What's happening in creative HE?

Creative education has been facing a number of crises recently and most will be aware of the research and very visible campaigns by NSEAD and the Cultural Learning Alliance (among others) around primary and secondary creative education and the effects of the exclusion of creative subjects from eBacc. What is only just emerging into public consciousness, however, is a burgeoning crisis in creative higher education. 

CVAN has just responded formally to the DfE Review of Post-18 Education and Funding: call for evidence and will continue to advocate not only for an effective creative skills pipeline and the right of every child and young person to access creative career skills but also for the wider role of creativity and culture in education. In addition, we are concerned about the potential effects of a contracting creative HE sector on support for the visual arts across England's regions. 

The widespread closures we are currently seeing in creative higher education (HE) courses have a very complex back-story. The courses are not being closed by the Government directly - as HE has been almost entirely privatised - but a number of different policy initiatives, as well as external trends, are creating something of a 'perfect storm' for creative HE. This makes it difficult to tackle course closures head-on - instead, we will need to monitor developments and work with key sector partners to try to influence the shape the new HE and research structures currently being implemented. 

A brief history of fees:

Many will remember the Labour Government introducing means-tested top-up fees to fund the expansion of higher education access following the Dearing review in 1998. In 2003 universities were allowed to set variable fees up to £3000 as repayable loans contingent on income to encourage a spirit of competition but fees were still regarded as a 'top up' to state funding. After the Browne review and the 2010 election, the thinking changed radically and the fee cap was raised to £9000, effectively replacing the state teaching grant - although some institutional grants were still made to fund subjects with a high delivery cost such as creative and STEM subjects. Inevitably, given the pressures on funding, almost all institutions have charged the maximum fees, whilst subsidies for studio-based teaching have been largely removed. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have therefore relied increasingly on 'cross funding' - using surplus from 'talk and chalk' subjects such as law to top-up laboratory or studio-based subjects. 

The former polytechnics were merged into the university system in 1992, becoming known as the 'post 1992' ('new universities') sector, which absorbed many independent art colleges into 'multi faculty' HEIs over the past decade. Creative provision has thus often become part of a portfolio of subject areas within which it must compete for resources and the needs of creative education are not always well understood by senior institutional management. 

The most fundamental reform in 50 years:

The system for financing HE research and teaching in England has become increasingly problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly it does not meet the objective of varying fees which the Government feels should reflect 'quality'. The loans are privatised and, despite the advantages of removing them from public accounting to massage the deficit, the Government is still obliged to carry a write-off for unpaid loans which represents an increasing burden on public finance. 

It was also felt that there was insufficient choice and competition and that students were dissatisfied with value for rising fees. The existing systems for supporting research were seen as failing to meet industry or public needs. Industry is dissatisfied with the skilling of graduates and the 'graduate premium' on earnings has begun to falter for post-1992 sector graduates (and was always non-existent or negative for creative graduates). Finally, the Government was dissatisfied with the  peer review assessment systems in HE and favour a data-driven or metric approach. So the Government set about a series of reviews and reforms which received surprisingly little interest from the public given how radical the resultant restructuring has been. 

Following a slew of reviews and considerable 'consultation fatigue' through 2016-17, the 2017 Higher Education & Research Act replaced the 1962 Education Act (which brought in free HE and maintenance grants) in April this year and represents the biggest restructuring of the HE system in 50 years. The Act opens UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to global competition by removing barriers to entering the UK HE 'market' and by offering easy routes to corporatisation for HEIs currently constituted as charities. It replaces HEFCE with the Office for Students (OfS) which will run a metrical 'risk-based' monitoring system which will probably operate similarly to Ofsted. The OfS will be chaired by Michael Barber (a strong supporter of the privatisation of state education systems and proponent of 'deliverology'). The onus previously on HEFCE to support failing universities has been removed and all HEIs will have to have arrangements in place for students in the event of institutional failure. 

From peer review to metrics: 

The HE sector has been regulated in England by the Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE). Teaching quality in HE was benchmarked by the QAA system and universities with Degree Awarding Powers (DAP) monitored each others' teaching quality through a peer review process. The 2017 Act introduces a new metrics-based Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Research was funded through competitive project grants managed by RCUK and and also grants to support research-intensive HEIs managed by HEFCE. Research quality was monitored by peer review publication processes. In 2008 the Government instituted a Research Assessment Exercise, which became the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014 including a rating for research impact. Following the Stern Review into research funding report last year, Elsevier citation metrics will be added to peer review to evaluate research (and weight on metrics will be likely to increase gradually), the impact quotient in REF has been beefed up. Innovate UK has been merged with UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), which replaces RCUK. At the moment, the 7 Research Councils, including the AHRC, remain in place but this may be reviewed in future. A new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) metric is also being introduced alongside REF. 

Industrial Strategy and Skills

The Industrial Strategy places strong emphasis on skills and, undeterred by the inglorious history of repeated failures of governmental schemes to improve vocational education in the UK, the Government is now keen to focus on 'technical' skills. £2m may now be invested in widening access to the creative talent pipeline and industry will be asked to provide 50 creative industries ambassadors to work with schools - which many might see as part of an overall inadequate response to the pervasive crisis in secondary creative education.

The Industrial Strategy offers funding for delivery of STEM subjects but not, apparently, for studio-based subjects. The overwhelming focus on apprenticeships, where creative subjects are poorly represented, also seems worrying. Further, there are issues surrounding inclusion of creative skills in apprenticeships due to the prevailing micro-enterprise format of the creative industries. It is difficult for small enterprises to co-fund and support apprenticeships. It also seems unfair that HE students would pay for their own studies whilst employers pay for subsidised apprenticeships. Given, also, that the strongest demand from creative industries employers is for critical and strategic creative skills, this would seem altogether a troubling trajectory.  

Much of the new funding for research is earmarked for STEM/defence R&D and match-funded by industry. The much smaller amount of new funding earmarked for creative research is also structured by the Industrial Strategy. The new HE creative clusters currently being formed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will be match funded and shaped by industry - with potential for raising ethical issues for many visual arts practitioners. 

The Government is now extremely keen to link fee levels with graduate salary levels and 'quality' is becoming equated with graduate salaries (and likelihood of loan repayment). This, of course, invokes long argued shortcomings in the metrics used to monitor graduate outcomes known as the DLHE survey which, in turn, relate to the inadequacies for the creative industries of the coding used by the ONS to gather data on the GVA broken down by industry sectors. The Government is now experimenting with joining HMRC data with data sources used by HESA (the agency which gathers HE stats) to map what graduates in different subjects earn on average in the period after graduation. Even taking aside inadequacies in the coding and data sources for creative industries, it is inevitable that creative graduate average salaries benchmark well below national average earnings - even those for non-graduates. 

So how might this impact creative HE course closures? 

This brings us neatly back to the Post 18 Funding review on which the DfE is currently analysing feedback. The Government is keen to reduce the deficit in student loan repayments whilst developing a 'market' in HE. One way of doing this would be to lower fees and top up with direct teaching grants - this would be great for the creative sector if the top-ups were adequate for studio-based teaching, but this approach is unlikely (although there is some talk of reviving maintenance grants). One of the most likely possibilities being mooted (with strong Government support) is linking fees to graduate earnings, despite all the available evidence pointing to socio-economic and other diversity factors as the major determinants of graduate salaries. This approach would be likely to be extremely challenging for creative HE in setting fees unsustainably low based on data indicating low earning power for creative graduates. Whilst this might be cause for celebration amongst students initially, enthusiasm might be considerably dampened by a resultant, and possibly catastrophic, contraction of the creative HE sector. Another possibility would be capping fees at £6000 with top ups only for STEM - this would affect the cross-funding arrangements which currently support studio-based teaching and place significant further pressures on cash-strapped HEIs. Either likely possibility would, to say the least, strongly encourage 'multi-faculty' HEIs to close yet more creative provision and also destabilise any but the highest-ranking creative independents such as the RCA and UAL colleges - radically choking the creative graduate skills pipeline across the board. 

All this is happening in the context of increased global competition in HE and falling UK student numbers caused partly by a previous fall in the birth rate but also by restrictions on study visas introduced in 2011, a trend which intensified following Brexit. Despite energetic lobbying to remove students from net migration statistics, the Government has previously been adamant. However, the replacement of Amber Rudd by Sajid Javid in the wake of the Windrush scandal and anticipation of the Migration Advisory Committee report may reopen the debate. Nevertheless, his time at the former BIS when it held the HE brief was marked by deep cuts and Mr Javid previously failed to support post study visas or the removal of students from net migration stats.

At the same time as student numbers continue to fall, institutional caps on student numbers have been removed and the more competitive HEIs are expanding their share of recruitment which is further destabilising the post-1992 sector in which much arts provision is located. The effects of the 2017 Act are not only practical, however. It looks as though creative education is not only being significantly restructured but also fundamentally reconceptualised. 

Most importantly from the point of view of the visual arts, we are extremely concerned that the contraction of creative HE has much wider implications regionally because of the role increasingly played by creative HE in nurturing, hosting, and supporting visual arts as well as the creative industries more widely in the regions.

CVAN has responded to the DfE call for evidence on HE finance highlighting some of the issues for the visual arts covered here and we will continue to work closely with education and creative industries policy partners to advocte strongly for the future of creative education at all levels.  We are keen to gather more data about the implications of HE course closures on our sector and will be taking forward further research. In the meantime, CVAN regions can help by letting us know informally about course closures in your region and their impact on the visual arts locally or regionally.  

CVAN supports the positions of CHEAD and GuildHE and we are calling for:

  • adequate funding for creative and studio-based teaching at HE level without increasing the burden on students
  • no differential fees based on graduate earnings - the value of creative education cannot be reduced to earning potential
  • mobility for creative students, staff, and practitioners
  • inclusion of creative subjects in T-Levels and degree apprenticeships
  • equal value for creative subjects and skills alongside STEM rather than just as the 'A' in STEAM