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Arts on the cheap? Time for a return to evidence-based policymaking

  • 23 February 2018
  • By Professor John Last, Vice-Chancellor, Norwich University of the Arts

This guest blog has been kindly written for us by Professor John Last, Vice-Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts. 

Don’t say it too loudly … but did evidence-based policymaking make a quiet comeback this week?

Twenty months after Michael Gove declared that Britain has ‘had enough of experts’, the Prime Minister has asked an ‘expert panel’ to consider the future of post-18 education.

Mrs May’s decision to give the Augar Review a year to do its work may well reflect a variety of political motives.

Maybe there are simply too few reliable votes in Westminster for ministers to push through substantial higher education reform right now?

Or is there too little Government bandwidth to table major legislation while attention in diverted –– around Brexit?

Nonetheless, the Augar Review is an opportunity to determine what is fair based on facts, insight and informed opinion rather than ideology or assumptions. It is a welcome opportunity to frame policy around evidence, albeit constrained by terms of reference which insist that any recommendations are ‘consistent with the Government’s fiscal policies to reduce the deficit and have debt falling as a percentage of GDP’.

HEPI’s new research paper on differential fees is the first – and welcome – challenge to some pre-conceived political positions in this forthcoming debate.

In media interviews published the day before the review was announced, the Education Secretary Damian Hinds was asked what he would like to see for the future funding of higher education.

‘We have a system where you have got almost all institutions and almost all courses at those institutions charging exactly the same price,’ Mr Hinds told The Sunday Times.

‘Some have higher returns to the student than others. It’s right that we now ask questions about how that system operates. I would like to see options available which have different costs.’

Headline writers were quick to interpret Mr Hinds’ remarks as the prelude to differential pricing of courses – the trigger for future cuts in tuition fees in the arts, humanities and social sciences where graduate earnings can fall short of salaries in science, technology and mathematics careers. This was framed as a question of fairness.

But HEPI’s research suggest that students understand fairness rather differently.

Two-thirds of students surveyed said fees for all courses should be the same. When pushed, far more said that if fees were differentiated it should be on the basis of cost-to-teach rather than graduate salaries. This is where we come to the need for expert understanding, not prejudice, about the creative arts disciplines offered at universities such as NUA to enlighten the Augar Review.

The lazy and oft-repeated assumption is that ‘arts are cheap to run’ and that science, technology, engineering and maths course cost – and are worth – a premium.

However, anyone who visits a specialist creative arts university will routinely see print workshops, casting foundries, fashion and film production studios alongside render farms for games – and anything from 3D printing, to virtual reality experiences being created. They will see students learning in small groups or with one-to-one tuition and specialist workshops staffed by technicians. Here students master skills and techniques needed to work in creative industry workplaces around the UK and indeed the world.

The old HEFCE funding bands acknowledged the higher costs of such work, but these nuances are being drowned out by crude ‘arts are cheap to deliver’ rhetoric.  As the HEPI report points out, the pre-2012 HEFCE teaching grant system offered a well-understood formula for costing course provision.

Times, technology, and the quality of facilities that industry expects universities to provide will inevitably change. But such courses do not become cheaper – and the creative arts were never cheap.

Anyone who has lived through the Dearing and Browne reviews will share a scepticism about whether or not ministers will fully adopt and implement recommendations they are presented with.

Yet the Augar Review represents an opportunity to explore, once again, the value of higher education – and consider fairness in how the costs of provision are met.

The review’s first step must be to leave preconceptions, myths and political assumptions behind when it comes to the creative arts.  And for a start, I would be pleased to welcome the review panel as visitors to NUA to see this specialist education at first hand.

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