this rumour, it had better be no more than a fishing exercise to gauge public opinion, because the damage it will inflict upon music education and the arts in general, or even the future of British culture, cannot be calculated on an abacus.