The government may restrict the number of students in England entering university courses that result in lower salary jobs, such as creative arts degrees, as part of its spending review. The Treasury reportedly wants to tackle outstanding student loans and sees this a potential opportunity to do so, but many have criticised the government’s lack of understanding for the importance of the arts and related degrees.
The Department for Education (DfE) is conducting a review of post-18 education, set to be released alongside the spending review, which is reportedly analysing ways to limit student numbers. A government source has said: “They would like to control numbers in specific subjects. The Treasury is particularly obsessed with negative return in creative arts subjects.” It has been alleged that new A-level minimum grade entry requirements could be introduced to increase university inaccessibility.
The government may be looking to limit the number of students in creative arts degrees due to the tendency for arts graduates to receive lower salaries than graduates in other subjects. Lower earning graduates are unable to pay back their student loan as quickly, and the government seems intent on increasing the amount of loan debt repaid to them – it was announced last month that the government were considering lowering the income threshold at which graduates start repaying their loans, a move that would hit lower earning graduates hardest. This also follows from an announcement earlier this year that the DfE would be cutting funding for arts subjects by 50% in order to allocate more funding to Stem and medicine courses.
Just as many stated that lowering the income threshold would hit lower earning graduates hardest, these new plans would most negatively affect potential students from lower earning backgrounds. Vice-chancellor at the University of Portsmouth, Prof Graham Galbraith, noted that raising A-level grade requirements would target students from under-funded areas of the country, saying that “there is a strong socioeconomic determinant to young people’s school achievements. If the government is to implement a minimum qualification rule, it must ensure that it is based on individuals’ capabilities and not a proxy for the school they happened to go to or the social class to which they belong.”
On Instagram, zine-maker grrrlzinefair also commented on the restrictiveness of these proposed plans, stating: “This is not only classist, restricting access to creative courses for those from lower income families or have lower grades (comps often restrict grade levels while private schools push students to extra paid tuition) – but is centred around the axing of a free thinking, a creative and questioning population and value of arts and culture.”
Vice-chancellor at Falmouth University (an arts-oriented university) Anne Carlisle also criticised the government’s lack of understanding for the importance of the arts, saying, “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.” She also noted that creative degrees often work in tandem with Stem and medicine in a variety of fields and called for the government to end its “crude segmentation” of the subjects.
Prof John Cater, the vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University in Lancashire, commented on what is motivating young people to access higher education, saying, “We’ve actually got one of the most altruistic group of 18-year-olds I can remember, and I don’t think they are judging their life chances solely on what they will earn.” More and more young people are looking to enter university, with more than half now going into higher education and an increasing demand for degree courses. Mark Corver, founder of DataHE, said that “if ministers limit numbers when demand is rising, young people in the future will have a significantly lower chance of going to university.”
The government apparently considered lowering the £9,250 a year tuition fees in place currently but are unlikely to implement such a move, with many predicting that the plans for lowering the income threshold for loan repayments to go ahead instead. A DfE spokesperson said they would not comment on “speculation” about the spending review but said, “There are no plans to limit the growth of the higher education sector.” However, they concluded: “The government is committed to driving up standards across post-16 education ensuring everyone can gain the right skills to secure well-paid jobs that are critical to supporting the economy.”
Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, Nick Hillman, warned the government that they may regret seeming “anti-intellectual and as if they only care about money”, adding: “If ministers are worried that creative disciplines don’t have good earnings outcomes, put that information in the hands of young people, but don’t stand in their way if they are determined to be successful in those areas.”