Higher education in the arts represents a real cost, both for students and for the British government.
In the UK, young people continue to be attracted to training and careers in the creative arts, despite the economic difficulties facing the sector. The British government is concerned that these future graduates will drive up the unemployment rate.
That's why the Conservative Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has announced plans to cap the number of students who choose a degree course with limited career prospects. Caps will be placed on courses that do not result in a high proportion of graduates securing a professional job on completion of their studies, pursuing postgraduate study or setting up their own business, according to the Guardian. The UK government claims that this is simply a deterrent, intended to act as a "red flag to students" considering a move into a saturated subject field. "Too many young people are being sold a false dream and end up doing a poor-quality course at the taxpayers’ expense that doesn’t offer the prospect of a decent job at the end of it," Rishi Sunak said in a statement.
The policy, which will take effect from the 2024/25 academic year, has been roundly criticized by many British politicians and commentators as a classist measure. In particular, they object to the use of the term "low-value degree" to describe university studies leading to overcrowded segments of the job market. For years, 10 Downing Street has wanted to limit access to such courses, without explicitly mentioning what they are.
But the British cultural sector fears that arts courses will be high on the list, as it is well known that these qualifications do not lead to well-paid jobs—or any jobs at all in the sector. A recent Acme survey revealed that 40% of British artists can't afford to contribute to their pensions or put money aside. The impoverishment of the country's cultural professions is such that almost a third of art professionals fear they will have to retrain within the next five years. So what's the point of studying the creative arts at university when so few opportunities are available, some ask?
Popular but precarious
All the more so as artistic training represents a real cost, both for the students taking such courses, and for the British government. In 2019, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that creative arts degrees cost British taxpayers 30% more than engineering degrees. "This means that taxpayers provide bigger subsidies to students who study arts and humanities—which typically result in relatively low earnings—than to those who study many science and engineering courses," the UK-based think tank said.
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Each art student who borrows money to continue their education represents an outlay of £35,000 for the state, compared with £45,000 for medical students. However, the latter are more likely to repay their student loans than their peers in the arts, because they find it easier to find work in their field. In fact, the unemployment rate among creative arts graduates is 6.5%—compared to 5.9% for UK graduates across all subjects—according to the 2023 edition of the "What Do Graduates Do?" report from Prospects and AGCAS.
Yet this doesn't discourage young people in the UK from seeking higher education in the arts: every year, 37,000 of them join the country's universities to study art, music, film, theater or design. An enthusiasm that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's new education policy is unlikely to quell.