The arts sector has gone through a lot in the past eighteen months, and yet the UK government wants to cut more
By Amy Smith
Image courtesy of Jeremy Segrott via Flickr
As the Editor-in-Chief of The Gaudie and as a student in the LLMVC department, it is easy to be disappointed by the lack of work done by the UK government to support the arts sector. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is clear that the UK government—particularly the Secretary of State for Education and the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—is actively encouraging people to move away from the arts in favour of another department. This is not just on one or two occasions either, as I will be recounting and comparing numerous moments over the past eighteen months that prove this point and highlight the stigma that the government is creating against the arts.
Before going into the actions of the government, I want to highlight how important the arts sector has become in the past eighteen months. When it became clear that a lockdown was needed in March 2020 to try to control and suppress Covid-19, people were locked in their house and reliant on entertainment at home to keep them afloat. It was reported that around the world, 16 million people subscribed to Netflix for the first time in the first three months of 2020. A game that came out the day of lockdown in the UK, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, sold over 11 million copies worldwide in the first 12 days. People, who were stuck at home, were watching more television than usual, and we all became dependent on the arts sector—whether in the format of television, film, music, or video games—to keep us afloat during those tough times. That is why the cuts to the arts sector and active discouragement of teaching us these subject matters hurt even more.
In October 2020, the UK government released an advert that would get those within the arts sector frustrated, and for good reason. The advert showed a young ballet dancer with a caption saying: ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet)’, with the tagline ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’. The purpose of the campaign? To get people to consider retraining in the IT sector, apparently to show that anyone of any background could consider a job in cyber-security. However, it didn’t take long for the advert to get pulled, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson admitting the advert was ‘inappropriate’ at the time.
Despite being the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, it could be said that MP Oliver Dowden—who took the role during most of the time during the pandemic—primarily focused on the Sport part of his title. Whilst matches could continue even when a member of a team tested positive for Covid-19, something that was proven time and time again with rule-breaking by most major teams in Scotland, one positive test on theatre productions was enough to shut down the show for several weeks. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella began previews in June with an official opening scheduled for July 20th 2021, but one cast member testing positive postponed this opening almost a full month to August 18th. It seems like there was one rule for one sector, and one for another.
In July 2021, it was announced that the UK government would be ‘moving ahead with plans to cut funding for art and design courses by 50% across higher education institutions in England’. This came as a move from the Secretary of State for Education MP Gavin Williamson as a way of saving £20 million, and to further enhance the programmes within STEM-centred courses. The University and Colleges Union warned of the danger that would come to these cuts, impacting 13 subject areas: ‘These courses face a 50% cut to their studies, which will make many unviable, forcing them to close’. However, Williamson’s stance was clear as in a statutory ‘guidance’ letter to the OfS (Office for Students) published in January, he said that ‘the OfS should reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS… high-cost STEM subjects’. I’d like to take away his television and see how he would have coped during the pandemic if he doesn’t regard us as ‘high-value’.
These cuts by Williamson have already made a negative impact, as a few weeks ago ministers announced that student numbers may be limited in a variety of arts degrees. With outstanding student loans growing substantially over the past few years, the government has not taken its time to point the blame in the ‘lower-earning arts’ sector – something that if they cared about fixing with proper financing, they could do. Anna Carlisle, the vice-chancellor of Falmouth University—one that specialises in creative courses—spoke about the lack of people currently working in the creative industries: ‘I think part of the problem is that this particular government appears to have fewer members who really engage in cultural and creative events. It feels like creative disciplines have been collectively forgotten by a group of people who are now coming up with simplistic assumptions about their worth’.
Throughout my time at secondary school, I knew from early on that I wanted to study within the arts sector. Most of my selected classes were in the arts sector, whether it was art, music, or media studies, and I knew my pathway would follow that route. Eventually, I went on to study Media and Communications at college, where I went on to find my passion for film and journalism. Now, I am running the student university newspaper and in my final year of my English and Film & Visual Culture degree. To find out that the same opportunities I have been blessed to have over the past six years of my life may not be offered to the next line of students in the UK is extremely disheartening.
To the UK government, and particularly the new Secretary of State for Education who took over from Williamson in September this year, I want to point one thing out in particular. When, as a government, you got someone from marketing to design the ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’, they were applying experience they had within the arts sector to design that advert for you. When you go onto a television programme to make a statement or make a campaign video to promote your party, you are working with people who trained in the arts department to run the production, capture the shots and distribute that video out to millions of viewers. In a sector that is continuing to struggle financially after the pandemic, you cannot take away our next generation of creatives—whether they are filmmakers, musicians, and art designers—without feeling the cuts down the line. Please, listen to our pleas and save the arts.