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The author is president and vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London
“From a carefully knit bronze number to a larger piece than the lives of 600 real duck eggs — this year’s superstar graduates set the bar extraordinarily high.” That’s how Vogue describes the 2021 graduation ceremony of Central Saint Martins BA Fashion.
This work was for their undergraduate finals. My last BA exam consisted of a few essays – they are a groundbreaking design. They will work for the biggest fashion brands in the world, or establish their own label, in the footsteps of Alexander McQueen or Bethany Williams. Our graduates are some of the most enterprising in the country.
It is therefore difficult to read in this newspaper that there are apparently art courses marked “soft“Through government sources, which perpetuate the myth that too many students do it. In 2014, just over 7 percent of students took such courses; by 2019, it was still 7 percent. Given the creative industries were grow five times faster before the pandemic than the rest of the economy, it probably should have been more.
Arts degrees are not soft, but strict to prepare students for good careers in the creative industries and beyond. Creativity is one of the World Economic Forum’s top five skills for the future, but art and the humanities also provide a foundation in all the other skills, from problem solving to analytical thinking. With an art degree, you can imagine another world, make a prototype, and bring others on board to make it real.
Students’ subject choices are a more reliable guide to the work of the future than central government planning. Of the ten fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, eight have more graduates from the arts, humanities and social sciences than in any other field.
Giving young people the choice of what they can afford to study is the most effective education policy intervention of the last 30 years. From 2025, the government will extend it to all age groups through the lifelong lending right, 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 manage. The review quotes the news of his proposal reduce tuition fees from £ 9,250 to £ 7,500 in low-priority subjects. But Cost cut 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 lifelong learning subjects to subjects that correspond to industrial priorities and of limiting the number of UK students in particular courses. It 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 UK economy would end up weaker.
Putting higher education against better technical and vocational courses is a false choice. But if the government wants to find savings, I agree that it must be achieved through reforms of the lending system. There is a misconception that the system is failing because less than half of the loan book will be repaid. But it’s a policy decision: how much should higher – earning graduates contribute, versus how much all taxpayers need to subsidize less graduates, such as nurses?
In loan system reform, should be the measure of whether it continues to reduce inequality in higher education. In the decade since 2009, the percentage of people in higher education has risen from the fifth with the lowest income of the population from 17 per cent to 27 per cent in England. But there is more to go. The government must repay maintenance grants. The hardships are not among future graduates if they deserve it. It is today among students.
It is 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 specific subjects.