'Strategic Priorities': Are we gambling with the future of our arts?

Image courtesy of Kevin Grieve, via Unsplash

Two years ago, the distant concept of a global pandemic may have evoked the images of overflowing hospital rooms and deserted high streets that have been saturating the news since March 2020. We may even have pictured a government in chaos and daily news conferences. However, for the overwhelming majority of the British population, our own homes – the four walls that felt increasingly stifling as the months progressed – and the entertainment within them has characterised our lockdown experience just as much as these often-distant scenes. Film, music, literature and art have been vital coping strategies for many amidst such an unprecedented crisis. This, however, does not seem to be a sentiment shared by the current government and its Education Department.

The latest disconnect between the personal and political pandemic experience can be seen in Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s decision to cut funding for university arts courses in England by up to 50%. In turn, the money is being redirected towards STEM and medicine courses. Whilst the government may label this move a matter of ‘strategic priorities’, it has become evident that the pandemic has brought into greater transparency the secondary level of importance given to the arts. Despite public backlash, including from high-profile individuals like Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evisto, there has yet to be a revision to this decision. Moreover, there is still not a definitive plan for supporting this sector through yet another blow after months of hardship.

Within days of the announcement, the Public Campaign for the Arts launched a petition against the move that has since gathered over 165,000 signatures. The organisation was only established a little over a year ago, in response to the struggles creative industries were facing when arts venues first shut down in March 2020. Whilst it was, of course, necessary to close all non-essential businesses when COVID-19 was at its most rampant, the accompanying political belittlement of arts was far from essential; it shows a substantial divide between the government and the people they represent. In a YouGov poll carried out in June 2021, when the proposed cuts were still only hypothetical, it was found that 70% of British adults believe it is ‘important’ for students to be able to study creative subjects in higher education. Amongst 18-24 year olds, the age group most directly affected by the plans, this statistic rose to 79%.

In the context of the last two years, the implication that arts are somehow ‘inferior’ is absurd. Few could argue that their consumption of the arts, from long-discarded novels to recent film releases, did not increase during lockdown. Escapism was just as fundamental to the lockdown experience as the virus itself. However, arts cannot only be considered valuable to the individual, to detach from an issue only science can ultimately solve. The two have worked hand-in-hand to support the national fight against coronavirus; levels of public compliance to the restrictions would undoubtedly have decreased without Netflix and Spotify! Furthermore, several of the Zoom concert fundraisers and online art exhibitions that have characterised the sharing of creativity since March 2020 were arranged in order to fundraise for the NHS. Creative workers have received negligible amounts of assistance from the government during the pandemic. A more impactful form of support came from the Theatre Artists’ Fund, which was set up through a donation from Netflix – one of the only arts businesses that has not been adversely affected by coronavirus, instead gaining 16 million new subscribers in the first month of the pandemic alone. The solidarity that these industries have shown, both to each other and to the wider scientific climate, only further solidifies their viability at all levels of society, from light entertainment to salient political change.

Even the backdrop of COVID-19 is not needed to prove that arts subjects are vital to the fabric of our society. The social and cultural movements they have the power to inspire have catalysed change across history, and this is no different in contemporary circumstances. Politically, they can form ways of expression unparalleled in any other form. In May 2020, George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis sparked a global wave of protests against institutional racism and police violence. The arts undeniably supplemented these vital calls for change. Murals memorialising Floyd’s final moments have spread from the US to the rest of the world, reaching as far as Spain, Israel, Kenya, Syria and, of course, the UK. This is all in conjunction with a new wave of protest songs and theatre.

The arts are equally prominent in addressing racial discrimination within higher education. King’s College London showed their support for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement through a series of projects, from photography to poetry, that aimed to tangibly change the white-centric education system they operate within. As stated on their website, King’s College achieved this by ‘developing a funding call for collaborative projects engaging with Black Lives Matter’; there was no government support motivating this powerful use of the arts. It seems likely that when the Education Department’s 50% funding cut to arts subjects comes into full effect, projects like this – ones which are loaded with cultural significance, but do not directly contribute to an education system which often excludes extra-curricular activities – will be the first to fade.

Indeed, the most deprived sectors of society will be those who suffer the most from the government’s decision. From the inability to access online learning resources to The Guardian’s estimate that calls to English domestic abuse helplines increased by 60% between March 2020 and March 2021, it is clear that COVID-19 has exacerbated the already prominent disadvantages faced by Britain’s most vulnerable. One survey, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, found that even before the pandemic, only 12.4% of creative workers had working class origins. This statistic will only be worsened as financial support from the government decreases. The arts have the power to give voice to anyone, regardless of their race, gender or class. However, this funding cut is set to make access to art, theatre and music increasingly elitist. The shortage of money will be concurrent with universities’ inability to finance so many outreach programmes and targeted marketing schemes. If left unchecked, this is likely to narrow the appeal of an advanced education in arts, silencing the voices that they should most value.

There is no singular, defining moment in our nation’s history when this under-appreciation of the arts began. The accessibility of music, drama and literature has improved for the majority of the population in recent years. This has never been considered anything but a positive change, and a chance to diversify the British arts sector. However, this trajectory cannot feasibly continue if support is removed from the creative sectors. One of the principal arguments against these funding cuts has been the knowledge that the UK’s creative industries contribute almost £13 million an hour to the economy. As significant as this is, the arts should not be forced to justify their existence purely through a monetary value which cannot possibly encompass their importance within culture, history and mental health. The government’s ‘strategic priorities’ should be to ensure the co-existence of sciences and arts continues as an equal partnership, and that students are not discouraged from either path within higher education.