• Transform magazine
  • June 14, 2021

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UK government castigated for design education cuts

University lecture hall

The UK government announced plans to cut higher education art subjects, including art and design, by 50% to prioritize other ‘high-value subjects’. The announcement has caused widespread outcry among experts in the creative arena and beyond.

The cuts will affect students and institutions in higher education, with the repercussions felt throughout the creative sector. The UK already has a shortage of graphic designers in the UK, despite the design sector being a major contributor to the UK’s GDP. 

“The thing with creativity, like other sectors such as medicine and science, is that it needs to be maintained, encouraged and promoted. Just because we are at the top of the list today, does not mean we will remain at the peak without continued investment,” says Simon Manchipp, founder and creative director of international branding agency SomeOne, and employer of Libby Tsoi, winner of Transform magazine’s Young Contenders programme, an initiative designed to recognise and encourage young talent in the brand strategy and design sector.

The government had recently announced an increase in spending on higher-cost funding such as STEM and healthcare subjects. Healthcare spend has seen budget increases of 16% with STEM spend rising by 12%. This increase appears to have been achieved by a 49% decrease in the arts education budget.

“The majority of us are in these jobs not only because we’re passionate about it, but because STEM-related subjects never came naturally to us. Telling dancers or fashion designers to re-skill in technology related jobs is like asking PhD physicists to take up careers in singing,” says Jo Barnard, founder and CEO of design agency Morrama.

Naresh Ramchandani, partner at design agency Pentagram and current president of D&AD, the industry body that promotes UK design excellence, says: “The creative sector contributes £13m to the UK economy every hour, making it one of our largest industries. Although it may not have wanted Brexit, it’s the sector that will work through and express our nation’s new post-Brexit identity. Here, our writers, filmmakers, musicians, publishers and developers have a huge role to play.”

“Working alongside other sectors,” he adds. “It’s the sector that will contribute much of the vital imagination needed to combat the oncoming climate crisis. Creativity is not decorative or optional for the UK - it’s critical. To starve its future is to starve all of our futures.”

The Campaign for the Arts say that arts education should be among the government’s ‘strategic priorities,’ with the creative industries growing five times faster than the UK economy as a whole before the pandemic hit.

“Any other sector would see an increase in funding if it had such a proven financial impact, but the creative sector is seen as ‘art’ and people think art is a superfluous distraction. Perhaps if those in the driving seat saw it as ‘commercial creativity’ they might start to reframe the sector as something valuable and essential to the success of the nation,” says Manchipp.

Sara Jones, partner and client services director at creative agency FreeTheBirds, agrees.

“Creative thinking is responsible for finding solutions and for figuring out the ‘what’s next’, which most people just cannot see. Our reliance on creative thinking has never been clearer than in 2020, when we saw everyone leveraging their creative talents to create quick-time solutions like ventilators and make-shift face masks to help keep society afloat,” she says.

The Department for Education downplayed the issue, saying that most university funding comes from tuition fees and other sources and that the changes to the Strategic Priorities Grant, a small percentage of a university's income, would affect additional money for some subjects, like the scientific and medical ones.

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However, those institutions that receive less students and therefore less tuition fees will be most hardly hit. It is precisely the ‘additional money’ that is at times essential for lesser known and lesser funded institutions which help fuel a more diverse workforce.

“There is a lot of talk surrounding the need for greater diversity in the arts, yet without encouragement and support, including financial intervention, parts of society so dearly needed and welcome to bring greater depth to our national creative  output will continue to overlooked,” says Manchipp.

“The cuts will undermine the great progress these sectors have made when it comes to fostering diversity of race, age and gender. Given that creative people have a foothold in all industries, this will have a catastrophic ripple effect across the entire business and cultural landscape,” adds Jones.

Aside from the more obvious economic consequences this move would have on the UK economy at large, there are also others, more subtle yet almost more important, aspects to the creative sector that are essential to the country. These are what Manchipp calls ‘soft’ benefits of commercial creativity, which vary from a better vacuum cleaner to a better designed car to a safer way finding system.

“It’s far harder to put a price on these softer outcomes, but they are just as valuable. No one has every said they think there is enough music in the world. The human races’ appetite for creativity is immense for a reason: it stimulates and feeds our mental health,” he says.

While the UK is planning to dry out the creative sector, other countries, like Dubai, aim at investing more in it. A month ago, Dubai launched a new strategic programme to double the number of companies working in content, design and culture, with the objective of positioning the city as the ‘capital of the creative economy.’ The initiative seeks to increase opportunity for creative innovation while also fueling economic value and investment, a standpoint that directly counters the UK’s one of the creative industry not bringing in enough economic benefits to the country.

The Department for Education was contacted for a comment but failed to provide one.