Why the government is wrong to slash funding for arts education in favour of 'more valuable' courses

Dan Hulse
Dan Hulse

Politicians persist in deeming vocational courses as ‘more valuable’ than arts degrees. But a proposed 50% cut to arts education threatens both the financial contribution of the creative industry and the diversity upon which it thrives.

For a country with creative industries that are the envy of the world, we've got a baffling blind spot when it comes to arts education.   Education secretary Gavin Williamson is proposing a 50% cut for university arts subjects, in favour of "more valuable" courses.   Perhaps he's been talking to the teacher who advised our ECD, Rich Denney, to drop his ideas of being an actor or artist, and "get yourself a trade, son". They'd both be happier if students were picking "strategic priorities" like a vocational course, science or maths.

Well, let's look at the maths then. The plan is to cut £17m from arts education each year. I'm sure that money can be put to good use, and you won't find me arguing we don't need more scientists or nurses.  But here's another number – £13m. That's the amount that the creative industries contribute to the UK economy.  Not every year, but every hour. Prior to the pandemic, the creative sector was growing five times faster than the overall economy, with advertising and marketing delivering a quarter of that growth. The money to train nurses and engineers has to come from somewhere, and politicians are fond of telling us there is no magical money tree. But if you squint at the creative industries, where dreams and ideas are turned into £111.7 billion each year, it comes pretty close. Is it really wise to stop watering it?

For us, the issue is close to home. We're named St Luke's after the patron saint of the arts for a reason – we believe in the power of creativity to help businesses thrive. But we can only do that because smart kids, often from working class backgrounds, are able to get an arts education. Advertising has always been battling against voices like Rich's teacher, who wanted him to swap his layout pad for a screwdriver. Thankfully, enough of them are stubborn enough to ignore this helpful advice and go on to art college.

We need more of them, not fewer. And we need people from every kind of background to choose the arts – and to choose advertising.  Everyone reading this will be striving to attract a broader, more diverse set of talent. We know it makes business sense for our agencies, and our industry. At St Luke's, we work hard to open the door to diverse talent, paying the London Living Wage to our creative placements and interns (along with everyone else in the building). We offer a "Gateway" internship to encourage more BAME people to explore a career in advertising. But those efforts won't make much of a difference if the only students with arts degrees are the ones whose mums and dads can fund it.

So maybe it is time for Mr Williamson to redo his sums? If not, we're headed for a less diverse industry, and the whole country will be poorer for it.

Dan Hulse is chief strategy officer at St Luke’s


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