Alexander Cannon’s Call to Action on Proposed OfS Cuts

On 26th March, the Office for Students (OfS) released its ‘Consultation on recurrent funding for 2021–22’, which proposes an allocation of government funds to UK Universities in the upcoming academic year. One of the most disturbing proposals is a 50% cut to funds allocated to music, dance, drama, the performing arts, art and design, media studies, and archaeology. These disciplines, the OfS believes, are ‘high cost’ and ‘not among [the Government’s] strategic priorities’.

Most of us missed the release of the document until this past weekend when several organisations, including the Musicians’ Union, tweeted their anger over such drastic cuts. Academics, teachers, and even one of the Government's own MPs has now taken up the cause. They encourage members of the public to express their outage by the end of the consultation period on 6th May.

This Government has not hidden its distrust of music, media, and drama. The Department for Education (DfE) clearly does not view them as ensuring our collective future prosperity. Gavin Williamson initially proposed these cuts in a letter of 19th January 2021. Going back further to May 2019, the Augar Report referred to ‘low value’ and ‘high value’ degrees, offering new nomenclature for classifying university subjects. Although the proposed OfS budget is not directly linked to the Augar Report, the budget creates a ‘new price group’ called C1.2 for these ‘low priority’ subjects. One cannot help but see C1.2 as the new ‘low value’ category with the attached epithet of ‘high cost’ to boot.

The OfS rationale for these cuts is that these subjects do not offer growth: ‘STEM and healthcare subjects....are much more relevant than those in the proposed price group C1.2 to the government’s “Plan for Growth”, which prioritises investments and skills in science, technology and health’. These investments, furthermore, will ‘maintain...the UK’s position as a leader in science and innovation’.

This logic reveals that the DfE has no understanding of the roles the media, archaeology, and creative arts play in society. Those who study media understand how communication shapes worldview. Archaeologists bring the forgotten past into the fold of the present so we rediscover and learn from it. Artists inspire new horizons of life and living, and suggest connections between disparate parts of our everyday lives: looking at a painting or going to a concert encourages reflection on our daily interactions, our priorities, and even our politics. When I stood in the Tower Ballroom in 2019 to watch the Birmingham Opera Company perform Dimitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, for instance, I not only revelled in the power of Shostakovich’s social commentary, but also considered the contemporary possibilities of a more inclusive and representative art which reflects the diversity of the UK. Two years on, I still think about the vision of the work, and the others who were there with me—doctors, solicitors, and scientists. Art brings humans together and lingers in the mind. It reshapes our collective values and perceptions of the world over time.

Indeed, it’s important to remember how fundamental the arts are to the functioning of society. As I write this from home, one of my neighbours is teaching the basics of spoken language to her toddler through song; another neighbour is painting a room to the soundtrack of BBC Radio 1. High-street shops fill spaces with sound and art. As we come out of lockdown and engage with our local communities again, we all perform as we speak. Using the grain of our voices, emphasising syllables, structuring our speech through rhythm, and making the occasional sing-song melody with a phrase, we express ourselves and our ideas. How we think is creative. How we remember is visual and sonic. How we connect to one another is artistic. It takes training—a great deal of training, in fact—to teach these forms of connection and communication. We—all of us—need this funding intact for society to function and grow.

Growth does not occur in a laboratory—it occurs in society. Human creators use art, sound, and science together to innovate. This is easiest to see in the polymath artist/scientists of history: Leonardo da Vinci, Beatrix Potter, Fazlur Rahman Khan, and Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi all cross-fertilised scientific innovation and the arts, and we remember their profound achievements today. Most of us are not polymaths, so we instead need to foster collaboration between science and the arts. Both need investment: innovation and creation cannot occur without creativity. If the government does not fund creativity, creation will not occur.

With these cuts, the government is saying that we don’t need to understand communication, listen to music, understand the past, or create. We do not even need the next generation of artist innovators: whoever could be the next Edward Elgar, William Turner, or Lady Leshurr will not appear. What kind of desolate future awaits us? It’s difficult not to feel a profound sense of loss already for those who may not have an opportunity to flourish and inspire.

There is still time to rectify this. Participate in the consultation. Write to your MP. Write to Gavin Williamson. Share your experiences of art, science, and innovation. Let us teach these politicians of the artistry omnipresent in everyday life because, clearly, they aren’t living with the rest of us.


Dr Alexander M. Cannon is Co-Editor of Ethnomusicology Forum and a lecturer at the University of Birmingham.