Changes to the delivery of post-18 education have now been recommended by the Augar Report. Jamie Eastman suggests that as the Government considers these, visual arts has a window to befriend HE/FE, or risk the consequences
As many may know, the long-awaited Government review of post-18 education and funding in England (known as the ‘Augar Review’) was published recently. The report makes a number of recommendations and it will be up to the UK government, in the forthcoming Spending Review, to decide how to respond to these.
For many in Further and Higher Education, these intervening weeks, prior to the Spending Review will be filled with activities geared to delivering an initial response to Government from our sector.
Many perspectives will come into play, and it will be interesting to note how unified consensus is in a landscape of colleges, universities and training centres varying in stature, scale, make-up and location. The uncertainty and national divisions, precipitated by Brexit’s ever-grey cloud will underpin the tonality of response too.
Certainly, we can expect all quarters to re-affirm their commitment and dedication to high quality education, teaching and research. HE/FE is a sector fuelled by passion and belief in the value of these endeavours and what they bring to society. However, beyond such affirmations, Augar presents real challenges to presenting a united front. The reasons for this are nuanced, but mostly relatable to economic quantification. In other words, the type of transactional analysis that can justify the closing and ending of things, despite honourable arguments for continuation.
Many, including the Augar review itself - insist that maintaining funding levels is essential for the quality of UK education to persist and be internationally competitive. This ‘red line’ counters against the central Augar recommendation that student fees should decrease. Augar recommends that the British Government cover any funding gaps between ‘cut’ and (and per taught student) ‘resource’, but because few think this would happen, covering the gap is where things will prove tricky on the unity front for the sector. Trickier still would be a future in which individual universities, colleges and the like face down such gaps without assistance, taking matters increasingly into their own hands. Amongst a sector already preoccupied with the economic unpredictability of Brexit, all of this brings the prospect of ‘hard decisions’ into view.
Since the advent of the fee-paying era, universities have already increased business practice and market minded decisions. I recall the closure of the Department of Music at Lancaster University for instance on such grounds, when I worked there. The spectre of Augar is that such reasoning will become still further entrenched as a practice, agitating many in the sector, none more so than those teaching arts and humanities. And much of this is because education for its own sake, though still the heartbeat and root reason for its undertaking, does not stack up through the lens of business.
Many subjects in science, technology, engineering, maths (aka STEM) require equipment resources, and teaching environments kitted out for the learning in laboratory conditions. But that is ‘ok’ because those students paying for education in these areas are more likely to secure employment thereafter. Fine art also requires material spend and plenty of space if studio taught, but unlike the STEM subjects does not guarantee employment, the ‘offer’ that many in HE/FE have evolved into the habit of promising.
At the University of Bath, where I am Director of Arts & Culture, we are hugely proud of our reputation for producing some of the most employable graduates in the country, a track record recognised in many ways, by our ranking as 5th in the UK for graduate prospects by The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019 for instance. But as we do not teach the arts and are minimal on humanities we will not be faced with the same types of decision making when it comes to deciding what we value and don’t value in such light. Art is one part of the broader fabric of who we are as an institution, applied in-sync with our focus on STEM teaching and research, not at odds with it.
Meantime for others universities, though the Social Sciences can lay more claim to job prospects, Humanities in its broadest sense are geared to develop the practice and understanding of being human. Creativity (taught or otherwise) does not guarantee employment unless applied, and learning artistic practice presents similar abstractions.
The writing on the wall for visual arts, is that It could well be employability, not something for its own sake, that gets things over the line in a post-Augar world. The university sphere will not want to decrease the amount of resource per student it spends. Governments will want fees to come down and access to education to be increased (no bad thing in itself), but if fail to cover the gap, one foresees the survival instincts amongst those less concerned with visual arts to gun for the safety and security of History, or English Literature (for instance) ahead of visual arts.
Should visual arts shrink as taught by HE/FE institutions, one could see increasing hybrid forms being taught across public and educational spheres. Spike Island’s hosting of University West of England (UWE’s) fine art degrees springs to mind. Increasing instances of students learning by ‘doing’, sat side by side with arts employees at creative spaces and organisations across the country could be commonplace. But such developments occurring because of reduction and cuts is not what those of us who are passionate about visual arts would want to see. Visual arts has much to offer and it is because of this that we want ‘more’ of it permeating society, not less.
Certainly then, this is a time for advocacy to stimulate solidarity. It is vital that CVAN, VASW (of which I am co-chair) and our other regional networks, act with other advocates in the Arts and Creative Industries and work with HE/FE constituents to inform cases that cause – come what may – subjects that are less ‘specific’ on business outcomes to not be reduced. If ever there was a time for arts and science to stand shoulder to shoulder in the UK it is now. Brexit, the principals of Britain’s incoming Prime Minister, Augar…whichever way one looks, the case will need to be made successfully for creativity. This can best be accomplished by acting together, not moaning solo in the mirror. I for one, would not be surprised should the conditions referred to see reductions in HE/FE funding damage wider goals. Ones in access and widening participation activities for instance that the entire sector wishes to strengthen. If we can find common causes such as this that all who believe in education can agree on, then alliances can be made and visual arts will find more friends in STEM and post-18 education, willing to act less like survivalists.
Jamie Eastman, Director of Arts & Culture, University of Bath and Co-Chair of Visual Arts South West (VASW)
Jamie oversees the University of Bath’s arts activities, cultural partnerships and provision. This includes a public programme, arts centre and gallery. Recent exhibitions featured Emma Hart, Steven Pippin, James Capper and Assemble. He’s previously held senior roles at Lancaster University, Arnolfini, Bristol and the ICA, London. Jamie is Chair of University Centres for the Arts Network UK, and since 2018 Co-Chair of VASW alongside Louise Coysh.