UK creative industries criticise government’s 18-plus education proposals

Caroline Norbury MBE, the Chief Executive of Creative UK, has published a statement expressing concerns over the Department for Education’s proposed plans to restrict loans to higher education students based on the potential career income and the type of courses they choose.

The proposals, announced by higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan, are aimed, in part, at addressing the growing debt of student loans that the government is bearing. By last March it amounted to £161 billion, partly because graduates are earning too little to reach the repayment threshold. The proposals therefore extend the repayment period to 40 years instead of 30 and lower the income threshold to £25,000 per annum from £27,295. Interest on the loans will also start accruing from the day a student starts their course, rather than at graduation.

This, however, is only part of the government’s proposal. In a reversal of former prime minister Tony Blair’s goal of having 50% of the nation holding degrees, declared in 1999, the Johnson government is seeking to make it much harder to get into Higher Education in the first place, thereby reducing student numbers. This could involve raising the minimum qualifications in GCSE and A-level to be eligible for a student loan and to deny loans for what Michelle Donelan and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi call ‘low-value’ courses, ie subjects that offer low-income career prospects.

Caroline Norbury’s concern is that basing these restrictions on purely financial possibilities is missing the point, especially within the creative industries, where the contribution to society may be far greater than the salary earned would suggest.

‘We are concerned by the possibility of introducing student number controls based on value assessments of courses that are too narrow to accurately or fairly reflect the success of the UK’s talented creative graduates,’ she said. ‘In order to capture the full value of creative graduate’s contributions, measures such as salary should not be viewed in isolation; broader social and economic outcomes must be taken into account.’

She further argued that the raising of entry qualification levels would exempt people from less advantaged backgrounds. ‘The introduction of minimum entry requirements is equally worrying, as it will significantly disadvantage many, barring them from a transformational creative education. It is imperative that the creative sector continues to diversify and grow its workforce, ensuring that the chance for talent to flourish is open to all, not just the privileged few,’ she said.

‘The UK’s creative industries drive growth, create jobs and unlock opportunities in places and communities all across the country. And we have the power to do much more. Economic modelling commissioned by Creative UK reveals that the creative sector has the potential to create 300,000 new jobs and generate an extra £28bn for the UK economy by 2025. A recent report by Kingston University also shows that problem-solving, communication and creativity are among the top 10 core skills needed for a prosperous economy. But to unleash the potential of the creative economy requires a larger and more diverse talent pipeline of highly skilled individuals.’

The Musicians Union (MU) went further and suggested that raising the bar on entry qualifications would hit the poor, ethnic minorities and the disabled. 

In a statement, it said, ‘The Government also announced that it will consult on introducing a minimum qualifications requirement to access student loans, which could be grade 4 in both Maths and English at GCSE. This would effectively exclude around one third of pupils – the proportion of pupils who do not achieve these grades in a normal year – from progressing to higher education.

‘The MU has previously raised concerns about how the Government’s policies are excluding disadvantaged, disabled, Black, Asian, and ethnic minority students from HE arts courses. Many of these students are not well served at school and need additional support to access university education. Demanding grade 4 in GCSE Maths and English as criteria for a student loan would be a regressive step for these students.

‘Further, reducing access to music and arts subjects at HE will only compound the systemic inequalities that beleaguer music and arts education at school level.

There are aspects of the government’s plan that are less contentious, however, including cutting the cost of foundation year courses and a new national state scholarship aimed at giving access to higher and further education and apprenticeships to higher-achieving students from less-advantaged backgrounds. And in keeping with the government’s pandemic mantra about retraining, it looks set to introduce a lifelong entitlement to up to four years of post-18 education.