The writer is president and vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London
“From a meticulously knitted bronze number to a larger-than-life piece made from 600 real duck eggs – this year’s superstar graduates have set the bar exceptionally high.” That’s how Vogue described the 2021 graduation show from Central Saint Martins BA Fashion.
This work was for their undergraduate finals. My final BA exam consisted of a few essays — theirs a groundbreaking design. They will go on to work for the world’s biggest fashion brands, or set up their own label, following in the footsteps of Alexander McQueen or Bethany Williams. Our graduates are some of the most entrepreneurial in the country.
So it is hard to read in this newspaper about arts courses apparently being labelled “soft” by government sources, perpetuating the myth that too many students are doing them. Back in 2014, just over 7 per cent of students were doing such courses; by 2019 it was still 7 per cent. Given the creative industries were growing five times faster before the pandemic than the rest of the economy, arguably it should have been more.
Arts degrees are not soft, but rigorous in preparing students for great careers in the creative industries and beyond. Creativity is one of the World Economic Forum’s top five skills for the future, but arts and humanities provide a grounding in all the other skills too, from problem-solving to analytical thinking. An arts degree gives you the ability to imagine a different world, prototype it and bring others on board to make it real.
Student choice of subject is a more reliable guide to the jobs of the future than government central planning. Of the 10 fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, eight employ more graduates from arts, humanities and social science than from any other discipline.
Giving young people choice in what they can afford to study is the most effective education policy intervention of the past 30 years. From 2025, the government will extend it to all age groups via the life-long Loan Entitlement, enabling the equivalent of four years of post-18 education, as proposed by the independent Augar review. But choice only works if the government resists the urge to cut and to micromanage. The review grabbed headlines for its proposal to cut tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 in low-priority subjects. But cost-cutting affects the quality of education.
Ministers want to fund an increase in non-degree vocational courses by making savings in higher education. There is talk of limiting the life-long Loan Entitlement subjects to those that match industrial priorities and of capping numbers of UK students in particular courses. This would be counterproductive: for example, University of the Arts London would compensate by recruiting more young people from other countries. We would be financially healthier (since they pay higher fees) but the British economy would end up weaker.
Pitting higher education against better technical and vocational courses is a false choice. But if the government wants to find savings, I agree it should be achieved through reforms to the loan system. There is a misperception that the system is failing because less than half of the loan book will get repaid. But this is a policy decision: how much should higher earning graduates contribute versus how much all taxpayers should subsidise lower earning graduates, such as nurses.
In reforming the loan system, the criterion should be whether it continues to reduce inequality in higher education. In the decade since 2009, the proportion of people in higher education from the lowest-income fifth of the population rose from 17 per cent to 27 per cent in England. But there is further to go. The government should bring back maintenance grants. The hardship isn’t among future graduates when they are earning. It is among students today.
That’s the way to give everyone a chance to choose the education they want, based on what is right for them, rather than unfounded assumptions about the value of particular subjects.