Jeremy Deller and college leaders warn of cuts' impact on young artists

Turner prizewinner and principals fear colleges will become socially exclusive and science and arts collaborations will be lost

The heads of some of Britain's most prestigious arts institutions have warned that government plans to slash funding for teaching humanities subjects could drive future designers, artists and musicians overseas and put vital collaborations between science and the arts at risk.

Deep cuts to teaching budgets for the arts, coupled with proposals to raise tuition fees for undergraduates to as much as £9,000 a year, have also prompted fears that art colleges could become the preserve of a social elite.

Paul Thompson, rector of the Royal College of Art – whose alumni include the artists Chris Ofili and Tracey Emin, the industrial designer Sir James Dyson, as well as Burberry's creative director, Christopher Bailey – said the government has "swung a sledgehammer" into arts teaching. He warned that withdrawing funding for design courses puts the supply of talent for creative industries at risk.

Government funding for arts and humanities is to be hardest hit by cuts to English universities as outlined in the October spending review, while state support for science, technology, engineering and maths is maintained.

The decision to prioritise science failed to recognise the collaborative way in which engineers work with designers, Thompson said. "The creativity of a designer takes an invention that might potentially lie on a laboratory bench, add the design thinking, and that helps commercialise that idea," he said. "We've been talking to government and saying look at the number of design-led companies that have Royal College of Art graduates behind them, whether it's Jaguar, Foster architects, or Burberry.

"I think the government has swung a very heavy sledgehammer across the board, in trying to remove David Beckham studies, and swung this sledgehammer [at] a number of very important courses for the creative industries."

Thompson is worried that fees for postgraduate students would have to rise dramatically to make up the shortfall in funding, rising from the £6,000 charged to domestic students to levels nearer the £25,000 charged to overseas students.

Universities also fear that undergraduate students facing higher debts will be reluctant to take on in-depth postgraduate study. Barry Ife, principal of the Guildhall school of music and drama in London's Barbican, said: "It takes time to develop an artist: in the case of singers, it's a question of physical maturity as well as emotional and artistic maturity.

"It's one thing for undergraduates to go out with £20,000 of debt, quite another thing to go out with £50-60,000. The real concern is not so much that we're not going to have an undergraduate population, it's what happens to the postgraduate population. It's from that group that the really talented artists will emerge."

The expected withdrawal of funding fails to recognise the intensive nature of artists' training, Ife said. "The costs in performing artist training are extremely high, because the training we provide is very intensive: its tailor-made, its based on one-to-one teaching. You can't teach the cello to people like Jacqueline du Pré in groups of 300 or even 20."

British schools of music face competition from European and US conservatoires that charge lower fees – or, like the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, offer full scholarships.

"We work in an international market in arts training," Ife said. "There are a lot of providers in the US who are tuition-free. The vast majority of European conservatories offer tuition rates that are lower than current rates."

His fears are shared by Goldsmiths, University of London, whose alumni include Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst. The institution expects that the grant it receives for teaching would be "significantly reduced". That grant was worth £16.5m for this academic year.

Goldsmiths said in a statement: "The most significant changes are expected from 2012-13 and we are working hard now to ensure that our students will continue to benefit from excellent teaching informed by world-leading research."

Under proposals published last month by Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive who reviewed university finance for the government, student choices will determine the flow of money to universities. Popular universities will be able to expand while others may be forced to contract or merge.

Critics say this could tip the balance towards the most prestigious institutions. The artist Jeremy Deller, who studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London and won the Turner prize in 2004, said: "I just think that some colleges will get very powerful, very strong. It will be a self-fulfilling prophecy that the most powerful, richest colleges – colleges in London – will be able to get funding, [just] because they're in London and close to power."

Deller said he doubted whether a market in universities would reward excellence because "people don't shop around. It's not something you can really quantify easily, especially in terms of arts colleges. It's very difficult to compare them in that way."

This might skew the nature of Britain's future art scene, Deller added. "I think if you go to art college in London you're much more aware of the art market and selling your work. If you're at university in Newcastle, you don't really think about selling your work, so you're free to experiment and make art that might not sell but might be better. If more people go to London, it will change the nature of the art that's being made."


Jeevan Vasagar, education editor

The GuardianTramp

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