Tories plan to attack university arts funding

Protesting in  Leeds as part of  a Socialist Students day of action on the education funding crisis. 21st April 2021

Protesting in Leeds as part of a Socialist Students day of action on the education funding crisis. 21st April 2021   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Bea Gardner, Southampton Socialist Students

University students and staff across the country have been left outraged at the Office for Students’ proposed cuts to university teaching grants as part of the government’s ‘reprioritisation’ strategy for universities.

The proposals include the slashing of the government’s teaching grant by 50% for high-cost arts and humanities, in favour of so-called “strategically important subjects”, including those in science, technology, engineering and maths. The government has indicated that this would likely be reduced further in future years.

It is clear the cuts will result in further eroding of learning conditions, and could spell the closure of some courses altogether. We’ve already seen a huge reduction in all of our learning conditions as universities attempt to spend less on staff and resources. This cut will further increase the competition for university resources to the detriment of all. University bosses will likely turn to further casualisation, employing staff on worse terms and conditions, and with less protection to save costs, all of which has a detrimental impact on student learning.

The government has tried to provide cover for its decision by highlighting that it is only a “small proportion of the income of higher education institutions”, and that the reforms only affect the “additional funding allocated toward some subjects”. While it’s true that the teaching grant now only makes up a small proportion of income, and only for some courses, this has not always been the case; there has been a 76% cut overall to the teaching grant budget since 2010.

The trebling of fees in 2012 fundamentally shifted the balance of funding in universities, placing the majority of cost onto students. Previously, government teaching grants were the main source of teaching income, with tuition fees partially contributing to the total cost of a course. After 2012, the government retained a small teaching grant directed towards high-cost courses that would otherwise not be funded by tuition fees alone, and it is this, already significant reduced grant, that the government seeks to narrow further.

The Tories are proposing to divert £20 million of funding from art and humanity subjects, and £64 million from London universities, to ‘strategically important’ subjects.

The strategic priority courses are those subjects the government deems as having “high value” including NHS courses and STEM subjects which the government suggests are subjects that support the skills needed to “build back better”.

Socialist Students says that it should be students and staff who decide what funding is necessary for our education and futures – not the Tories or university management who have driven our universities into the ground with cuts, tuition fees and student debt. We stand for the building of united student and staff struggle to win the funding our universities need to provide a high-quality and free education for all students, no matter what they choose to study.

Youth Unemployment

Despite the Tories’ desperate attempt to frame this move as in the interests of young people’s futures, this attack will not mean more jobs and opportunities for young people – far from it. In fact, it will mean even further restrictions facing working-class young people looking to enter study in the arts and humanities.

Cuts to arts and humanities funding will not deliver better employment prospects for young people. Low pay, casual ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour working, which are particularly prevalent in the arts, are due to already chronic underfunding of these sectors, and the fact they are run for profit. Under-25s have accounted for two-thirds of all the job losses suffered over the course of the pandemic, a picture which will only get worse as the end of the furlough scheme in October approaches.

Only by scrapping tuition fees and replacing them with the full government funding our universities need can the crisis in education be ended. This would have to be accompanied with a mass programme of government investment into socially useful job creation, democratically decided by workers and young people, in order to truly provide young people leaving any line of study with a decent future, starting with access to decent jobs.

Socialist Students says that the student movement cannot allow the rhetoric of ‘high-value’ courses to go unchallenged and let our universities become divided with competition for resources between subjects. Solidarity between staff losing their jobs, students losing their courses, and communities weakened by the collapse of arts and humanities subjects is essential to build the forces that can fight back against the Tories’ capitalist vision of education.

That’s why Socialist Students fights for the building of a mass student movement to win free education – for the scrapping of tuition fees, student debt, and for the full reinstatement of teaching grants for all courses along with student bursaries.

Fees reduction must not mean cuts

Tom Green, Birmingham Socialist Students

Potential reductions in university tuition fees are in the pipeline after the government has revealed its intent to mitigate the effects of unpaid student loans. Among policies proposed in the 2019 Auger review into higher education funding were an initial reduction of fees to £7,500, and the lowering of the income threshold at which graduates would begin to repay their loans.

A reduction of fees could be seen by some as a victory for students. However, without additional funding from government, the slashing of fees could result in universities implementing further austerity to make up for lost revenue.

Industrial action by the University and College Union has already taken place in response to cuts and redundancies at Liverpool University and elsewhere. A reduction in tuition fees could only deepen the crisis that universities are facing unless an end to all cuts is guaranteed. The least that is necessary is to ensure that, in the instance of a reduction in tuition fees, no redundancies will be made, and no reduction in capacity of vital services will be implemented.

In an education system like ours, where institutions are run as if they are businesses, bosses will make cuts to staff and vital wellbeing services before guaranteeing job security.

The only way to fight against austerity in education is to build a broad movement in support of a programme demanding free higher education for all under a publicly owned, democratically controlled funding model, a permanent end to cuts in the education sector, and high-quality student housing for all students.

Defending Sheffield Archaeology Department

Alistair Tice, Sheffield Socialist Party

Management at Sheffield University thought that they could smuggle the closure of its archaeology department through during the exams period, at the end of term and with only five days notice. They were wrong! Nearly 35,000 people have signed the online petition, and around 130 academics, staff, students and the University and Colleges Union (UCU) protested outside the Executive Board meeting on 26 May. There has been outrage at this short-sighted, money-driven decision from the archaeology community worldwide.

On my way to a protest I heard anthropologist, TV presenter and author Alice Roberts describe on the radio how new technology has led to an explosion in archaeological discovery, finds and research. Yet the university management, having already cut the academic staff from 29 to 11, has voted to close the department, disperse two masters programmes to other departments “where they shall surely wither and die”, and make the rest of the staff redundant.

The campaign will continue ahead of the University Senate meeting on 23 June and the University Council on the 12 July. As the UCU has pointed out, this fight is not just about saving archaeology, but against the wider cuts on arts and humanities courses that are in the pipeline.