Education and the Economy: Survival of the Fittest
Theresa May announced last week at Derby College that fees for university degrees are now under official review. May’s announcement touched on the fact that “many graduates”, after leaving university, are “left questioning the return they get on the investment they’ve made”.
To curb these feelings of post-university disillusionment, May laid out a series of observations and criticisms regarding the current education system. Although seemingly progressive, her words made no active commitments to clear, specific changes. As a Sky News reporter pointed out when the floor was opened to questions, May had quite glaringly failed to promise anything certain on real issues, such as reducing interest rates on university fees and re-introducing maintenance grants.
The main message that shone through her 20-minute speech was that education, as a whole, must be relative to the needs of the UK economy. In the context of employers fiinding it increasingly difficult to hire job-specific skilled candidates in the graduate market, May identified an obvious lack of clear, cohesive career advice in earlier academic life.
Theresa May making her announcement on higher education (Source: Derby Telegraph)
Throughout, May’s language was heavily centred around technical, scientific degrees, failing to mention, even once, anything in relation to arts degrees, or how they too can enrich society. A career in education, May told the audience, should reflect what the economy needs when graduates leave university.
Reading between the lines, it seems that, for the government, the arts doesn’t fit into any sort of current economic ‘need’, which certainly doesn’t bode well for an already underfunded array of subjects. According to the BBC, over 1000 schools across the UK said that “they had cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative arts subject.”
Making the UK a desirable home for high-tech business has always been a priority for the Conservative Party, and now it seems that education, too, will become subject, quite literally, to the economy. Productivity over creativity: That is the line that our government has decided to take, despite the fact that the two things are not mutually exclusive.
When it comes to university fees, May tells us that students “who benefit directly from higher education should contribute directly towards the cost of it”. In other words, the cost of a degree should be relative to what the student will actually gain from it. Degrees that have high contact time, logical career paths and high earning potential will likely increase in price, whilst degrees with low contact time, uncertain career options and generally lower earning potential will most likely decrease in price, relative to their ‘worth’.
Despite claiming that the education system is currently “stacked against” working-class children, May is prepared to widen this gap even further. Already in significant decline, cheapening arts degrees will, inevitably, discourage students of lower income backgrounds from taking up more expensive degrees in subjects such as science and engineering. In-turn, following the government’s reasoning, these poorer students will enter into lower-paid jobs.
Whilst May attempts to convince the public that this one-year review of university fees will improve accessibility to Higher Education, and dramatically improve value for money across the country, many can see the immediate flaws in her strategy. In the long-run, the arts are being pushed out, branded as unlucrative degrees which only serve to worsen the economy, merely chosen by default when students don’t see a clear career path ahead of them.
Nicky Morgan, former Education Secretary, said back in 2014 that when it comes to the arts, “many young people are making choices aged 15 which will hold them back for the rest of their lives”. Arts students have long endured such disregard, both from the media and from their elders, all in the honest face of pursuing a creative outlet. Now, they are to be faced with a lower financial worth too, a price tag that supposedly determines their entire life salary.
Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan (Source: PA)
It’s ‘survival of the fittest’, and the ‘fitness’ of our children is going to be determined by their early, practical contribution to the economy. The economy doesn’t, apparently, need the arts to thrive, hence the government’s efforts to devalue it.
John Kampfner, Chief Executive of the Creative Industries Federation, identifies “a gaping hole in the government’s strategic approach – its consistent refusal to understand the link between arts education and economic success…In [the arts] sector alone, there are 17 defined skills shortages in areas such as animation and visual effects.”
May discounts the arts entirely, rather than setting out a plan to try and improve the application of career advice to less definable creative skills, which, despite her lack of interest, are in economic demand.
The arts are necessary, and they are academic. It’s about time that the government started recognising this in economic terms, rather than forcing the next creative generation into further poverty and low self-worth.