Academics are warning it would be “despicable” if the government went ahead with recommendations to cut funding for some arts and humanities degrees on the basis that they don’t net big salaries for graduates.

Last week the prime minister’s commission on post-18 education funding called for a cut in university tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500 a year. The review, chaired by former equities broker Philip Augar, said the government should make up the funding gap, which vice-chancellors say will amount to around £1.8bn. In addition, it called on the government to adjust support for different subjects to reflect the economic and social “value” of degrees, and how much they cost to teach.

This proposal has sparked alarm in institutions with a heavy bias towards arts and humanities subjects, where graduates are less likely to earn high salaries early in their careers.

Dr Jason Scott-Warren, a lecturer in English at Cambridge University, says: “The idea of measuring the success of degrees by graduate earnings is despicable and we can only hope that future governments will abandon this market logic.”

He adds: “It ought to be obvious that some degree courses are designed as feeders for particular forms of employment while others exist to nurture intelligence, to push the boundaries of our understanding and to make human lives worth living.”

The commission’s findings were influenced by experimental new government data that tracks graduates to the age of 29 through their tax returns. The Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data shows that a 29-year-old male economics graduate will earn on average 33% more than his peers without a degree, but a male creative arts graduate of the same age will earn 14% less than peers who haven’t been to university.

Male graduates also don’t see any major salary benefit by age 29 if they studied subjects such as English and philosophy, agriculture, psychology, languages and history.

Historian Prof Kate Williams
Historian Prof Kate Williams: ‘If we are saying the only worthwhile jobs are in banking or high-level accountancy, that is bizarre and ridiculous.’ Photograph: ITV

Prof Kate Williams, the television historian and author, says: “It is wrong to value jobs by how much we get paid. If we are really saying the only jobs that are worthwhile are in banking or high-level accountancy, I find that bizarre and ridiculous.”

Williams, a professor of public engagement with history at Reading University, who made the popular Royal Wives of Windsor series, says: “Many history graduates retrain as lawyers and earn a huge amount of money. But others just love history. They want to become curators and work in museums, or heritage, or television or teach history. None of those jobs will mean starting out with a big salary.”

Nigel Carrington, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London, which includes Central Saint Martins and the London College of Fashion, warns that if fees are cut and money isn’t put back into arts and design courses there will be “catastrophic effects” for some universities. He says his colleges would be forced to take fewer UK students and more international students, who pay higher fees.

He adds that institutions outside big cities might find it harder to attract more foreign students to stay afloat. “There are arts schools outside London that will be devastated,” he says.

The Augar review does at least acknowledge that a course’s value can be measured in ways besides cash returns, Carrington says, but the education secretary, Damian Hinds, shows no such nuance. “He focuses explicitly on early career earnings as the primary marker of value for money and has appeared specifically to focus on art and design. Presumably the intention is to reduce the number of students studying subjects in areas like the arts. That is very worrying.”

Carrington adds that the new salary data overlooks the fact that many arts graduates will freelance in the early years of their career, and freelance salaries will never match those in permanent employment.

Megan Grinham, a third-year fashion student at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA), says that when she chose her course she was far more interested in pursuing her passion than in how much she would earn.

Grinham, whose high-vis fashion range was paraded on stage at London Graduate Fashion Week this month, says: “You can’t base value on salary. Why don’t they look instead at all the new ideas we are creating?”

She adds: “The creative arts are sometimes looked down on, but my family and friends know it isn’t an easy ride. In my final year I’ve been in the studio from 9am til 9pm every day and worked at weekends. I’ve loved every minute of my degree and learned so much about all aspects of the fashion industry.”

Prof John Last, the vice-chancellor of NUA, is “saddened” by the funding review’s failure to see the strategic importance of creative subjects. “The creative industries are now calculated to contribute £100bn to the UK economy. That’s not a lightweight degree option,” he says.

“We are a nation that celebrates our Oscar winners and our big names in fashion, but we don’t ask where they came from. If that education pipeline is broken we will be poorer as a country.”

One head of a Russell Group university adds that there is no guarantee that even high-cost subjects will be properly supported after any fees cut. “The obvious danger is that the Treasury will decide that £1.8bn would be better spent elsewhere. There is a massive danger that the difference will not be made up.”

• This article was amended on 13 June 2019 to give the full name of university that Nigel Carrington is vice-chancellor of, the University of the Arts London.


Anna Fazackerley

The GuardianTramp

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