In defense of creative arts diplomas

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Newsletter: FT Weekend

Claudia Gusella 2021 BA Fashion Show for Central St Martins, London © Niall McInerney

The writer is president and vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts in London

“From a meticulously knitted bronze number to a larger-than-life piece made of 600 real duck eggs – this year’s Superstar graduates have set the bar exceptionally high.” It’s like that Vogue described the Central Saint Martins BA Fashion 2021 graduation show.

This work was for their undergraduate finals. My final BA exam consisted of a few essays – their design is revolutionary. They will then work for the biggest fashion brands in the world, or create their own label, in the footsteps of Alexander McQueen or Bethany Williams. Our graduates are among the most enterprising in the country.

It is therefore difficult to read in this newspaper art classes apparently labeled “soft” by government sources, perpetuating the myth that too many students are taking them. In 2014, just over 7% of students took such courses; in 2019, it was still 7%. Since 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 gentle, but rigorous in preparing students for great careers in the creative industries and beyond. Creativity is one of the five main skills of the World Economic Forum for the Future, but the arts and humanities also provide a foundation for all other skills, from problem solving to analytical thinking. An arts degree gives you the opportunity to imagine a different world, prototype it, and involve other people to make it real.

A look at Tzu Yang (Alex) Huang's BA show for Central St Martins
A look at Tzu Yang (Alex) Huang’s BA show for Central St Martins © Niall McInerney

Student choice of subject is a more reliable guide to future jobs than central government planning. Of the 10 fastest growing sectors of the UK economy, eight employ more graduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences than in any other discipline.

Giving young people the choice of 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 right to life loans, allowing the equivalent of four years of study after 18 years, as proposed by the independent study Augar. But the choice only works if the government resists the urge to cut and micromanage. The review grabbed the headlines for its proposal to reduce tuition fees from £ 9,250 to £ 7,500 in low priority subjects. But cost reduction affects the quality of education.

The ministers want to finance an increase in non-degree vocational training by making savings in higher education. There is talk of limiting life loan eligibility topics to those that match industry priorities and capping the number of UK students in private lessons. This would be counterproductive: for example, the University of the Arts in London would compensate by recruiting more young people from other countries. We would be in better financial health (since they pay higher fees) but the UK economy would eventually weaken.

To pit higher education against better technical and vocational courses is a false choice. But if the government wants to find savings, I agree that this will require reforms of the loan system. There is a misconception that the system is failing because less than half of the loan portfolio will be repaid. But this is a political decision: how much should high-income graduates contribute versus how much all taxpayers should subsidize low-income graduates, such as nurses.

When reforming the loan system, the criterion should be whether it continues to reduce inequalities in higher education. In the decade since 2009, the proportion of people in tertiary education belonging to the lowest-income fifth of the population has increased from 17% to 27% in England. But there is more to do. The government should restore maintenance subsidies. The difficulty is not with future graduates when they win. He is among the students today.

It is the way of giving everyone the opportunity to choose the education they want, based on what suits them, rather than unfounded assumptions about the value of particular subjects.


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